Wednesday, January 31, 2007

etz and ilan

With Tu B'Shvat coming up, lets look at two Hebrew words for tree: etz עץ and ilan אילן.

I actually discussed the etymology of etz in the comments on my post for lute, in response to the question whether the Hebrew עץ is related to the Aramaic אע (of the same meaning):

Klein's etymology for עץ :

"Related to Phoen. עץ (= wood), Aram. אץ (dissimilated from עץ) , Egypt-Aram עק, Ugar 's, Arabic 'idah, Ethiopian 'ed, Akka isu (= tree, wood)."

Klein doesn't mention אע, but perhaps he feels it developed from אץ.

Kutscher, on the other hand, writes that really the Aramaic word should have been עע, but two guttural letters couldn't stay next to each other, and due to dissimilation, the first ע became an א.
Steinberg connects etz to a root עצה meaning "to bind, attach, strengthen", and is related to such other words as עצה / עצם - "to close (the eyes)", עצם - "to be strong, mighty", יעץ - "advise, give counsel", and עצב - "give form, shape".

Ilan is originally an Aramaic word, only appearing in the Tanach in the Aramaic section of the book of Daniel. Klein writes that it is related to the Hebrew elon אלון - "oak" (as in Alon Shvut). Elon is related to ela אלה - also meaning "oak, terebinth", and Klein connects all of them to the root אול - meaning "to be strong". This is similar to Steinberg's etymology of etz, and it's not surprising - a tree was (and still is) a symbol of strength. From אול we get the animal names ayil איל - "ram" and ayal - "deer". Klein writes that many once derived el אל - "god" from אול, but he does not find the argument convincing.

Kutscher asks the question - "Why don't we call Tu B'Shvat 'Chag LaEtzim' instead of 'Chag LaIlanot' ?" His answer is that in Biblical Hebrew etz meant both "tree" and "wood". But in the times of Mishnaic Hebrew, ilan had entered into Hebrew from Aramaic, and now there was the ability to have two separate terms - etz for wood and ilan for tree.

This distinction can explain why Rashi on Bereshit 18:4 found it necessary to explain tachat haetz תחת העץ as tachat hailan תחת האילן. He was trying to point out that the guests sat under a tree, and not under a wooden roof.

There are of course some exceptions to this "rule" - most notably the blessing "borei pri haetz" בורא פרי העץ.

Modern Hebrew tends to prefer Biblical over Mishnaic Hebrew, and so we generally use the word etz for tree (except when talking about Tu B'Shvat.)

Monday, January 29, 2007

shin and sin

Well, we're almost done with the alphabet. Today we'll deal with the second-to-last of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet - shin / sin. The name of the letter derives from the early shape - that of a tooth or teeth, as in the Hebrew word for tooth - shen שן (Steinberg adds that the sound is also made by using the teeth). According to Klein, the word shen derives from the root שנן - "to sharpen".

As you can see from the title of this post, this letter is more complicated than others. Sin or shin? Klein writes:

The letter ש marks two different sounds: sin and shin. Hebrew sin corresponds to Aramaic shin and samech, Syrian samech, Ugaritic sh, Arabic sh. ... compare Hebrew נשא, Biblical Aramaic נשא, Aramaic נסא ( = he lifted, took, carried), Ugar. nsh (to lift), Arabic nasha'a (= he rose, was high, grew up)...

There are exceptions to the rule according to which Arabic sh corresponds to Hebrew sin and vice versa. These exceptions are due mainly to assimilation, partly also to the circumstance that Hebrew sin sometimes stands for original samech (see שכך, שבר, שתם). In earlier Aramaic, and Biblical Aramaic sin is generally preserved, but many words that have sin in Biblical Hebrew are regularly spelled with samech in Medieval Hebrew.

Hebrew shin corresponds to Aramaic-Syrian shin, Ugaritic sh, Arab s ... compare Hebrew שלום, Aramaic-Syrian שלם, Ugaritic shlm, Arabic salam...

In many cases Hebrew shin corresponds to Aramaic-Syrian tav, Arabic th ... compare Hebrew שלוש, Aramaic-Syrian תלת, Arabic thalath...

So we see that there are two letters - sin and shin. Horowitz goes further, and divides shin into two different letters:

Two different sounds are represented by the Hebrew letter shin. One is originally and really shin; the other is a "th" sound that coalesced into shin in Hebrew. Scholars write this second sound ת.

He then gives a number of examples where shin becomes tav in Aramaic: שור / תור , פשר / פתר, שנים / תנים.

