Wednesday, February 28, 2007


On Purim we are obligated to give matanot l'evyonim מתנות לאביונים - "gifts to the poor". The more common word for a poor person is ani עני, and the etymology is clear: it derives from the root ענה meaning "to humble, oppress, afflict" and is related to such words as anav ענו - "humble", taanit תענית - "fasting" and inui עינוי - "torture". But what is the origin of the term evyon אביון?

The midrash in Vayikra Raba (34) provides the following etymology: אביון - שמתאב לכל "evyon - because he longs for everything". Steinberg provides a similar origin - he relates it to the the root אבה - "desire", which is related to the root תאב that the midrash brings. He also connects אבה to the root אוה, of the same meaning. From that root we get ta'ava תאוה "longing, passion".

Klein does not connect אבה and אוה (he says אוה is of unknown etymology.) But he does write that evyon:

Probably from אבה and originally meaning "desirous, longing, yearning', compare Ugaritic 'bjn. Late Egyptian and Coptic ebien are borrowed from Hebrew.

Kaddari doesn't even accept Klein's theory. He says the Hebrew evyon is borrowed from the Egyptian ebyen - "wretched". He says the attempts to connect evyon with אבה are not convincing.

I have to say that instinctively I find Steinberg convincing - אבה , אוה and אביון all look similar enough and the meanings seem very close. But perhaps that's the problem with linguistic coincidences - we "desire" the connections so much, we end up as "evyonim"...

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