Wednesday, November 29, 2006


The fifteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is samech (or samekh). There is some debate as to the origin of the name. Klein says it comes from the word סמך and means "support, fulcrum". E-hebrew suggests "spine" from the same Hebrew root, David Sacks suggests "pillar", while others say that root meant "peg, spike". Another theory is that the letter is similar to the shape of a fish, and therefore it is related to the Arabic samak, meaning "fish" (the Hebrew word for trout שמך - shemech - is related to this Arabic word.)

Another confusing aspect of samech is which Greek and Latin letters came from it. Sacks writes that for the letter sigma the Greeks took the sound of "s" from samech and the Greek styling of the name, but the shape and placement of the letter in the alphabet (#21) was borrowed from shin. From sigma, we get the Latin letter "S". On the other hand, some theories claim that the Greek letter chi, which led to the Latin letter "X" came from the shape of the Hebrew samech. As the shape of the letters evolved in each alphabet, we have the Hebrew version currently looking like a circle, and the Latin version as X. Kind of like tic-tac-toe, no?

The verb סמך has a number of meanings: "to support, sustain, uphold", "to lay (hands on), lean", "to draw near, approach". From the sense of "lay hands on" we get the concept of semicha - סמיכה - Rabbinic ordination, derived from the method of transfer of authority.

The Hebrew word for blanket - שמיכה - semicha, also derives from the root סמך meaning "to support". It appears once in the Tanach - Shoftim 4:18. The commentaries disagree as to the meaning there - some say it was a kind of blanket, others an article of clothing. Stahl says that it might have been so called because the garment was thick, and therefore is related to the Hebrew word for "dense, thick" - סמיך samich. This also goes back to סמך - something dense is pressed on, drawn close together.

Samech alternates with sin, particularly in Aramaic (כנס כנש), as well as with zayin and tzade ( אסר אזר אצר ). Steinberg claims it can also change with tav - as in תמך סמך .

Monday, November 27, 2006

zevel and zevulun

While looking at this weeks parasha, I began to wonder: could there be a connection between the name Zevulun זבולון and zevel זבל - garbage?

Zevulun gets his name in Bereshit 30:20 -

וַתֹּאמֶר לֵאָה, זְבָדַנִי אֱלֹהִים אֹתִי זֵבֶד טוֹב--הַפַּעַם יִזְבְּלֵנִי אִישִׁי, כִּי-יָלַדְתִּי לוֹ שִׁשָּׁה בָנִים; וַתִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, זְבֻלוּן.

Leah said, "God has given me a choice gift; this time my husband yizbleni, for I have born him six son" So she named him Zevulun.
What is the meaning of יזבלני yizbleni? All of the traditional commentaries I could find - Onkelos, Rav Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Ibn Ezra and more - all say the root זבל means "to dwell", and therefore the verse means "my husband will dwell with me". Klein also offers this etymology.

But this article by Prof. Moshe Held gave me new insight into the subject. He writes that the Akkadian word zabalu means "to carry up, lift". But scholars such as Driver rejected a connection between זבל and zabalu. Held points out, however, that this was before the discovery of Ugaritic, a language closely related to Hebrew. In Ugaritic, zbl has the meaning of "lift up", and the word for "prince" is zbl - which is parallel to the Hebrew nasi נשיא, whose root - נשא - also means "to lift up". Therefore, Held translates the verse as "my husband will exalt/elevate me" - and the JPS and Daat Mikra follow him.

Where did the explanation of זבל as "to dwell" come from? Kaddari writes that this was from an association between zvul and the word bayit (house) in the phrase בית זבול - beit zvul, as found in Malachim I 8:13. But now, this can be better translated as "stately house".

The identification of זבל with "lift up" makes even more sense when we realize, as Held points out, that the root סבל has the same meaning. In fact, even Klein translates סבל as "to bear a load, carry a burden", and connects it to the Akkadian zabalu.

Just as the English word "suffer" can mean both "to tolerate" and "to feel pain", so to does the Hebrew root סבל have both meanings. From it we get savlanut סבלנות - patience and sovlanut סובלנות - tolerance, as well as sevel סבל - suffering, pain.

There is a nice Chassidic drasha on Shmot 6:6 - וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם
Instead of translating it as "I will free you from the labors (sivlot) of Egypt" it says God will free them from their "tolerance of Egypt". The Jews had begun to accept and tolerate their slavery in Egypt - they needed to no longer "suffer" this state in order to truly end their suffering.