He then continues by saying (as we have seen with ayin and tzade) that because of the dual nature of shin, you cannot connect certain words even though they seem to have the same root:

  • שמן (fat) and שמונה (eight)
  • שער (reckon) and שער (gate)
  • נשר (eagle) and נשר (drop or fall off)
  • שאר (remainder) and שאר (kin)
  • חרש (plow) and חרש (be silent)
  • ישן (sleep) and ישן (old)
  • שלח (send) and שולחן (table)
All of these, according to Horowitz, can be proved by examples where only one of the pair gets a tav in Aramaic (or Ugaritic).

Steinberg writes that there are some Hebrew words that have shin added as a suffix instead of tav:

  • חרמש - from חרם
  • חלמיש - from חלם
  • עכביש - from עכב

In Greek there was no "sh" sound, so many proper names were translated with "s": Moshe / Moses, Shlomo / Solomon, Shmuel / Samuel.

The letter shin as a prefix (she-) means "that". The full word for "that" is asher אשר. Eliyahu Netanel here discusses which came first - she- or asher? He believes that she- came first, with an alef and resh added on later.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Is there any connection between gezer גזר - "carrot" and the root גזר - "to cut"? I was surprised to find out there is none.

I'm not entirely sure when gezer as carrot entered Hebrew. Klein lists it as Medieval Hebrew. My guess is that it came from the Arabic jazar, which was borrowed from the Persian gazar or the Pashto gazara (from this article.) This makes sense, for the carrot originated in Afghanistan. But Persian and Pashto are Indo-European languages, not related to Hebrew.

The root גזר , meaning "to cut", on the other hand, is certainly Hebrew. We've noted before that גזר is one of a number of roots beginning with גז that mean to cut
: גזה, גזז, גזר, גזל, גזם, גזע

Horowitz points out that with metathesis, גזר becomes גרז - the root of garzen גרזן - "axe".

A development from "to cut" is "to decree" - and from here we get gzar-din גזר-דין "verdict" and gezera גזרה - "decree, edict". A migzar מגזר means "a sector (of the population) and a gizra גזרה is "a shape, figure, region."

As far as the famous ancient city of Gezer - Gesenius writes that it was "probably a steep place, precipice" - separated, cut off.

In Arabic, jazira means "island" - cut off from the land. The country Algeria gets its name from here. The country is known in Arabic as Al Djazair. Stahl writes that the name comes from a number of small islands not far from the coast (which have long been connected to the land), which gave the name to the city Algiers, which gave its name to the country.

The Arabic television network Al Jazeera also means "the island" - in this case the peninsula of Qatar, surrounded by water on three sides and desert on the other.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Sometimes when I want to write about a word, I'm surprised that so little has been written about it. This is not one of those times.

When it comes to the word totafot טוטפת (or טוטפות) it seems that absolutely everyone is getting into the game. I'm not sure how to organize the discussion, with so many opinions. So bear with me if it seems a little scattered today.

The earliest source that discusses the etymology of totafot is Sanhedrin 4b:

והתניא (שמות יג) לטטפת (דברים ו) לטטפת (דברים יא) לטוטפות הרי כאן ארבע דברי ר' ישמעאל ר"ע אומר אינו צריך טט בכתפי שתים פת באפריקי שתים

[Translation from here]:

We learned in a b'raita: "Totafot," "totafot," "totafot."
[Ex 13:16, Deut 6:8, and Deut 11:18 describe the tfillin worn on the head as "totafot." The third time, the word is spelled with a "vav" after the first "tet" and before the final "tav," a plural form.]
That makes four [compartments within the tfillin box]; these are the words of R. Yishmael.
R. Akiva said: We do not need (this exegesis): "Tot" in Coptic means two, and "Fot" in Afriki.

As we've seen before, Rabbi Akiva is not afraid to derive biblical words from languages other than Hebrew. (However there is a lot of apologetics out there, saying that there is of course no way that a biblical word could come from any language other than Hebrew). Steinsaltz writes that the Coptic word is "aft" meaning "two", and "Afriki" means Phrygian in which פת means "two", and is connected to the Greek bathos, meaning "both".

Aryeh Kaplan in The Living Torah, also writes:

According to Talmudic tradition, the word totafoth alludes to the four boxes in the head Tefillin, since tot in a Caspian dialect is two and foth or poth is two in African or Phrygian (see note on Genesis 10:2; Menachoth 34b). The word tot appears to be cognate to 'two,' and possibly also to the Latin totas, and hence the English 'total.' Poth is cognate to the Gothic bothe, the English 'both,' and the Sanscrit botto.

