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.

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