And what of zevel - dung, manure? It does not appear in the Tanach (although Tur-Sinai tries to connect it to Tehilim 49:15) and begins to appear in Rabbinic Hebrew. Jastrow ties it to the Assyrian (Akkadian) zabalu, meaning "to heap up", and says it therefore means "foliage piled up for forming manure".

So while Zevulun's name has a positive meaning, and zevel is less pleasant (as is sevel), they both seem to have a common origin - "to lift up".

Friday, November 24, 2006


At our Thanksgiving dinner last night, our host served hot dogs (in addition to turkey) according to his family custom. The Hebrew word for hot dog is naknikiya נקניקיה , based on the word for sausage - naknik נקניק . (Alcalay has naknikit נקניקית for hot dog, and naknikiya as a "sausage shop" - but I've never heard either here.) This article states that the difference between naknik and naknikiya is that naknik is fully cooked and doesn't need refrigeration whereas a naknikiya does need refrigeration and is cooked before serving.

Klein gives the following etymology for naknik:

Coined by Eliezer ben Yehudah (1858-1922), from Aramaic נוקניקה ( = a kind of sausage), which is borrowed from Late Greek loukanika, from Latin lucanica (= a kind of sausage invented by the Lucanians), from Lucanicus (= Lucanian), from Lucani (the Lucanians), a people in Lower Italy.

The one example of nukanika in the Rabbinic literature that I was able to find is in Yerushalmi Shekalim, Chapter 7:

נוקניקה אשתכח בכנישתא דבולי אתא עובדא קומי רבי ירמיה אמר יתחכמון סקורייא עבידתהון

Some commentaries translate this as follows:

A bottle of wine was found in a synagogue in Buli. The case came before Rabbi Yirmiya, and he said let them identify the bottle by the color.

This reading seems to influenced by the previous sentence, which also deals with bottles of wine, and also an assumed connection between נוקניקה and קנקן (bottle).

However, Jastrow identifies nukanika as sausage, and Sokoloff, DJPA, s.v סיקייר translates the section like this:

A sausage was found in the synagogue. The case came before R. Yeremiya. He said - let the sausage makers (Latin insiciarius) recognize their product.

(In addition to lucanica, isicia was another word for sausage in Latin.)

Naknik still has culinary cousins in the Italian lucanica and the Greek loukanika (but naknik is generally more kosher...)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Thursday is Thanksgiving, and I've been writing about fish all week! Let's talk turkey.

The Hebrew word for turkey is tarnegol hodu תרנגול הודו - often shortened to hodu הודו. Hodu is the Biblical word for India, and therefore tarnegol hodu means "Indian chicken". This is the name for the bird in many European languages - Russian indiuk, Polish indyk, French dinde and Yiddish indik. Even in Turkey they call the bird hindi. Of course, the bird originated in North America; so why the association with Turkey or India?

The English name "turkey" comes from an incorrect identification of the bird with an African guinea-fowl, which entered Europe through Turkey. The connection to India was due to another misunderstanding - as is well known, the first Europeans who reached the Western Hemisphere thought they were in India (hence the name Indians for the native peoples.)

As I mentioned earlier, Hodu is the Biblical name for India, appearing once, in the first verse of Esther. The name derives from the Persian word Hindu, but as often happens, the nun dropped out in Hebrew. The area called Hodu actually refers to the regions near the Indus river (actually in today's Pakistan, not India), from where it gets its name. The river and the region are known in Sanskrit as Sind, but the Persian "h" is cognate with the Sanskrit "s".

An interesting coincidence is that we eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and a common biblical Hebrew term for "Give thanks!" is hodu. We see that phrase often in Tehilim (Psalms), and a related verse in Divrei HaYamim I (16:8) starts the Pesukei D'Zimra section of the morning prayers (for Nusach Sefard and Edot HaMizrach). Because of this, people will often mark the schedule by the start of "hodu".

Uri Orbach quotes a saying of religious soldiers:
שש בבוקר הודו באוויר
6 AM and hodu's in the air
meaning they will start their prayers exactly on time.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Yesterday I wrote about tuna, and one of the most popular kinds of tuna is albacore. Today, not only will I show that albacore also has a Semitic origin, but I will even connect it to this week's parasha!