Significantly in ancient Egyptian, ftu or fot means four, while tot can denote a gathering, resemblance, divine, or hard leather. Hence, totafoth may have had the connotation of a fourfold amulet, made of leather, as the Tefillin indeed are.
Rashi on Shmot 13:16 quotes Rabbi Akiva as well as another opinion:

This word means "tefilin". Because they are made of four compartments, they are called totafot. For tat in the Kaspi language means two, pat in the Afriki language means two. Menachem (ben Saruq) in his notes (connects it) with: והטף אל דרום "And speak" to the south." (Yechezkel 21:2) and אל תטיפו "Don't speak" (Micha 2:6). These are terms for speaking, like "and a reminder between your eyes" (Shmot 13:9) which is said in the first section, for whoever sees them tied between the eyes will remember the miracle and speak about it.
The Ramban on the same verse rejects Menachem's approach. He writes (Chavel translation):

No affinity is known to this word. Linguists (meaning Menachem), however, associated it with the expressions: 'v'hateiph' (And speak) to the south; And my word 'titoph' (dropped) upon them. The figurative usage thereof is based on the verse: And the mountains shall drop (v'hitiphu) sweet wine. Thus the verse is saying that you should make the exodus from Egypt a sign upon your hand,, and between your eyes a source for discourse distilling as the dew upon those who hear it. Our Rabbis, however, have called an object which lies upon the head totapoth, just as they have said (Shabbat 57a): "[A woman] many not go out [on the Sabbath] with a totepeth or head-bangles." Rabbi Abahu said: "What is totepeth? It is a forehead-band extending from ear to ear". Now it is the Rabbis [of the Talmud] who are the [true Hebrew] linguists, as they spoke the language and knew it and it is from them that we should accept [the explanation of the word ultotaphoth].

Why was the Ramban so critical of Menachem? The Ibn Ezra on Devarim 6:8 gives us a clue. He writes that the Karaites say that totafot derives from the root הטף (as we've seen Menachem say). He claims this is not possible, for the root of הטף is נטף - and totafot has no nun and two tets.

(Without getting into a major polemic, it is interesting to note that the issue of totafot was and still is central to the debate between Karaites and Rabbinic Judaism. The Karaites do not believe there is a commandment to wear tefilin, and that seems to be the concern of the Ibn Ezra and Ramban. On the other hand, those trying to prove the existence of the Oral Torah often write that with out such a tradition, we could never understand the meaning - and practice - of totafot.)

In regards to the Ibn Ezra's proof from the difference between נטף and טוטפת, Tigay (also the author of the JPS Devarim) discusses in this comprehensive article, On the Meaning of T(W)TPT how there is a precedent for such a shift in letters. He gives the example of לבלב becoming לולב, and the Ugaritic kbkb being related to the Hebrew כובב.

However, just because the root is נטף, it doesn't mean that totafot didn't refer to something physical, worn on the head. While הטף does mean "to preach", the earlier meaning is "to drop, drip" from where we get the word טיפה tipa - drop.

Amos Chacham in the Daat Mikra says that jewelry worn on the head would "hang, drop down", and we find jewelry called netifot נטיפות in Yeshaya 3:19.

Tigay also suggests "headband", but derives the word totafot from the Arabic tafa - "go around, encircle". (From this root we also get taifa, the Spanish districts under the Moslems.)

And with all this said, I still haven't scratched the surface. Rav Kasher, in the appendix to Torah Sheleimah Parshat Bo, has an article that lists eleven explanations to the word totafot. (Tigay quotes another article that has 21).

Aside from what we've already discussed, Kasher quotes the Chizkuni and others who say it may be related to the Aramaic word מטייפין - "will see". (Maybe this is an example of an alternation between tet and tzade - צפה also means "to see".) Kasher connects this theory to the opinion that a blind person is exempt from tefilin.

I think I'll leave it here for now. Maybe I'll come back to it for Parshat Vaetchanan...

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


The original meaning of mezuzah מזוזה (as in our parasha, Shmot 12:7) was "doorpost". In Talmudic Hebrew the meaning of mezuza was transfered to the parchment we are commanded to attach to the doorpost.

Klein gives the following etymology:

originally probably meaning 'something standing' and related to Akkadian nazazu (= to stand), manzazu ( = doorpost).

