Thursday, May 31, 2007


In our previous post, we discussed the word sudar, and how it was formed from the Greek sudarium, which became סודרין in Hebrew. This word, however, was assumed to be plural due to the ending ין- and so the singular form סודר was created.

Almagor-Ramon gives us another example of this phenomenon: the word kalmar קלמר - "pen case". It originally appeared as קלמרין kalmarin - with the same meaning of "pen case" or "inkstand", as in Mishna Mikvaot 10:1. From here we get another mistaken back formation of a singular - kalmar.

She then writes that קלמרין comes from the Greek kalamarion. Klein points out that kalamarion derives from the Greek kalamos which meant "pen" and earlier meant "reed". This is the source of another Talmudic word - kulmos קולמוס - "(reed) pen". This word is part of the familiar expression כמה קולמוסין נשברו - "how many pens were broken", i.e. "how much was written (about) ...". The Arabic word for pen, qalam, has the same origin.

From Greek, the words kalamos and kalamarion entered Latin, where they ended up in a number of English words:

  • calamari - "squid prepared as food". From Take Our Word For It:
    Interestingly, "squid" is calamar in Spanish and similar in other Romance languages (calmar in French), and it is Kalamar in German. The source of these words is late Latin calamarium "ink horn" or "pen case", referring to the squid's ink, from calamus "pen".
  • shawm - "a medieval oboe like instrument". From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
    c.1350, schalmeis (pl.), also schallemele (1390), from O.Fr. chalemie, chalemel, from L.L. calamellus, lit. "a small reed," dim. of L. calamus "reed," from Gk. kalamos. Mistaken as a plural and trimmed of its "-s" ending from c.1450.
  • calumet - another name for the Native American peace pipe, which was often made from a hollow reed
  • haulm - the stalks or bushy parts of vegetables, grains, grasses, and flowering plants. From Word of the Day:
    Today's is an original Germanic word, e.g. Dutch and German halm "stem," Danish halm "straw." It is akin to "culm" from Latin culmus "stalk," which is now used more to refer to the refuse of coal production, such as the lovely culm banks of central Pennsylvania. The original stem *k'olêm- also underlies Greek kalamos "reed," Serbian slama "straw" and Russian soloma "straw."
Now normally I wouldn't pay much attention to how a word went from Greek to Latin, but that was before I saw this book- Hebrew at the Crossroads of Cultures: from Outgoing Antiquity to the Middle Ages, by Haiim B. Rosén. Actually, I didn't see the book, but the online sections at Google Books. Rosen explains how the Jewish community exiled to Rome, who spoke Greek, may have been responsible for transferring Greek words to Latin:

As we have said before, the Jewish inhabitants of Rome were the only component of the "lower" classes which had Greek as its mother tongue, and it must be taken into account that the importance of precisely that component for the development of urban and extra-urban Latin might have been increased by the fact that Jews on the one hand were an urban element, and on the other were no slaves; precisely due to that position they could have contributed as Greek-speaking elements to the diffusion of parts of the Greek vocabulary in the Latin popular language ('Vulgar Latin')

He includes calamarium as an example of this:

The "semantic shift" of [Greek] kalamarion from 'pen case' to 'ink well' for which H. and R. Kahane bring evidence for Greek from Hieronymus, but ascribe it to Latin not earlier than the 8th century, is demonstrable from relatively early Rabbinical sources; interestingly enough, the earlier sources know this word only as a designation for the ink well. It is of course only in the latter meaning that this word could develop to denote, in modern Greek and other Mediterranean languages the cuttlefish (kalamari), by equating it to some kind of container of coloured fluid.
So while Hebrew can thank Greek for the kalmar, perhaps the world should thank the Jews for calamari. Now if I could only find some good, kosher mock-calamari...

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

sudar and sweater

In Modern Hebrew we find two words with the same consonants, but different vowels:
סוּדָר - sudar - "scarf, shawl"
סְוֶדֶר - sveder - "sweater (or jumper)"

Is there any connection between them?

The word sudar is from Talmudic Hebrew, and many of us are familiar with it from the term kinyan sudar קנין סודר - a contractual agreement where one of the parties lifts up a sudar - a handkerchief owned by the other. This is still done at Jewish weddings today.