Klein, in his CEDEL, has the following entry for albacore:

From Sp. albacora, from Arab. albakrah, "the young camel," from al-, "the," and the collective noun bakr, "young camels," whence bakrah, "young she-camel," rel. to bikr, "virgin, woman having first child," from the stem of the verb bakara, "he rose early, did something early," and to Heb. bekhor, "first born," bekhorah, "the right of the first born," bikhrah, "young camel," bikkurah, "first ripe fig," bikkurim, "first fruit," Ethiop. bakur, "first born."

Hebrew also has בכר becher meaning "young camel" as in Yeshayahu 60:6 - בִּכְרֵי מִדְיָן . I'm not sure of the connection between tuna and camels. The Online Etymology Dictionary has the following:

1579, "large variety of tuna," from Port. albacora, from Arabic al bakara pl. of buko "young camel, heifer," the fish so called for its size.

I wonder if perhaps the larger dorsal fin seemed like the hump of a camel:

Back to the root בכר. I've always had a hard time remembering whether the plural for first-born in Hebrew is בכורים or בכורות - as in the Fast of the First-Born before Pesach: is it Taanit Bechorim or Taanit Bechorot? Steinberg writes that bechorim applies to people, and bechorot applies to animals - I assume he's limiting that distinction to Biblical Hebrew.

Klein writes that the root בגר - "to grow up, mature", is probably a collateral form of בכר .

Both Jastrow and Steinberg connect בכר with בקר - "to break forth, be early". Stahl also discusses this in relation to the Arabic word for tomorrow - bukra, which he spells in Hebrew בוכרה. He writes that bukra is connected to בכר - "to be early", and there are those that connect it to boker - בוקר - morning as well. He points out that in many languages there is a connection between "morning" and "tomorrow" - including English, where "tomorrow" means "on the morrow" - in the morning.

I'll finish up with a cute story from about five years ago:

We were talking to our five year old daughter about the story of Yaakov and Esav, and why it's good to be a "bechor" בכור (firstborn). Our three year old son was listening, and then said "It's dark. But it's quiet." We had no idea what he was talking about, until we realized he thought we said what was it like to be "b'chor" בחור -- in a hole.

Monday, November 20, 2006


Yesterday we discussed how the word nun נון can mean "fish" in Semitic languages. Stahl writes that there are those that say that the word tanin תנין is related to the word nun. In the Tanach the tanin clearly refers to more than one type of animal, and not all experts agree in every case which one. Kaddari writes that the tanin is a snake (Shmot 7:9, together with Shmot 4:3), crocodile (Yechezkel 29:3 - here tanim תנים, this is the meaning in modern Hebrew), viper (Tehillim 91:13), leviathan (Yeshayahu 27:1). Of course the identity of the leviathan is also not clear, and from here we get the tanin translated as "giant fish" (Rashi on Bereshit 1:21), whale, and the general "sea monster". (For an interesting article on the significance of the mention of the creation of the tanin, go here.)

Klein does not connect tanin with the word nun, but rather with a root תנן , which has cognates in a number of Semitic languages - such as the Ugaritic tnn , meaning "dragon".

However, both Stahl and Klein mention a theory that the Greek word thynnos was borrowed from the Hebrew tanin. From the Greek came the Latin thunnus - and from here the English words tuna and tunny. (Tuna is actually much more recent than tunny, and entered American English via Spanish, and the Spanish was borrowed from Arabic, which took the word from Latin.)

Sunday, November 19, 2006


The 14th letter of the Hebrew alphabet is nun. As we once saw earlier, David Sacks discusses in Letter Perfect the history of the letter N, and by association, nun:

Two letters could hardly be closer than N and M, fraternal twins in shape, name, sound and positioning...

Most of N's life has been lived in relation to M ... the 13th letter of the Phoenician alphabet of 1000 B.C. was the wavy-lined mem, ancestor of our M. The name mem meant "water". The Phoenicians' 14th letter was their N, called nun, meaning "fish". Yet the shape of nun was a serpentine undulation, not at all suggesting a fish, aside from an eel.

Modern scholarship has determined that N was invented (by Semitic soldiers or laborers in Egypt) through copying of an Egyptian hieroglyphic picture of a snake. The shape of the Semitic N looked like a snake. The attested letter name "fish" therefore becomes problematic.

In ancient Semitic language, one word for snake was nahash, which began with the sound "n". By the rules of ancient Semitic letter names, this would have been a perfect name for a snaky-looking letter that took the "n" sound. So why didn't the early alphabet users just call their wiggly N letter by the name "snake"?