He says the word mazal מזל has the same root. Like mezuza, the meaning of mazal has changed from the biblical meaning of "constellation, zodiac" to the later meaning of "luck, fortune". He writes:

From the Akkadian mazaztu, mazaltu ( = lit. 'the standing of the stars'), from nazazu (=to stand), whence also the Phoenician מזל (= constellation, destiny), Aramaic מזלא (= star, star of destiny)

Kaddari mentions the theory that mezuza is connected to the Akkadian mazzazu, but in the end rejects it (however, he does say that mazal derives from there). He says that mezuza derives from the root זוז - "to move", the same way menucha מנוחה derives from נוח - "to rest".

Earlier sources such as Steinberg and Jastrow also connect mezuza to זוז, but none of them explain exactly why. Is the door moving? Is it referring to the person leaving or entering? Any ideas?

Sunday, January 21, 2007


The 20th letter of the Hebrew alphabet is resh. It gets its name from the original shape of the letter - like a rosh ראש - head.

In addition to "head", rosh can also mean "chief, leader", "top, summit", "beginning" and "principal, capital". Some other word derived from rosh are rishon ראשון - "first", reshit ראשית - "beginning", and rashi ראשי - "chief, primary".

The Aramaic version of rosh is closer to our pronunciation of the letter - ריש resh. From here we get the word reisha רישא meaning "the first part (of a Mishna)".

In Arabic, ras as head is found in many place names such as Ras al-Khaimah ("top of the tent") and Ras Tanura ("head of the barbeque spit"). Rais is another Arabic derivation, meaning "president".

While there is some debate among scholars, one opinion as to the etymology of the word "race" meaning "tribe" is from our root, via Arabic. Klein writes in his CEDEL:

race, n., family tribe. -- MF. ( = F.), fr. earlier rasse, fr. It. razza, which together with Sp. raza, prob. derives fr. Arab. ra's , 'head, beginning, origin', which is rel. to Heb. rosh

As we have seen earlier, resh can interchange with lamed and nun. Steinberg adds that the similarity of the shapes of resh and dalet cause them to alternate as well - for example ראה (Devarim 14:13) and דאה (Vayikra 11:14).

Resh is occasionally added to three letter roots and words: שבט / שרביט , כסא / כרסא. In other cases, the resh is assimilated - כרכר becomes ככר.

Friday, January 19, 2007


In this weeks parasha, in the plague of boils (sh'chin שחין) we come across a familiar word: אֲבַעְבֻּעֹת avabuot. This word only appears here (Shmot 9:9) but is familiar in modern Hebrew as the "pox" in "chicken pox" - אבעבעות רוח ababuot ruach (most likely based on the German Windpocken, which this site says the "wind" means "filled with air", "not really substantial".) Earlier generations would have associated ababuot with smallpox.

Klein writes that אבעבועה - "blister, boil" is formed from בעבע with the prosthetic alef (as in אצבע) and the suffix heh. The root בעבע , he claims, is of imitative origin, like its English equivalent, bubble. It is related to the root בעה , which also means "to bubble" and בועה buah - bubble.

In an interesting comment, he says there may be a connection between בעה - "to bubble" and בעה - "to seek, ask questions, desire, pray". He writes:

Several scholars identify בעה (bubble) and בעה (seek) by assuming that the original meaning of this base was 'to swell', whence developed the meanings 'to bubble' on the one hand, and 'to swell with desire' on the other.

We are familiar with such derivatives of בעה as b'aya בעיה - problem, which developed from the Aramaic בעיא - question, and many Talmudic phrases like כדבעי - "as required, properly" and אי בעית אימא - "if you like I can say".

In Arabic, a baghi is a prostitute, and the Arabic Etymological Dictionary writes that the word comes from bagha, "desire", which goes back to our root בעה :

bagha : desire [Sem b-gh-y, Akk bu‘‘u (look for), Syr b’a (ask for), BAram b‘h, b‘w, Hrs beayt (wish)]

The American Heritage Dictionary makes the same claim, and writes that the sense of the word baggage, meaning "prostitute,
impudent girl or woman" comes from the Arabic:

perhaps from French bagasse, from Provençal bagassa, ultimately from Arabic bagiy, prostitute

To be fair, there are those, such as "The Mavens' Word of the Day", who claim that this sense of baggage is developed from the more popular sense of the word as "luggage".