Klein points out that the word is actually a

back formation from supposed plural סודרין, a word borrowed from Greek soudariom, from Latin sudarium (= handkerchief), literally: "cloth for wiping off perspiration' from sudor ( = sweat, perspiration). Latin sudor derives from IE base sweid-, swoid-, swid- ( = to sweat).
As proof to this, Almagor-Ramon writes that we find sources that have sudarin סודרין as a single noun. For example, in this edition of Mishna Sanhedrin 7:2, we find the term "סודרין קשה" - "a coarse sudarin".

The English word "sweat" derives from the same Indo-European root Klein mentioned above, and not surprisingly, the word "sweater" comes from "sweat". However, unlike the sudarium, which was meant to remove sweat, "sweater" has the opposite meaning. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

"woolen vest or jersey, originally worn in rowing," 1882, from earlier sweaters "clothing worn to produce sweating and reduce weight" (1828)
So a sudar gets rid of sweat, and a sweater encourages sweat.

While there have been attempts to have Modern Hebrew adopt sudar for "sweater", they haven't succeeded well, probably due to the familiarity of the term sudar as scarf. Purists must grimace, but not only do Israelis say sveder for "sweater", but they even use סווצ'ר svecher - for "sweatshirt".

Sunday, May 27, 2007


"What's the origin of the term 'doogri'?"

For those that don't know, the Hebrew slang term dugri דוגרי means "straightforwardly, honestly". Someone who speaks dugri "tells it like it is". (For an in-depth look at the concept of "dugri" in Hebrew, it's well worth looking at Tamar Katriel's book, Dialogic Moments: From Soul Talks to Talk Radio in Israeli Culture, pages 150-4, which discuss the term, can be previewed here.)

Hebrew borrowed the word from Arabic, where it was spelled דע'רי - with the Arabic letter ghayn, which sounds more like the English letter "g". (Think of Gaza and Azza עזה, for another example.)

Arabic, in turn, borrowed the word from the Turkish dogru, presumably during the centuries of Ottoman rule over the Arabs.

While normally I would try to connect the word dogru to a familiar word in English, this won't happen here. When I have a Hebrew word that traces back to Greek or Latin, or even Persian or Sanskrit, it has an Indo-European root - and English is an Indo-European language. Turkish, on the other hand, is one of the Turkic languages, of which other members include Azerbaijani, Uzbek and Tatar. There are those who place the Turkic languages in a larger group - the Altaic languages, which includes Mongolian and Korean. So if dogra isn't related to either Indo-European or Semitic, we more or less come to a dead end etymologically here.

In any case, dogru has the following meanings in Turkish (from the Turkish Dictionary site):

1. straight.
2. true.
3. proper, suitable.
4. honest, good (person).
5. correct, accurate.
6. the truth.
7. math. line.
8. truly, correctly.
9. straight, directly.
10. /a/ toward, in the direction of.
11. /a/ toward, near the time of.
12. That´s true.
13. colloq. a correct answer (in a test).

The word may also be familiar to you through the name of one of Turkey's major political parties - the True Path Party or in Turkish: Doğru Yol Partisi or DYP.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Kri and Ktiv - Game #4

Time for a new game! (Since there hasn't been a successful guess, I'm adding another clue.)

a) quiet thanks
b) he encouraged his aunts
c) earliest sanctification

Friday, May 25, 2007


I live in a community that has an active local email list, and people are often looking for rides from one place to another. It always looks to me as very strange when someone writes: "I'm going to Jerusalem and I need a tramp". Of course they mean that they're looking for a ride, but to my (American) ears it sounds like they're looking for a vagrant, or even a promiscuous woman.

But "tramp" means hitchhiking or a hitchhiker in British and German slang, and so it's not surprising it made it into Hebrew. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following etymology:

1388, "walk heavily, stamp," from M.L.G. trampen "to stamp," from P.Gmc. *tramp- (cf. Dan. trampe, Swed. trampa "to tramp, stamp," Goth. ana-trimpan "to press upon"), probably from a variant of the P.Gmc. source of trap. The noun meaning "person who wanders about, vagabond" is first recorded 1664, from the verb. Sense of "steamship which takes cargo wherever it can be traded" (as opposed to one running a regular line) is attested from c.1880. The meaning "promiscuous woman" is from 1922.
"Trampoline" is also related:

1798, from Sp. trampolin "springboard," and It. trampolino, from trampoli "stilts," from a Gmc. source (cf. Low Ger. trampeln "trample") related to tramp.
As I mentioned, Hebrew adopted the word (and created trempist - "hitchhiker" and trempiada - "hitchhiking station"), but the pronunciation is generally tremp (which avoids the confusion I mentioned above.)