The answer may be: They did. They did perhaps call the letter nahash at the start, around 2000 or 1900 B.C., but later the name got changed - for the sake of M. Perhaps, in the centuries after 1900 B.C., a need was felt to bring the letters M ("water") and N ("snake") more into line with each other, on account of their unique nasal factor. The two letters had been placed together in sequence at the alphabet's invention; now they would develop even closer associations. In these centuries, the N letter grew more to look like the M letter. And if N's name had been "snake" (as is theorized), then it now changed to "fish", to better fit mem's "water". The purpose of such associations would have been to supply a memory aid for Semitic children learning the alphabet: In the letters' sequence, "fish" would follow "water", the two letters looking and sounding rather similar.

Steinberg points out that in the ancient Ethiopian alphabet Ge'ez the word for the N sound is nahas נחס , which is related to the Hebrew nahash נחש .

Klein writes that the word nun נון meaning "fish" derives from the root נין meaning "to sprout, increase". From the same root we get the word nin נין - which in Modern Hebrew means "great-grandchild". However, in the Tanach, it almost always appears before the word neched נכד - grandchild, as in Bereshit 21:23 וּלְנִינִי וּלְנֶכְדִּי . Therefore, it would appear that this a descendant "before" a grandchild, and in fact, Onkelos translates nin there as "son".

However, there is another root - נון , which means "to waste away, degenerate." Nivun ניוון means "degeneration". Klein quotes Fleischer as claiming that this root derives from the letter name nun and literally means "to be come as lean as the final nun ן ".

As we have seen before, nun alternates with lamed and mem, and it also changes with resh (כנע and כרע ) and (בן and בר).

We have noted many times in the past that the letter nun has a tendency to assimilate or drop out of words (see here here here here and here) - and there should be at least one more this week.

As a suffix, nun can create three kinds of nouns: abstract nouns (בנה - בנין - building), agential nouns (למד -למדן - a learned man), and chemical elements (מים -מימן - hydrogen.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


The 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet is mem. The shape of the letter represents the waves of water, and the name is directly related to the word for water מים - mayim.

There is some debate as to whether or not the word mayim should be viewed as a plural. Steinberg writes that the singular form is mai מי - although the word never appears in that form. There are two forms in the construct state (smichut) - mei מי or meimei מימי . Ibn Ezra, as quoted here, says that mayim is a dual form plural. In post-biblical Hebrew we find the plural of mayim - meimot מימות.

The letter mem alternates with other labials - bet, nun and peh.

Klein writes that mem works as a substantive prefix - it creates nouns or noun equivalents. It can create nouns - מדע from דע (knowledge), places מאבוס from אבס (storehouse), and instruments מגן from גנן (shield). Mem is also added to piel verbs in the present tense (e.g. מדבר midaber - speak). This can lead to confusion about the proper pronunciation of some more modern words. For example Almagor-Ramon writes, although it is an instrument, the correct pronunciation of refrigerator מקרר in Hebrew is mikarer, not makrer, for the Academy of the Hebrew Language gave it the name based on the action it does. On the other hand, the proper pronunciation of computer מחשב is machshev, not michashev, for the formation of its name is due to it being an instrument.

Steinberg goes one step further. As we have seen before, he often writes that many of Hebrew's three letter roots are based on two letter roots. He claims that it is very common for the two letter roots to have a mem added either at the beginning or the end to create a three letter root. For example, we have seen earlier the theory that matar מטר derives from טר . For an example of mem coming after a two letter root, he brings the case of Noach, whose name is explained in Bereshit 5:29 -

וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ נֹחַ, לֵאמֹר: זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ

The name Noach נח is connected to the three letter root נחם .

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Yesterday we discussed the Hebrew bracha - today let's look at the Yiddish equivalent - bensch ( or bentsh / bentsch / bentch). It means to bless, make a bracha in general, but when used without any qualifier usually refers to birkat hamazon (the blessing after the meal.)

While most Yiddish words derive either from Hebrew or German, with some others from the Slavic languages, bensch (or bentshn in the infinitive) is one the few to derive from Latin, and perhaps therefore one of the earliest Yiddish words.

The Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich wrote that Jews came to Germany from two main areas - France and Italy. Each group of immigrants brought words of their own. From Old French we get what Weinreich calls "western laaz" and from Old Italian "southern laaz". And so, bensch derives from the Old Italian benedicere (or benedictere), meaning "to bless". German also borrowed from the same Latin root for their word benedeien.