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

not (yet) on the bookshelf

As you may have noticed, I have added a new section to the sidebar - "My Bookshelf". While this does not include every book I own, or even every book I use for this blog, it has the main sources I use for research here. The links are actually blog posts - so feel free to leave questions or comments about the books.

I am also going to add here a list of books I don't have - yet. I will add to the list any time I come up with a new resource I'm lacking, and hopefully remove from the list when I acquire new (or used) books.

Here too, feel free to let me know where to access/ acquire them or provide any other information about them in the comments. (Of course just because I want them, doesn't mean I can currently afford them or have shelf space...)

  • Sefer Shorashim - Radak
  • Sefer Shorashim - Ibn Janach
  • A History of the Hebrew language - Yechezkel Kutscher
  • A Dictionary of Greek and Latin Legal Terms in Rabbinic Literature (Dictionaries of Talmud, Midrash, and Targum) - Daniel Sperber
  • A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic of the Talmudic and Geonic Periods - Michael Sokoloff
  • The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament - Ludwig Koehler
  • Arukh HaShalem - Kohut
  • Musaf HaArukh
  • Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB)
  • Kenaani Dictionary of Piyutim
  • Higiya Zman Lashon - Avshalom Kor
  • Od Mila B'Rega - Mordechai Rosen
  • Mila B'Rega - Mordechai Rosen
  • Encyclopedia of Jewish Food - Gil Marks
  • Any book by Yehuda Feliks


Words that start with "al" are often originally from Arabic, as we saw with algebra and albacore. Alkali - a strongly basic chemical compound - is no exception.

The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following etymology:

c.1386, "soda ash," from M.L. alkali, from Arabic al-qaliy "the ashes" (of saltwort, a plant growing in alkaline soils), from qalay "to roast in a pan."
The Arabic word is cognate with the Hebrew root קלה meaning "to roast, parch", and found in the Biblical words kali קלי - "parched corn" and kalui קלוי - "roasted, parched", and today a more official term for "toasted" (the slang is טוסט.)

Another word deriving from the same Arabic root is kalium, which is the earlier name for the element potassium, and is still used in German, Russian, and other European languages. This is why the symbol for the element is "K" - it goes back to the kuf in kalui (which Steinberg says is related to tzalui צלוי - also "roasted".)

By the way, the Sephardic surname Alcalay / Alkalai isn't connected to the above. It is spelled in Hebrew אלקלעי (with an ayin) and according to Stahl is related to the Arabic word kala קלעה - meaning "fortress".

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

ohad and ehud

Two very popular Biblical names used in Israel today are Ehud אהוד (Shoftim 3:15) and Ohad אוהד (Bereshit 46:10, Shmot 6:15). If you asked most Hebrew speakers as to the origins of the names, they'd probably say that they mean "beloved" and related to the words ahada אהדה - "sympathy" and ohed אוהד - "friend, fan, follower".

But as Amos Chacham points out in Daat Mikra to Shmot 6:15, this was not the original meaning of either of the names. There are those (such as the Vilna Gaon) that claim on the basis of Divrei HaYamim I 8:3 and 8:6 that the original name was אחוד Echud - and the chet became a heh. This approach says the name relates to "unity".

The second approach brought by Chacham is that the name is related to hod הוד - "glory".

So where did the connection between אהד and sympathy develop? This was actually one of Ben-Yehuda's innovations. Moshe Nahir writes about Ben-Yehuda's way of creating new words:

His major source was the Bible, from which he drew dormant words, often assigning them new meanings (e.g., /kidma/, 'progress', from biblical Hebrew "east"), and roots (e.g., /ma'abada/, 'laboratory' from the root of biblical Hebrew /avad/, 'to work'), including ones he derived from biblical personal names (/ahad/, 'a.h.d', from Ohad, Ehud, cognate of Arabic "hawada", 'treat with kindness').

Klein writes that hawada means "he was indulgent". I can't find a Hebrew cognate for hawada, but if any reader knows of one, please let me know...

Sunday, January 14, 2007


The 19th letter of the Hebrew alphabet is kuf, and there about as many ways to spell it in English (kuf / kof / kuph / koph / qof / qoph / qop / quph ) as there are suggestions for the original meaning:

While I always thought the letter came from kof קוף - monkey, that doesn't seem to be the case. The word kof is not originally Hebrew, and kofim weren't indigenous to the land:

These animals are mentioned in I Kings, x. 22, and the parallel passage in II Chron. ix. 21, as having been brought, with gold, silver, ivory, and peacocks, by ships of Tarshish from Ophir (compare II Chron. viii. 18). The Hebrew name kof is a loan-word from the Tamil kapi, from which indeed the Teutonic ape is also a loan with the loss of the guttural, so that the Hebrew and the English words are identical. In Egyptian the form gôfë occurs. The Indian origin of the name has been used to identify Ophir with Abhira at the mouth of the Indus (see Vinson, "Revue de Philologie," iii.). The Assyrians, however, were acquainted with Apes, which were brought to them as tribute. Apes are not now and almost certainly never were either indigenous to Palestine or acclimatized there.