Why did Hebrew move from "tramp" to "tremp"? It turns out it's part of a wider trend.

Yehuda N. Falk wrote on The LINGUIST Discussion List here:

"I did want to point out that there is a third possible treatment of [ae]: it can become a mid vowel [e] (or epsilon). This is what happens in Hebrew.






tremp (means "a ride, a lift")


a brand of catfood called "ketli"


hendawt (heard at linguistics conferences)





So while in an English language email list in Israel it should be OK to write "tramp" when you mean "ride", it shouldn't be pronounced that way in conversational Hebrew...

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Reader David H. asked about the Hebrew word zug זוג, and its connection to the English words "yoke - conjugal - zeugma" (I have to admit I hadn't heard of the last one, but it has its own Wikipedia entry.)

Well, there certainly is a connection. The Hebrew word meaning "pair, couple" derives from the Greek: zygon - "pair", zeugos - "a team (of oxen)". The Greek, in turn, derives from the Indo-European root *yeug, meaning "to join", from where we get all sorts of words:

Monday, May 21, 2007


Well, the results are in, and with your help I won the Best Jewish Religious Blog award! I would like to thank you all publicly - בפומבי b'fumbei.

The word pumbei פומבי first appears in Talmudic times, and means "publicity". In modern Hebrew we also find the adjective pumbi - "public".

The word was borrowed from the Greek pompe, which meant "a solemn procession", and gave us the English words pomp and pompous. Take Our Word For It discusses "pompous":

It comes, through French, from the same source as pomp, which is Latin pompa. The Romans acquired the word from Greek pompe "a sending," coming ultimately from the root pempein "to send". Greek pompe came to be used figuratively for something that was "sent forth", namely a procession or parade. As such processions were often either very solemn or quite splendid, the notions of "a display" and then "an ostentatious display" came to be attached to the Greek word. Those meanings passed into Latin and eventually into English, though the "procession" meaning died out in English by the early 19th century, such that now the word carries only the "showy" meaning, which had taken on a negative air as early as Chaucer's time (the late 14th century).

As an aside, I'd like to point out that many people found the campaigning for votes in the JIB awards ostentatious and perhaps even pompous. But as I wrote earlier, there was no prize being offered in the contest, only publicity. And in a contest by people who put themselves in the public (you don't find too many shy bloggers), where the reward is more publicity, I fail to see the problem with a public campaign for votes! So while pumbei and "pompous" may be related etymologically, I don't think there's a causal relationship between them...

Friday, May 18, 2007

chalitza and chultza

I'm still waiting for an solution for quiz #4, but lets take a look back at quiz #3. The word was חולצה - which can either be a shirt (top) - chultza, or "she was rescued" (like Jessica Lynch) - also chultza. That quiz (and this post) was actually meant for those who have recently started learning Masechet Yevamot, where another word from the same root is used often - חליצה chalitza - the removal of a shoe which came as the replacement for a levirate marriage.

So lets look at the various meanings and derivations of the root חלץ. We'll start with Klein. He points out that there are two separate roots. One means "to draw off, draw out, withdraw, rescue, deliver". From here we get chilutz חילוץ - "rescue", and chalitza (the "drawing off" of the shoe.) Stahl points out that the Arabic word halas (which has entered Hebrew slang as well) meaning "finish, enough!" comes from this sense as well. The Arabic cognate halas means "finish, complete, remove".

The second meaning of חלץ that Klein provides is "to gird, to strengthen, equip for war". He writes that a derivative of this root is chalutz חלוץ which originally meant "a troop equipped for war", and in Modern Hebrew means "a pioneer". (This led someone to once joke, "Why can't a kohen marry a kibbutznikit? Because she's a chalutza" - female pioneer / a woman who's performed chalitza and forbidden to a kohen.)

A third word is cheletz חלץ - "loin". From here Joseph Klausner coined the word חולצה chultza - "blouse, shirt", because "it is worn over the loins".

Klein does not appear to connect any of the above three roots. Not surprisingly, others do.