The English word "benediction" also derives from the same Latin root:

1432, from L. benedictionem (nom. benedictio), noun of action from benedicere "to speak well of, bless," from bene "well" + dicere "to speak"

Interestingly, the word eulogy has a similar etymology, although via Greek, not Latin:

from Gk. eulogia "praise," from eu- "well" + -logia "speaking"

So looking back at yesterday's post, the word bensch seems to fit a blessing from man to God, for those who understand it as meaning "praise".

Monday, November 13, 2006


Last week we discussed the concept of nisayon, and I mentioned that I have a problem where the verb נסה would have one meaning from God to man, and an entirely different one from man to God.

Well, another verb that has that same issue, and has interested me for many years is ברך - the root of the word ברכה bracha - blessing. In this weeks parasha, we find God blessing man (Bereshit 24:1, 25:11), man blessing God ( 24:48), and man blessing man (24:60). God is also described as ברוך baruch (24:27).

There are those that describe bracha from God to man, or man to man as bestowing something on the recipient, but bracha from man to God is considered "thanks" (JPS on Devarim 8:10) or "praise" (Chizkuni on Bereshit 24:27, Abarbanel on Bereshit 27).

However, there are a large number of sources that do not take this approach, and rather say that when man blesses God, there is something "given". (See for example, Sefer HaIkkarim 26, Rabbeinu Bachye's intoduction to Zot HaBracha, Teshuvot Rashba 23, HaEmek Dvar Shmot 18:10, Harchev Dvar Bereshit 24:27). Perhaps the best description is by Rav Hirsch on Bereshit 9:58, discussing the word baruch:

The understanding of this term has been confused because people have objected to take this word "to bless" referring from man to God, in the same meaning as it has when used from God to man. It has been taken to be adjectival like חנון, רחום, so that, like these, it designates the active source, the holder of blessing as of pity and grace. But that does not get us much further, we are constantly called upon לברך את השם ... If the man is active is blessing God, then God must be blessed in a passive sense, He must be receiving blessing from man, one can not get away from it. And why should one have to try and get away from it? At the moment that God made the fulfillment of His Will on earth dependent on the free decision of Man He said to them ברכני , bless me...The whole Torah teaches us nothing else than how we can מברך את השם and that we are to do so. To take it to mean praise or thank God, by which one has lost the true conception of ברך את השם ...

Two other words that some scholars connect to the root ברך are berech ברך - knee, and breicha בריכה - pond, pool. Steinberg says bracha is related to berech, since bowing at the knee is part of prayer. Stahl connects breicha to berech by writing that animals kneel down to drink at the pool, as do people washing clothes.

And for those that missed it, we've previously discussed how perhaps the English word "broker" and the phrase "break a leg" derive from bracha...

Friday, November 10, 2006

nes and nisayon

In the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot we have a number of mishnayot discussing sets of ten:

עשרה נסיונות נתנסה אברהם אבינו
עשרה ניסים נעשו לאבותינו במצריים
עשרה נסיונות ניסו אבותינו את המקום במדבר
עשרה ניסים נעשו בבית המקדש

"Avraham our forefather was tested with ten trials...Ten miracles were performed for our ancestors in Egypt...With ten trials did our ancestors test God in the wilderness ... Ten miracles were performed for our ancestors in the Temple"

Is there any connection between nes נס - miracle and nisayon נסיון - test or trial?

Let's look first at nes. In the Tanach, it means a flag or a flagpole. There is some debate as to whether it ever also means "miracle" biblically. Amos Chacham in Daat Mikra on Shmot 17:16 says it never has that meaning (despite Onkelos and a number of midrashim on that same verse.) Even Shoshan in his Concordance gives Bamidbar 26:10 and Yishayahu 11:10 as meaning mofet מופת - generally translated as "miracle".

However, even with these three verses, the connection to flag is clear. And I think we can see the development of nes from flag to miracle via an understanding of the word as "sign". These aren't just miracles for their own sake - they are trying to show something, to act as a sign. Another word with both meanings in Hebrew is ot אות. Even in Biblical Hebrew, it means both "sign" and "miracle" (with debate between linguists as to which meaning came first.)

According to Klein and others, nes is related to the root נשא - meaning "to lift up". This makes sense for the early meanings of both flag and pole.