As far as the other explanations, they seem to be connected to the Hebrew roots קוף and נקף - meaning "to go around", and the origins of such words as tekufa תקופה - "revolution, season", and hakafa הקפה - "encircling, surrounding".

As we've seen before, kuf can alternate with kaf, chet and gimel.

Friday, January 12, 2007


It's probably known to many of you that the word "algebra" derives from Arabic. But does that Arabic root have a Hebrew cognate?

According to many scholars it appears that it does.

The Online Etymology Dictionary offers this origin:

1551, from M.L. from Arabic al jebr "reunion of broken parts" as in computation, used 9c. by Baghdad mathematician Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi as the title of his famous treatise on equations ("Kitab al-Jabr w'al-Muqabala" "Rules of Reintegration and Reduction"), which also introduced Arabic numerals to the West. The accent shifted 17c. from second syllable to first. The word was used in Eng. 15c.-16c. to mean "bone-setting," probably from the Arabs in Spain.
So what Hebrew root could be related to "bone-setting"?

There are those try to connect it to the root חבר meaning "to connect", but as Mike Gerver points out in this very important Mail-Jewish post:

In fact, Arabic j corresponds to Hebrew gimmel, not to chet. (The Arabic letter is called "jim," and pronounced as a hard g in some dialects of Arabic, while Jews from Yemen pronounce gimmel like j, I think only when it has a dagesh.) According to my Arabic dictionary, jabara means not just "join together," but "force together," and is used for setting broken bones. So Hebrew gimmel-beit-resh would seem to be a much more likely relative.

And indeed, the American Heritage Dictionary connects jabara to the root גבר :

To be(come) strong, prevail, work. West Semitic variant (assimilated) form gbr.

1. Gabriel, from Hebrew gabrîl, my strong one (is) God, from gabrî, my strong one, from gabr-, presuffixal form of geber, strong one, man, from gabar, to be strong

2. algebra, from Arabic al-jabr, the might, force, restoration, from jabara, to force, restore, set (bones).
However, Dr. Solomon Gandz of Yeshiva University wrote in this 1926 article that while algebra is connected to גבר, it may not be via "bone-setting":

There are still remnants in the mathematical literature suggesting that in olden times the term al-jabr alone was used for the science of equations, and the term al-jabriyyun was taken for the masters of algebra. On the other hand the term al-muqabalah alone, according to its real meaning of "putting face to face, confronting, equation," seems to be the most appropriate name for equations in general. With these difficulties in mind, the writer undertook to search out the real meaning of jabara in the related Semitic languages. Now the Assyrian name gabru-maharu means to be equal, to correspond, to confront, or to put two things face to face; see Delitzsch, Assyrisches Handworterbuch, under gabru and maharu, pp. 193, 401, and Muss-Arnolt, Assyrian Dictionary, under gabru and maxaru, pp. 210, 525. From the first of these we have the etymology of the Hebrew geber and gibbor. Geber is the mature man leaving the state of boyhood and being equal in rank and value to the other men of the assembly or army. Gibbor is the hero who is strong enough to fight and overcome his equals and rivals in the hostile army. Gabara =jabara, in its original Assyrian meaning, is therefore the wrresponding name for the Arabic qabala (verbal noun muqabalah), and an appropriate name for equations in general.

Whether or not jabara meant "bone-setting" or actually referred to equations, many today would view someone who can master algebra as a real gibor גיבור - hero...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


As you may have noticed, one of the new "categories" on this site is Yiddish. The etymology of many Yiddish words is fairly easy to determine - they either come from German or Hebrew, or perhaps a Slavic language. But as we saw earlier with bensch, when it comes to the earliest Yiddish words, it's harder to make a clear cut decision (we'll see it later with cholent.) And because Yiddish is really a language of the people, it is not surprising that many folk-etymologies have popped up with these early Yiddish words.