Stahl says that the soldier was known as a chalutz, because he would remove most of his clothing in order to run quickly. On the other hand, Kaddari says the soldier would hang his weapon by his loins. (Kaddari also quotes Stahl's view, and says that both were mentioned by medieval Jewish scholars.)

Jastrow places all the roots under one entry, but in an unusual way. He gives one meaning as "to surround, fortify; to gird, arm" and from here the meaning of "loins". The second meaning is the opposite of the first - "to untie, loosen, tear out; to strip, lay bare". He doesn't explain the development of the meanings - maybe this is an autoantonym like we've discussed before or maybe he's included two unrelated meanings under the same entry.

Monday, May 14, 2007


I've been asked what I get out of participating in the Jewish & Israel Blog Awards (you can - please - vote for me here). Is there some sort of reward -פרס pras? My response is, no - I'm only really doing it for the publicity פרסום- pirsum. I'd really like to expose what I'm writing to the greatest number of people, and through this contest, people are finding new blogs like mine.

But is there a connection between pras and pirsum? Maybe. Klein offers three possible origins to pirsum:

According to some scholars related to Syrian פרסי ( = he made known, openly), אתפרסי ( = was made known openly) and probably derived from פרס ( = to spread, extend.)

Others connect פרסי etc. with Hebrew פשה (to spread, extend)

Still others see in פרסם a loan word from Greek parresia or parresis ( = outspokenness, frankness, freedom of speech.)

In both cases the additorial ם is difficult to explain.

One of the interesting things I learned researching this was that while I was familiar with the term פרהסיה, I assumed it was pronounced "farhesia", because it's almost always said as part of the word בפרהסיה b'farhesia - "in public".

Leora Morgenstern points out in this early Mail-Jewish post that our understanding of parrhesia in Hebrew today may be from a back-formation:

Parhesia comes from the Greek word paresia (pi-alpha-rho-rho-eta-sigma-iota-alpha), meaning free speak or frankness. Thus, (speaking) b'pharhesia came to mean (speaking) openly or publicly, and parhesia came to mean the public. Note that the adverbial form is correctly pronounced b'pharhesia, with a pheh.

I certainly didn't know that parrhesia is a word known in English as well (see its Wikipedia entry.) This site writes that:

Parrhesia is a Greek term, originating in democratic Athens of the 5th century B.C.E., describing a public act of criticizing a superior in the name of truth, risking whatever privileges the person performing it has, and in radical conditions – his or her own life.

Sounds like a lot of bloggers today...

Sunday, May 13, 2007


For those that haven't noticed yet, I made it to the Finals of the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards. As of this writing, it doesn't look like I'll end up first - rishon ראשון. But how bad would it be to be acharon אחרון ?

For the answer to this, I'll turn to a book by Avshalom Kor, Higiya Zman Lashon הגיע זמן לשון (strangely translated as It's Time to Tongue), 1994. I found it in my local library, but since it has a number of very interesting articles about things I'd like to write about (and some insights about topics I've already discussed), I'd love to get my own copy. If anyone knows where I can find one - please let me know.

Kor has a chapter in the book (page 63) where he discusses the meaning of the word acharon, generally translated as "last". He quotes Hagai 2:9

גָּדוֹל יִהְיֶה כְּבוֹד הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה הָאַחֲרוֹן, מִן-הָרִאשׁוֹן

"The glory of the acharon house will be greater than that of the rishon house".

Hagai was trying to solace the people who saw the Second Temple being built, but remembered the First Temple and were disappointed. He was telling them that the Second Temple will be more glorious than the first.

Kor then mentions a polemic between Christians and the Rashba about the meaning of acharon. They claim it means "last" - and therefore there will be no Third Temple. Rav Yisrael Rozen also quotes the Rashba here (note that he says "Yishmaelim" instead of Christians):

The Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet, from thirteenth century Spain) tells about a debate he had with "one of the wise men of the Yishmaelites" with respect to the future redemption of Bnei Yisrael (responsa, volume 4, 187). The style of the debate was typical of the controversies of the Middle Ages, with both sides liberally quoting from traditional sources.

"He replied to me from another angle, saying: The Torah states that there will be no Temple after the Second Temple (that is, the Temple will not be rebuilt), as is written, 'The glory of this last house (habayit ha'acharon) will be greater than that of the first' [Chagai 2:9]. See, the Second Temple is called the 'last house.' How could this be if another house will be built after it?

"I replied: It is called 'last' only in relation to the first (that is, it is later than the first one, but not last in an absolute sense). This is similar to, 'He put the maid-servants and their children first, and Leah and her children last (acharonim), and Rachel and Yosef last (acharonim)' [Bereishit 33:2]. Leah and her children are called last even though Rachel and Yosef came after them.

"He said: This is true when people talk... but when a prophet, who knows the truth, speaks, it is not so! I replied: No, it even appears in Divine words to a prophet. For example, the Almighty said to Moshe, 'If they do not believe the first sign, they will believe the last sign (acharon). And if they do not believe these two signs, take water from the Nile... And it will be transformed into blood on the ground' [Shemot 4:9-10]. As you see, the second sign was called acharon, even though the sign of the water (the blood) came after it."

There are those who add a note from this week's Torah portion: "The blood will be a sign for you on the houses" [Shmot 12:13]. This is a hint that the sign of the blood, which came after the "last" sign, is a proof relevant to the "houses" - that is, a Third Temple will be built, even though the Second one that preceded it was called "last."

Kor points out that the later "proof" is from the Shelah.

I should mention that the meaning "last" does appear in the Tanach as well - see Shmuel II 2:26, 19:12.

And as Kor points out in another chapter, acharon can also mean "behind", as in Yam HaAcharon ים האחרון - the Mediterranean Sea, which is behind you, when you face forward, to the east. Klein writes that this is the earliest meaning of the word, and connects derivates of the root אחר to a sense of "he was behind, he was late". From here we get meuchar מאוחר - "late", achar אחר - "after", as well as achrai אחראי - "responsible", where Klein writes that the word:

literally denotes a person who stands behind someone or something, for whom or for which he has accepted responsibility
So if you stand behind me (and please vote here), I can perhaps be acharon (next) and not acharon (last)...

Friday, May 11, 2007

Onkelos Resources

The following are excellent aides in studying Onkelos, the Aramaic translation of the Torah:

  • Israel Drazin and Stanley M. Wagner's book Onkelos on the Torah: Understanding the Bible Text. I only have the Bereshit volume of this English translation of Onkelos (there is also a Shmot edition), but it is very helpful for my work. It includes an English translation of the Torah text, based on Onkelos. Where Onkelos deviates from the plain meaning of the text, the English words are highlighted in bold. There is also an extensive commentary, explaining the reasons behind the Onkelos translation, as well as a comparison with other translations and commentaries.

  • Dov Rappel's work "Targum Onkelos". This Hebrew book is a complete study of the approach of Onkelos, with such chapters as "The Theology of Targum Onkelos", "Targum Onkelos and the Midrash", "The Halacha and Targum Onkelos" and "The Literary Aspect of Targum Onkelos". While the book is meant to be studied straight through, there is an index of all verses mentioned, so you can find out if there is any interesting commentary on a particular translation. Dov Rappel was a professor at Bar-Ilan university, and a member of Kibbutz Yavne. I sat behind him in the Beit Knesset when I lived there, and found him to be a tremendous talmid chacham and a uniquely humble individual. He died in 2003 at the age of 87.

  • Yein HaTov by R' Alter Vein. This book (as described here) "highlights every place where a Targum differs from the literal translation, translates the Targum back into Hebrew and sometimes explains the significance of the difference." A good resource, but it would be nice if the number of the chapter, as well as the name of the parasha appeared on every page.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Lag B'Omer was a few days ago, but we're still talking about requirements for a bonfire. And as my kids will testify, you can't have a bonfire without marshmallows. But did you know that marshmallow may have a Hebrew origin?

The Maven's Word of the Day provides the following etymology of the word "marshmallow":

Marshmallow is one of those words that seems as if it should have a really interesting etymology, but is in truth rather mundane.

A mallow is a type of shrub. It is a member of the mallow family, which also includes hibiscus, okra, cotton, and some other plants. A marsh mallow, as you are probably about to guess, is a variety of mallow that lives in marshy places. Althaea officinalis, if you're keeping track.

Marshmallow is a confection made from the root of the marsh mallow (or, more often nowadays, from a bunch of unpleasant artificial sweeteners, flavorings, and thickeners)
From the mallow plant we also get the word "mauve". Take Our Word For It also discusses the marshmallow, and writes:

It may surprise some to see that marsh-mallow occurs naturally and is not that unholy amalgam of nutrasweet and styrofoam without which no camp-fire would be complete. In fact, it is a species of mallow plant which grows near salt marshes. This marsh-mallow has mauve flowers but this should not surprise us as mauve means (in French) "the color of a mallow flower" (from the Latin malva "mallow").

At least one more English word gets its name from the mallow plant - the mineral malachite. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides this etymology:

1398, from L. molochitis, from Gk. molochitis lithos "mallow stone," from molokhe "mallow;" the mineral traditionally so called from resemblance of its color to that of the leaves of the mallow plant.
So how is the word "mallow" derived from Hebrew? Klein, in his CEDEL, writes the following:

mallow, n., name of a plant. -- ME. malwe, fr. OE. mealwe, fr. L. malva, which, together with Gk. malache , of s.m., is borrowed fr. Heb. mallua h , 'mallow' (Job 30:4), derivative of melah, 'salt'; cp. Aram. milha, Syr. melha, Arab. milh, Akad. milu, 'salt'. (See H. Lewy, Die semitischen Fremdworter im Griechischen, 31 f., and Immanuel Low , Flora der Juden, I 227 ff. and 242 ff.) Cp. malachite, malvacious, mauve. Cp. also Malaga.
So according to Klein, we can connect the mallow in marshmallow to the Hebrew word מלח melach - salt. And his mention of Malaga? This is a port city in Southern Spain, who according to this travel guide:

Málaga, just like the other towns on the Costa del Sol, was settled by Phoenicians in ancient times, around the 7th to 8th century BC. Records indicate that the area was originally named "Malaka" from the Phoenician word for "salt." Because of the area's proximity to the sea, it became an important fishing center. Fish was salted and served as a staple food source for the local inhabitants. This is also the main reason behind the town's original name.
The American Heritage Dictionary also connects mallow to melach, although I should mention that some say that the word derives from "the Greek malake/maluke 'to soften'".

I've never tried a marshmallow made from an actual marsh mallow - I'd love to try. Probably healthier, and less kashrut problems. I just hope they're sweet, not salty...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Kri and Ktiv - Game #3

I'm not sure if it's a good sign that I'm having a much harder time coming up with the clues than you are with the answers, but here goes:

a) top
b) Lynch's fate

Sunday, May 06, 2007


Yesterday was Lag B'Omer, and of course we had a bonfire. Let's look at some of the foods eaten at a bonfire. We've already talked about naknik, so let's talk about another word - shipud שיפוד - "skewer". We find the word in the Talmud as שפוד shapud (or shefod or shefud) with basically the same meaning - "spit for roasting meat". A derivative is the verb שפד - "to put on a spit".

Everyone seems to agree that the word derives from the Greek spodos (no one suggests a connection to "spit" in English - it has a different etymology.) . Klein writes that the word is "borrowed from the Greek spodos (spit for roasting meat.)". Steinsaltz (Avoda Zara 75b) gives the same definition of the Greek word.

However, all the sources I've found online discussing the Greek word give it a different meaning: "ashes". For example, here is the etymology of the mineral spodumene:

French spodumène, from German Spodumen, from Greek spodoumenos, present participle of spodousthai, to be burned to ashes, from spodos, wood ashes (because the mineral becomes ash gray when exposed to air).

(Here are some more words deriving from spodos - always meaning "ashes.")

So what's happening here? Ben-Yehuda does mention a theory that perhaps the word came from some language other than Greek, for Greek does not have the "sh" sound, and had it been from Greek it should have been spelled ספוד. But he does start by saying the word derives from spodos, and doesn't give any indication that spodos meant "ashes".

So while both ashes and skewers can be found at a bonfire, I'd still like to know where exactly the word שפוד came from. If it's Greek to you, please let me know...

Friday, May 04, 2007


In my post on shevach, I mentioned the Yiddish word shvach, which derives from the German schwach, meaning "weak". Since German and English are related languages, I tried to find an English cognate to the German. The closest thing I found was the obscure Scottish word "swack", mentioned here:

Swack, to deal a heavy blow; akin to the vulgar English whack, to beat severely; a swashing blow, a heavy blow; etymology uncertain. The Teutonic schwach, has an opposite meaning, though there may be some connection of idea between a heavy blow and a blow that weakens him on whom it falls.
A parallel term in English would be "beat" - meaning both "to strike" (as a verb), and "worn out, tired" (as an adjective.)

Hebrew might also have an example. The root חשל appears once in the Bible (Devarim 25:18), where it means "weakened, lagging":
אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ--וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ

"When they encountered you on the way, and you were tired and exhausted, they cut off those lagging (hanecheshalim) to your rear"

Tigay, in the JPS Devarim writes (note 57):

Medieval Hebrew grammarians took the term to mean either "broken", based on Aramaic h-sh-l, "crush" (the verb is now known in Akkadian, too)

This is the view of Steinberg as well. Interestingly, from this sense of חשל we get the opposite of weak. Klein writes that the Aramaic and Akkadian "to crush" led to Hebrew "to forge, hammer, shape, mold", which in Modern Hebrew became "to strengthen".

However, Tigay continues:

or "weakened", taking the root h-sh-l חשל as a metathesized form of h-l-sh חלש, "be weak"

This is the view of Ibn Ezra, as well as Klein, who does not connect the two senses of חשל at all.

An additional theory is proposed in a footnote to the Ibn Ezra in the Torat Chaim edition by Asher Weiser, that נחשל could be related to נכשל / כשל - "stumble, fail, be weak (see Tehillim 31:11)". Kaddari quotes this view as well.

So again, we have what appears to be one root - חשל - with opposite meanings - weak and strong. But a careful examination of the development of the meanings shows that this isn't some unusual phenomenon in Hebrew where words take on opposite meanings, but rather an understandable evolution of meaning that appears in many languages.

Kri and Ktiv - Game #2

Well, you solved the last one pretty quickly.

This one hopefully will take a little longer (but it is timely...):

a) Reviva's rubric
b) Not from his age

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

NEW: Kri and Ktiv - Game #1

I thought I'd try something a little new here at Balashon - a game I've decided to call Kri and Ktiv (Read and Write).

I will provide two hints in English, each referring to a Hebrew word. Both Hebrew words will be homographs of each other. The goal will be to figure out what Hebrew homograph I'm describing.

So for example, if I write:
a) "pillar"
b) "stand up"
I'm thinking of the Hebrew עמוד - amud meaning "pillar" and amod meaning "stand up".

You should know that the Hebrew word can be spelled with full or partial vowels, and the meanings (the hints) can refer to Biblical, Talmudic, Medieval, Modern Hebrew or slang.

I'm probably going to need to try this out a few times until I get the skill level correct. This first one shouldn't be too hard:

a) element
b) skilled

Put your answers in the comments (if you can't type in Hebrew, just spell out the letters). The first one to get it right will get their name (and site link if they'd like) in the sidebar!


In our last post, we talked about kilus קילוס - a post-Biblical word for "praise". A more common root in Hebrew is שבח - we find this verb in the Tanach as well as throughout our prayers. In the Bible we find that שבח has two meanings - "to praise, glorify" and "to still, calm, soothe". Ben Yehuda presents two possibilities.

One is that the two meanings are not related - a proof of this is that the Arabic cognates for each of the meanings are spelled differently (with the letter chet appearing as the Arabic ḥ in "to praise" and as the Arabic ḫ in "to calm".) This is the view of Klein and Kaddari.

The other view that Ben-Yehuda offers is that the original meaning is "to calm (God)" which is done by praising Him. He writes that we can see this from the words nachat (ruach) נחת רוח- which means "gratification, pleasure", but derives from "quietness, rest". The sacrifices to God are described as reyach nichoach ריח ניחוח - "sweet odor", again deriving from נוח - "to rest".

In post-Biblical Hebrew the root שבח also means "to improve, raise in value". We also find the noun שבח for the first time in Rabbinic Hebrew. Ben Yehuda writes that the early vowelization was with a schva - שְׁבָח. This is how Kehati, for example, vowelizes the Mishna in Ketubot 8:5.

But the later siddurim have the word with a segol -שֶׁבַח shevach. Ben Yehuda does not offer a reason for this change, but I wonder if perhaps it was to distinguish the word for praise from its opposite in Yiddish - shvach (from the German shwach, meaning "weak".)