As to nisayon - this derives from the root נסה , meaning "to test, to try, to attempt" (in Biblical Hebrew a trial was known as a masa מסה .) Some scholars do not connect נסה and nes (whose root is נסס ) but I find Steinberg's explanation intriguing. He writes that the way we test the weight of an object is to lift it up, and a person's strength is measured by his ability to lift, to bear. From here developed the sense of testing in general.

Because of the similarity of the words, there are a number of attempts to replace the meaning of "test" with "mast" or "flag". For example, in Bereshit 22:1 and Shmot 20:17 it says that God was minase מנסה Avraham and Bnei Yisrael respectively. In both places Rashi, based on midrashim, says that the verb נסה means "to make great". In his commentary on Shmot, the Ramban rejects Rashi's approach. Chavel says that Ramban's opinion is based on a different view of the root of the word נסות. But I think that we can see from the mishnayot quoted above, a bigger problem. For those that say that נסה means "to make great" or "to lift up" - how do they explain Bnei Yisrael's nisyonot of God? Certainly their complaints weren't to make God greater, but rather a test of Him.

However, Jastrow points us to an interesting verse that might help us understand the issue better. He defines נסה as "to put up a sign, ask for a test" and refers us to Yishayahu 7:11, where God is asking Ahaz to test him:

שְׁאַל-לְךָ אוֹת, מֵעִם השם אֱלֹהֶיךָ; הַעְמֵק שְׁאָלָה, אוֹ הַגְבֵּהַּ לְמָעְלָה.
"Ask for a sign (ot) from the Lord your God, anywhere down to Sheol or up to the sky."

And Ahaz replies (7:12):

לֹא-אֶשְׁאַל וְלֹא-אֲנַסֶּה, אֶת-השם.

"I will not ask, and will not test the Lord".

So Ahaz realized that asking for a sign - a nes - is a test - a nisayon. (See the Daat Mikra for further explanation of the motivation of Ahaz.) But perhaps this understanding could apply to Avraham and Bnei Yisrael as well - when God tested them, he was asking for a sign.

So in a way, with their response - particularly Avraham's at the akeidah - they were performing nissim!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

chalila and chas

In this weeks parasha, Avraham argues with God over his plans to destroy Sdom. When he claims that the killing of the innocent would be unjust, he says (Bereshit 18:25)
חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה

"Chalila lecha to do a thing like this"

What does chalila mean here? A very popular explanation is based on the Gemara (Avoda Zara 4a, Berachot 32a) - חולין הוא לך - "it would be chulin for you". This gemara is also subject to interpretation. Most explain chulin as "sacrilege, profanation, desecration" - in other words "beneath your honor" (this also fits with Steinberg, who derives chalila from the root חלה - from which we get choleh חולה "sick" - and means "to be low") . Rashi, however, on Ber. 18:25 explains chulin as "usual or ordinary" - this would seem to be the way God acted with the generation of the flood and the generation of the tower of Bavel. However, while this may work where Avraham is speaking to God, it does not fit the many other examples of chalila where one man is speaking to another.

Ben-Yehuda, in his dictionary, has difficulties with the Gemara's explanation. He writes that "the scent of drush (midrash) wafts too strongly from this (explanation) and it is difficult to believe that in ancient times they would use a metaphor such as this. The origin of this usage has not been explained well."

Ibn Ezra has a slightly different explanation. He says it means "impossible", perhaps deriving from the word חלול halul, meaning "hollow", something with no content.

Amos Chacham in the Daat Mikra on Iyov 34:10 writes that chalila always appears in the Bible as a form of oath (perhaps to damn?), where a person forbids himself or another to do a certain action.

Onkelos, who in his translation makes great efforts to protect God's honor, would clearly have difficulty having Avraham accuse God of a desecration. And therefore he translates chalila lecha as קֻשְׁטָא אִנּוּן דִּינָךְ - "your laws are true". However, in a different location where chalila is used - where the brothers are speaking to Yosef's steward (Bereshit 44:7) - Onkelos has no such reservations. And here his translation is interesting: חַס - chas.

Rashi quotes Onkelos in his commentary on 44:7 and writes:

חלילה לעבדיך - חולין הוא לנו, לשון גנאי. ותרגום חס לעבדיך, חס מאת הקב"ה יהי עלינו מעשות זאת והרבה חס ושלום יש בתלמוד בלשון הזה:

"It would be profane for us (Avoda Zara 4a); an expression of disgrace. Onkelos translates; 'chas to your servants' as, may there be chas from the Holy One, Blessed is He, upon us from doing this. There are many examples of this word in the Talmud as chas v'shalom"

This brings up a number of questions. What does chas mean? And does Rashi's first explanation agree or disagree with Onkelos?