Today we'll look at daven (or davenen) - to pray. I'll start off with some of the folk etymologies. This article provides a bunch:

  • from the Aramaic “d’avhatana” דאבהתנא (or d'avunon דאבונן) , meaning “from our fathers.”
  • from Hebrew “daf” דף , meaning “page”, so that “dafnen” would mean “to turn the pages.”
  • Some say that “daven” originally meant to say the morning prayer, and hence look either to the English “dawn” or to Middle High German for “tagewen”, meaning “to do one’s morning chores” or “digen” meaning “to request.”
  • from the Arabic “da’awa”, meaning “to pray”
  • the Lithuanian word “davana”, meaning gift
  • from Middle High German “doenen”, meaning to sing
  • from the Hebrew “davav” דבב , generally translated as “to move the lips” or “to speak”.
There are other theories that the word comes from Greek or Turkish.

As you might guess, the multitude of theories decreases the likelihood of anyone of them being correct. And in fact many Yiddish scholars say that the origin of daven is unknown.

But the theory that makes the most sense to me, and seems to be the most widely accepted, is that daven is related to the English word "divine".

The 1922 article The Derivation of "Daven-en" by A. Mishcon gives a good explanation:

The suggestion which I venture to make is that the origin of our word is to be traced to Latin rather than any of the languages mentioned before. Daven is, in my opinion, a variant of the Latin Divin from which we get our term Divine Service. In support I would cite the following
analogies :

1. Another Yiddish word which, according to Bernstein (op. cit.), is used by Jews in Germany in exactly the same sense as Daven-en is Oren; this, of course, is formed from the Latin ora-pray-with the addition of the German infinitive ending en.

2. The Yiddish word Benschen, which means to pronounce a liturgical benediction and is so closely akin to daven-en, is likewise derived from the Latin benedice (evidently through the Italian) with the addition of the same suffix en.

It therefore seems quite feasible that, like its two allies, our word, too, has a Latin origin. Thus,

+en = Oren.
Benedice +en = Benschen.
Divin +en = Daven-en.

Monday, January 08, 2007


The 18th letter of the Hebrew alphabet is tsade (or tzade). It is sometimes called tzaddik צדיק - this is due to the running together of tsade with the letter that follows it when reciting the alphabet - kuf.

Tsade got its name from the shape of a "fishing hook", trap or a lasso - related to the root צוד - meaning "to hunt, catch, capture". From this root we also get metzad מצד - "fortress", which Klein says originally meant "hunting place". The plural of metzad is mitzadot, but Klein writes that a back-formation was made from mitzadot to mitzada - from where we get the famous fortress Masada.

Klein does not connect צוד with ציד - which means "to feed, provide with provisions", but Kaddari seems to indicate there is a connection - a hunt (צוד ) searches for food (ציד). Neither of them make a connection to tzad צד - side (not related) - but Steinberg connects all three. He says a hunter or a trap surrounds the prey on all "sides", which (as Kaddari wrote) becomes the food.

Horowitz calls tsade the "triplet letter" - for it originally had three pronunciations - one related to tet, one with ayin (both those letters interchange with tsade) and one that sounds like the current tsade. He provides a number of examples.

In Hebrew there are two Phoenician towns called צור tzur and צידון tzidon. But in the Greek translation (which occurred when the differences between the tsade pronunciations were evident) the towns are called Tyre and Sidon.

Based on this, he feels there is no connection between three meanings of the root צור - "bind", "to treat as an enemy", and "rock". We saw more of Horowitz's theory when we discussed the word tzvi.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


The Hebrew word for checkmate is shachmat שחמט. While the word is similar in many languages, I think that perhaps the closest is the German Schachmatt. Klein, however, skips over any European influence, and goes right for the original meaning:

From Arabic-Persian shah mat (= the king is dead). Persian shah ( = king) derives from Old Persian shaya ( = king); Arabic mata (= he died), is related to Hebrew מת (of same meaning, see מות). The original ת (in Arabic mata) was changed to ט at the suggestion of H.N. Bialik (1873-1934) to avoid the use of the word 'killed' in chess terms.

And as we've seen earlier, mat מט can mean "down", and so שחמט - would mean "the king has been thrown down, overthrown".

Stahl points out that Agnon did spell shachmat with a tav - שחמת , but adds that Bialik's spelling (with a tet) might be more correct etymologically as well.