The Rashi HaShalem edition (published by the Ariel Institute) has three possible answers:

a) Chas comes from the root חוס and means "pity". (Another possibility is that it comes from the root חסה which means "to protect". According to Klein, the two roots don't seem to be related - something I should have paid more attention to in this post.) Onkelos disagrees with the Gemara, and believes that chalila actually means "pity" - perhaps based on midrashim that explain ויחל משה (Shmot 32:11) as "he asked for pity and mercy". This is the explanation of the Lifshuto Shel Rashi by Rav Shmuel Gelbard, but the Rashi HaShalem rejects it for grammatical reasons. (The Mizrachi also explains the translation of Onkelos on 18:25 as due to a need to show that God doesn't need pity.)

b) Chas means "pity" but Onkelos is not giving a literal translation of chalila, but rather using an expression with the same meaning. If chalila is an oath, then chas would be more of a prayer, as the Mizrachi explains chas v'shalom - "may God bring mercy and peace upon us to prevent this from happening". (Rav Gelbard- as quoted in the Margolin Chumash Rashi - has a slightly different translation - "Have pity [on us that it should not happen] and [then] peace [will be with us].")

It also could be here that Onkelos would agree with Ibn Ezra (above) and not Rashi, and doesn't see chalila as associated with "disgrace".

c) Onkelos agrees with Rashi, but chas here means "desecration, disgrace" - like chalila. This is the opinion of Kohut in Aruch HaShalem (entry חס ). He writes that chas is related to an Arabic root meaning "contemptible". He rejects the opinion of the Mizrachi by saying that God is not mentioned anywhere in the verse (and therefore it should not be seen as a prayer.) He also writes that the shalom in chas v'shalom does not mean "peace" but "completely" and therefore the expression should be translated "completely disgraced".

Rashi HaShalem seems to find the second explanation the least forced, and I think I agree.

So we can see a development of the phrases meaning "God forbid" or "Far be it from me". The Tanach has chalila and the Talmud has חס לי and chas v'shalom. In the Middle Ages we begin to see chalila v'chas חלילה וחס and in more modern Hebrew we see chas v'chalila חס וחלילה .

It should be noted that the phrase chozer chalila חוזר חלילה - meaning "and so forth", referring to going around in a circle or loop, isn't related to chalila as desecration, but from the root חול meaning "to move in a circle." (We've seen some etymological confusion between those two meanings before.)

And after such a heavy post, I'll end with a joke brought by Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish.

Two Jews decide to assassinate the czar. They bring sharp knives and conceal themselves behind trees in a park where the Russian leader takes his daily stroll. Hours pass, and the czar fails to appear. At sundown one of them worries: “I hope nothing happened to him, chalila."

Monday, November 06, 2006


In this comment, Lonnie asked:

Someone once suggested to me that "Lot" is a play on the word "lehimalet" (See Bereishit 19:17(x2), 19, 20, 22) - or perhaps that should be that the verb lehimalet plays off the name Lot. Admittedly, a play on words does not necessarily reflect a real etymological connection.

It is an interesting theory - I've never seen it before. Certainly Lot was the first person to have the verb מלט -to escape -associated with him. Steinberg and Klein both point out that מלט -also to escape - is related to פלט - mem and peh, both labials, can alternate. In Modern Hebrew they've come up with a nice sounding phrase for input-output: kelet-pelet קלט-פלט.

Steinberg says that melet מלט - mortar (from Yirmiyahu 43:9) is related to the verb מלט, which can mean "to slip away", and mortar smooths the walls of a building (the verb חלק also means both "to be smooth" and "to be slippery".)

Lastly, as the title of this post hints, the name of the island country Malta may be related to the root מלט . As the Online Etymology Dictionary writes:

from L. Melite, perhaps from Phoenician melita, lit. "place of refuge," from malat "he escaped."

Friday, November 03, 2006


The origin of the name of Avraham's nephew, Lot לוט, is unclear. Sarna writes that the origin is unknown, presumably following Cassuto, who rejects a connection to the name Lotan in Bereshit 36:20 (which is the suggestion by Kil in Daat Mikra on Bereshit 11:27) or a connection to the old Egyptian name of the eastern portion of the Land of Israel - Ruten - as suggested by Paton in The Early History of Syria and Palestine.

However, Rabbi Eldad Zamir writes here that:

Lot is portrayed in a variety of different ways in the Torah, Midrash, and commentators. While at times he is portrayed as a positive figure, at times he is portrayed as a negative figure as well. This ambivalence can even be seen in Lot's name. 'Lot' has two possible meanings: it either comes from the noun lot (laudanum, a fragrant plant extract; see Bereishit 37:25, 43:11) or from the Aramaic verb lut (to curse; see Targum Onkelos, 12:3, et al.). Lot is either fragrant or worthy of curse.

Klein says that the name laudanum may derive from lot:

Probably related to Akka. ladunu, Arab. ladan ( = ladanum). Persian ladan is an Arabic loan word. Greek ledon ( = rockrose), whence ladanon ( = labdanum) is a Semitic loan word.

He also writes that the word "lotus" derives from lot, as does the Online Etymology Dictionary (who might be relying on Klein):

from L. lotus, from Gk. lotos, name used for several plants before it came to mean Egyptian white lotus (a sense attested in Eng. from 1584); perhaps from a Sem. source (cf. Heb. lot "myrrh")

Rashi on 37:25 identifies lot with לוטס - lotes as mentioned in the Mishna - Sheviit 7:6. However, the Mishna actually uses the word לוטם - lotem. Similarly, Shadal says that Onkelos translates lot as לטוס - but the edition of Onkelos that I have has the version לטום letom. This confusion could be related to a mix-up between the letters samech and mem-sofit, but there is also a plant called lotem - from which, according to Felix, the fragrance lot is made.

As to the Aramaic lut, Jastrow says it derives from the root לוט meaning "to cover", and the development to the meaning "curse" comes from a sense of "to talk secretly". The root לוט is used in the Hebrew phrase לוט בזה - lut b'zeh - meaning "hereby enclosed" (explained here).

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


We find the root צחק - "to laugh" a number of times in the story of Yitzchak (which isn't surprising, considering it is the source of his name.) The verb appears in both the kal form - צחק tzachak and the piel form - ציחק tzichek. Just as laughter itself can be interpreted many different ways (are you laughing at me or with me?) - so to does the verb have different connotations: joy (Bereshit 17:17, 21:6), surprise / disbelief (18:12-15), jesting (19:14), mocking / teasing (21:9) and intimacy / foreplay (according to Chizkuni) in Bereshit 26:8.

The root שחק is closely connected to צחק - both in meaning and form. As Al Silberman wrote in Mail-Jewish:

The verbs "tzachak" and "sachak" appear many times in Tanach. "Tzachak"occurs 15 times and "Sachak" occurs 51 times. Both have the same meaning; a"tzaddi" and "seen" are interchangeable consonants since they are formed from the same part of the mouth. I would like to offer up the following observation:

The form "tzachak" is used exclusively until the time of the Shoftim (Judges). The form "sachak" is used exclusively in the seforim written during the first Temple. Both forms appear in the seforim written after the destruction of the first Temple.

Thus, the subject name appears in the Torah and Yehoshua as Yitzchak. It appears exclusively as Yischak in Tehillim, Amos and Yirmiyahu. It appears again as Yitzchak in M'lochim (Kings) and Divrei Hayomim (Chronicles).

The following are to be noted:

1. Both forms are used in the same posuk in Shoftim (Judges) 16:25. See Malbim for his explanation.

2. There is a dispute in Bava Basra 14b (and following folios) dealing with Iyov's era (when he lived or when the sefer was written). Iyov uses "sachak" exclusively.

3. Tehillim 105:9 and 1 Divrei Hayomim 16:16 are the same exact posuk with variant spellings of the subject name.

In Modern Hebrew שחק means "to play", and צחק retained the meaning "to laugh".

Kutscher writes that the origin of tzchok is onomatopoeic- it imitates the sound of laughter. (The English word "laugh" is said to have similar origins.) He also writes that the Aramaic roots גחך and חייך are related to צחק and שחק , and that the original Semitic root was probably close to the Arabic צחך (dahak). Why did all these various forms come about? Through a process called dissimilation, where "similar consonant sounds in a word have a tendency to become different over time, so as to ease pronunciation." (For a good description of the process in Hebrew, see here. I should have looked at that post when I wrote about keshet.) So for example, by changing from צחק to שחק - we end up with only one emphatic consonant, which is easier to pronounce.