For as Stahl points out, and is well described in this article, the word checkmate may not really mean "the king is dead". First of all, as mentioned here:

Every single word connected with the game of chess in Arabic is either borrowed from the Persian and Arabicised or translated from the Persian into Arabic. On the other hand, all chess terms in Persian are native and not a single one is borrowed from the Arabic. As the term shah-mat is used in both Persian and Arabic (in the latter sometimes the def. art. al- prefixed to shah), we would expect the term to be a borrowing on the part of the Arabic and not vice versa.

Secondly, as quoted above:

the Persian word mat, literally meaning " left (without a way to escape) ," or " at a loss," or " perplexed "; hence "pressed" and " defeated," fits in quite satisfactorily.

This also fits in with the Hebrew מט (overthrown) more than מת (killed).

So how did the idea that checkmate / shachmat means "the king is dead" come about? The article concludes:

Undoubtedly what happened was this : the Arabs borrowed the game and its terminology from the Persians. The first element in the compound shah-mat was already familiar to them, and to it they prefixed the def. art. al-; the second element was unfamiliar. They observed, however, that when the shah was made mat, the game terminated. They naturally concluded that the shah was dead, and by the familiar methods of popular etymology connected it with their own verb mata. Then through the Arabic the word was introduced into the European languages.

One interesting side note - this site shows us how a number of words that we don't associate with chess - check, checkered, cheque - all derive their meanings in English from the game chess.

And one last bit of trivia. Rashi on Ketubot 61a, discusses a game called אישקקיש - and this is also a variation of the game chess, related to our shachmat.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Is there any connection between "mat" and "mattress"? Well, their etymologies are entirely distinct, but they both do come from Semitic sources. A while back we looked at "mattress", today we'll see the background of "mat".

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

O.E. matte, from L.L. matta "mat made of rushes" (4c.), probably from Punic or Phoenician (cf. Heb. mittah "bed, couch")

While we might not associate a mita מיטה with a mat, the sense of "mat" actually preserves the original meaning more than "bed".

The word mita, according to Klein is:

From נטה (= to stretch out; to incline, bend). For sense development, compare Greek kline (=bed) which is related to klinein (=to cause to slope, slant, incline).

(Two English words that are connected to each of the Greek are clinic and incline).

Stahl points out that the Biblical mita was a blanket or rug that was spread out on the floor - a "mat". The difference between the mita of old and the mita of today might be seen in the Talmudic mourning practice of כפיית המיטה - "turning the bed over". The later halachic sources say that we do not keep this custom of mourning because our mita is different - it's much easier to turn over a mat than a bed.

Mita in Talmudic times developed the meaning of "family, offspring" - as in a description of Yaakov - מטתו שלמה - mitato shleima, "his (conjugal) bed was perfect", i.e. "his children were all righteous".

From the root נטה we get two other words that are spelled the same as mita (when it is spelled without a yod, as it does in the Tanach). The word מטה can also mean mata - "downward, down" and mateh - "stick, rod, staff".

Based on this confusion (the original text had no vowels), there are different readings of Bereshit 47:31. The Masoretic text has עַל-רֹאשׁ הַמִּטָּה "al rosh hamita" - "at the head of the bed". However, the Septuagint translates it as "over the head of his staff" - in other words "al rosh hamateh".

Monday, January 01, 2007


The slang term for New Years (Dec 31-Jan 1) celebrations in Israel is "Sylvester". And no, there's no connection to the cat, but rather to an early (anti-semitic) pope. From this site:

The Israeli term for New Year's night celebrations, "Sylvester," was the name of the "Saint" and Roman Pope who reigned during the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.). The year before the Council of Nicaea convened, Sylvester convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. At the Council of Nicaea, Sylvester arranged for the passage of a host of viciously anti-Semitic legislation. All Catholic "Saints" are awarded a day on which Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint's memory. December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day - hence celebrations on the night of December 31 are dedicated to Sylvester's memory.
But why do Israelis use the term? Hanan Cohen is quoted here:

It's just because Israel is a Jewish state. The [Jewish] new year holiday is celebrated on the eve of Tishrei 1st. People who immigrated to Israel from western countries still wanted to celebrate the "old" new year, like at home, but could not say that they were celebrating the new year so they used instead the Catholic name of the day, Sylvester. That's why the Jews in Israel celebrate the event using a name of a Catholic saint.

But what is the origin of the name "Sylvester"? It's related to a Latin word, silva, which means "wood, forest". That word makes up the "-sylvania" in Pennsylvania ("Penn's forest") and Transylvania ("beyond the forest"). In addition to the name Sylvester, we also get the names Sylvia and Silvan - as in the former Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom.