Thursday, September 27, 2007

stav and horef

Sukkot marks the change of seasons in Israel. In the past, we've discussed kayitz קיץ - "summer" and aviv אביב - "spring". Let's take a look now at the words stav סתיו and horef חורף.

Just as the names of the other two seasons had agricultural origins (kayitz - cutting down of figs, aviv - shooting forth of barley), so too do the names of the other two seasons. However, here, Modern Hebrew seems to have mixed up the order.

While today stav means "autumn", originally it referred to "winter, the rainy season". It appears once in the Tanach - Shir HaShirim 2:11. The surrounding verses are discussing the beauty of the spring, and our verse says that it is a nice time to walk, for "the stav is past, the rain is gone":
כִּי-הִנֵּה הַסְּתָו, עָבָר; הַגֶּשֶׁם, חָלַף הָלַךְ לוֹ

Stav continues to mean rainy season in Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic as well, and Onkelos translates horef as stav in Bereshit 8:22.

On the other hand, it seems that horef (or choref) originally meant "harvest time, autumn" - and not today's "winter". Klein provides the following etymology:

Related to Arabic harafa (= he gathered fruit, plucked), harif (= freshly gathered fruit, autumn, fall)
Stahl points out that Arabic still has the original meaning (harif for autumn, shita for winter.)

How did the terms get mixed up in Modern Hebrew? I'm not sure. Perhaps stav fell out of general use, and then horef took up all the time between summer and spring. When a word was needed for "autumn", stav was available. But whoever made that decision, didn't really read Shir HaShirim....

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Last year we discussed the origin of etrog. But I've recently found out that not only was the etrog used for a mitzva on Sukkot, but also had medicinal value as well.

In the gemara on Shabbat 109b, there is a discussion of antidotes if a person drinks uncovered water (where there is a concern that perhaps a snake would come overnight, drink some of the water, and inject its venom.) Rav Huna bar Yehuda suggests taking a sweet etrog, scooping out the inside, filling it with honey, and placing it on burning coals.

Interesting ancient medicine aside - why am I discussing this here? Because of the word for "sweet", describing the etrog: halita חליתא. The Aramaic adjectives חלא and חלי mean "sweet".

A certain relative of the Aramaic is the Arabic hilu, meaning sweet. From here we get the name of the sweet confection halva, which has entered into Hebrew, English, Turkish and many other languages.

Another related Arabic word that entered into Hebrew - this time slang - is אחלה achla, meaning "great, excellent", but originally meaning "sweet". (I used to think the phrase achla gever אחלה גבר - "a great guy", meant "(he's) the brother of a guy". I guess to figure out things like that I needed to buy the books, that got me to start the blog, so you all benefit.)

So far we've seen Aramaic and Arabic roots meaning "sweet". Are there any Hebrew words with the same etymology?

We discussed once before how there is a theory that the word challah חלה might get its name due to its sweetness. When I wrote that post, I quoted Stahl. I now see that he probably got the idea from Ben Yehuda, who mentions the theory, but notes that "challah is not specifically sweet."

Klein writes that the biblical words for jewelry: chali חלי (Mishlei 25:12, Shir HaShirim 7:2) and chelya חליה (Hoshea 2:15) - also derive from the root חלה meaning "sweet". This too appears in Ben Yehuda who says that חלה can also mean the related "pleasant", as well as "sweet".

Lastly, we have the verb חלה - meaning "to implore", often found in the expression חילה את פניו chila et panav. The midrashim (Devarim Rabba 3:15) identify this root with "sweetness", and scholars (Ben Yehuda, Kaddari) do as well. The idea here is that by imploring to a person, or praying to God, the anger is sweetened, and reduced.

However, Kaddari does say that there is another theory - that the anger is weakened, softened. It would therefore be connected to the root חלה meaning - "to be weak, to be sick".

But even here, perhaps there's a connection to sweetness. Jastrow says the root חלה means "to soften" - which can apply in a positive sense - "to sweeten", or in a negative sense - "to be sick".

So going back to the gemara quoted in the beginning, I wonder if there wasn't some play on words by having a healing etrog called "halita"...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

marek and marak

This year for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur I bought new machzorim, after using the same ones for the previous 15 years. One of the main reasons for the change was my desire for a machzor that marked shva na and shva nach. But I also just wanted to shake things up a bit. By using a new text, I was forced to pay more attention to what I was saying, which improved my prayer experience overall. I don't know if I can afford a new machzor every year, but once every 15 sounds reasonable...

One interesting change I noticed was in the end of the personal vidui. In my Rinat Yisrael machzor I had always read:

ומה שחטאתי לפניך מחק ברחמיך הרבים

"And what I have sinned before You, may you erase (mechok) with your abundant mercy"

But in my new machzor (Keter Melucha) it had:

מרק ברחמיך הרבים

"May you cleanse (marek) with your abundant mercy"

After perusing a number of machzorim, I found that some (Koren, Machzor Rabba) had mechok and some had marek (Artscroll, Ezor Eliyahu). So I went to the source of the prayer in the gemara, and Berachot 17a has marek. An alternate version appears in Yoma 87b - מרוק merok. But nowhere did mechok appear. (The Rambam actually has מחה.) I'm guessing that maybe it was originally a printing error - the resh and vav together were assumed to be a chet. But if anyone has any more information, I'd be interested in seeing it.

What does the root מרק mean? It means "to scour, to polish, to cleanse". Derivatives include the biblical tamruk תמרוק - "ointment, cosmetics", and in modern Hebrew merek מרק - "putty".

Now this got me thinking - and maybe it was just my hunger on the fast - was there any connection between marek and marak - "soup"?

Most of the sources I consulted did not connect them. The word marak appears only a few times in the Tanach - Shoftim 6:19-20 and Yeshayahu 65:4 (although some say the correct reading there should be פרק.) The meaning seems to be more gravy than soup (but it is easy to mistake the two.)

Based on this definition, the Radak (on Shoftim, as well as Sefer HaShorashim) does connect the terms. He says that the verb מרק means "to rinse, wash with water", and marak is "the water that the meat was cooked in, because that is where the rinsing (merika) of the meat takes place."

Ben Yehuda points out that the word marak as soup / gravy was not in use in Talmudic times. They preferred the synonym zom זום - which derives from the Greek zomos - also meaning broth (and the root of the word osmazome - "obsolete name given to meat extract regarded as the ‘pure essence of meat’" and originally deriving from Greek osma - "smelling" and zomos - "broth".)

It isn't clear from Ben Yehuda's dictionary whether he was the one who reintroduced marak as the word for soup, or if this happened earlier. In any case, the connection between marak and marek should lead to a nice siman for next year's Rosh Hashana for a creative reader ...

Friday, September 21, 2007


On Yom Kippur, one of the prohibitions is neilat hasandal נעילת הסנדל - wearing of a sandal. Clearly the word sandal has the same meaning in English and Hebrew - what is its origin?

Klein writes that the word entered Hebrew in the post-biblical period, and provides the following etymology:

Greek sandalion, diminutive of sandalon, a word from Asia Minor (whence also Persian sandal), originally meaning 'shoe of the Lydian god Sandal').

I couldn't find reference to the god Sandal (other than sources mentioning this etymology), but I did find mention of a Lydian god named Sandan (also Sandon / Sandes). Some information about him can be found here:


Hittite/Babylonian sun, storm, or warrior god, also perhaps associated with agriculture, who the Greeks equated with Herakles (Hercules) and who the Lydians believed their royal house descended from. Sardis (Sardes, Sardeis), the capital of Lydia, may have been named after Sandon. "In honour of Sandan-Heracles there was celebrated every year in Tarsus a funeral pyre festival, at the climax of which the image of the god was burned. The dying of nature under the withering heat of the summer sun and its resurrection to new life was the content of this mystery, which at once suggests its kinship with the cults of the Syrian Adonis, the Phrygian Attis, the Egyptian Osiris, and the Babylonian Tammuz."
The pyre of Sandan is featured on coins of Tarsus. Sandan is also associated on coinage with a lion.
As we've noted before, the city of Sardis is assumed to be the biblical Sefarad. So perhaps there is a connection between sandal and Sephardim as well...

The shape of the sandal gave its name to a number of other words. For example, we find a fish called a sandal (Tosefta Nida 4:7) which scholars believe is the same as the English "sole" - in both cases the etymology derives from the shape. (Maybe a good food before the fast?)

In modern Hebrew we find the word sandalit סנדלית - meaning paramecium, due to its resemblance to a sandal. I guess I can see that:Lastly, we find the slang verb סנדל, meaning "to lock someone in". While it can mean to lock someone in to anything, it originally meant to lock the wheels on an illegally parked car. In Hebrew this mechanism is called sandalei denver סנדלי דנוור. Rosenthal says the etymology is from the English "Denver sandals." But I'm guessing many readers of this site will already know that the real name in English is the "Denver Boot". I guess in Israel sandals are more common than boots...

Saturday, September 15, 2007

rubia and lubia

In the spirit of the season, I'll open with an apology: I'm sorry I didn't finish all of my simanim posts before Rosh Hashana. I hope I receive from you all selicha and mechila ...

Another one of the simanim is rubia רוביא. This is generally identified as fenugreek (although Jastrow also offers flax seed.) I could not find an etymology for this word, but a number of sources say that fenugreek was known from ancient times to increase milk production in nursing mothers. So perhaps the connection between rubia and רבה - "to increase" is not just a pun.

However, many people (including my family) eat black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashana for this siman. Where did this custom originate?

This source says it is of Sefardic origin:

The custom among the Sefardic Jews of Egypt for the food "Rubia" was black-eyed peas because the Arabic term for the word was "Lubia," pronounce liked "Rubia."

The term is still used in Arabic. Stahl, in his Arabic etymological dictionary, quotes Karl Lokotsch as saying that the word lubia entered Arabic via Aramaic, where it was originally borrowed from the Greek lobos. Lobos meant "pod" in Greek, and is the source of the English word "lobe".

However, there is another opinion as to the origin of the word lubia. Rav Nissim Gaon (990-1062) on Shabbat 90b writes that the Egyptian bean is known as "el-lubia" in Arabic, and it is "a small bean with black in the middle". He then goes on to quote the Yerushalmi (Kilaim, chapter 8):

Rabbi Yonah of Bostra said, from what we see that they call a green Egyptian bean Libyan (lubi לובי), but a dry one Egyptian ... it means that Libya (luv לוב) is identical with Egypt.
So from this source it would seem that the name lubia derives from the location Luv - Libya. There is a nation called Luvim who appear a number of times in the Tanach (Nachum 3:9, Divrei Hayamim II 12:3). There are those, such as Josephus, who identify the Lehavim in Bereshit 10:13 with the Luvim. The Daat Mikra rejects this approach saying that Luv was spelled with a vav, not a heh. However, Cassuto feels that this substitution is not unusual.

In any case, the Luvim (and the Lehavim) lived west of Egypt, but were associated with them. Modern day Libya, also to the west of modern day Egypt, has a name related to Luv (the modern Hebrew name for Libya). However, since a form of the name was found in Ancient Egyptian, Phoenician and Greek as well, it is hard to pinpoint the origin.

Both theories as to the origin of lubia seems logical, but I don't see any way they can both be correct. Perhaps by next Rosh Hashana I'll have a more definitive answer...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


My friend, the blogger and bee-keeper Treppenwitz berated thanked me (and others) for sending him a link discussing the discovery of beehives showing a beekeeping industry going back to First Temple times.

Well, to show him that he's not the only one discussing the issue, I'll take it on - but from a linguistic standpoint. (The fact that I was planning on discussing the word anyway, in my series on the simanim, is pure coincidence...)

This article discussing the discovery has this quote about the Hebrew word d'vash דבש:

While the term "honey" (dvash in Hebrew) appears 55 times in the Bible, it refers to date or fig honey in all but two references: Judges 14:8-9, when Samson took honey from the lion's carcass, and I Samuel 14:27, when Jonathan dipped his rod in a honeycomb during a battle and his countenance brightened.
Sarna has a similar note in his commentary on Shmot 3:8 -

Honey in the Bible (Heb. devash) is predominantly the thick, sweet syrup produced from dates and known to the Arabs as dibs. Apiculture seems to have been unknown in Palestine; the few explicit references in the Bible to bees' honey pertain to the wild variety. While the date itself is never mentioned, the inclusion of honey among the seven characteristic products of the land listed in Deuteronomy 8:8 indicates that, like all the others, it too derives from the soil.
I happened to take out a book from the local library that discusses this issue in detail: Fruit Trees in the Bible and Talmudic Literature, by Yehuda Feliks (Rubin Mass, 1994). The chapter on dvash is in Hebrew, and I can't quote the entire thing here, but I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. I will summarize a few points he brings up:

  • The phrase ארץ זבת חלב ודבש ("land flowing with milk and honey") in the Torah is clearly referring to honey from fruit trees, as it is praising the agricultural bounty of the land.
  • However, in Yeshayahu 7:22, when it mentions כי חמאה ודבש יאכל כל הנותר בקרב הארץ "Everyone who is left in the land shall feed on curds and honey", it is a parody of the Torah verses. For here, the prophet is describing a time when the land is desolate - and therefore the bees can proliferate. (The milk for the curds will also be widely available, because the cows and sheep will be able to graze on the previously tended croplands).
  • Bee honey is not seen as a sign of blessing for the land, even though it is seen as fortunate to find it (as in the story of Yonatan mentioned above). Yaakov also probably sent bee honey to Yosef (Bereshit 43:11), because it mentions מעט דבש - "a small amount of honey", and bee honey would have been hard to obtain.
  • Many sources where the honey is mentioned as coming from rocks (Devarim 32:13, Tehilim 81:17) it is likely referring to fig honey, as figs (unlike dates) grow in rocky terrain.
  • Although the rabbis generally identify the biblical dvash with dates (Sifrei Devarim 297, Mechilta D'Rashbi 13:5), when they used the word dvash themselves, they were referring to bee honey. For example, the Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 1:3) interprets the biblical word: "And dvash - this is dates. Could it be actual dvash (e.g. bee honey)?" They answer that since the dvash in the verse is obligated in tithes, it cannot be referring to bee honey, but rather date honey. We also see that if someone makes an oath that they will not eat dvash, they are allowed to eat date honey (Nedarim 6:9)
While the article was written before the recent discovery (and sadly Prof. Feliks passed away last year, and did not merit to review it), I don't think the discovery radically challenges anything in the article. Certainly bee honey was considered a rare treat, and there would have been efforts to make the product more widely available. And by Talmudic times, these efforts had succeeded so well, that bee honey became the dominant meaning of "dvash".

But the meaning of eretz zavat chalav u'dvash still refers to the agriculture of the Land of Israel, particularly, as Feliks points out, in comparison to that of Egypt, whose dates were much dryer and did not easily produce honey.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Another one of the simanim is silka - סלקא. I had always assumed that silka meant beets, as in the Modern Hebrew word for beet - selek סלק.

So I was surprised to see that there are those that identify the silka with spinach. For example here:

Spinach is called Silka in Aramaic. Beets are called "Selek" in Hebrew, so either (or both) are fine.

Where did this understanding come from? One explanation about the Sefardim, as mentioned here, is that:

Their custom for the food "Silka" was cooked spinach, because the Arabic term for the word was "Salk."
In fact, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu (the former Sefardi Chief Rabbi) here says not only is spinach preferable, but that the use of beet is more recent!

Stahl confirms that salk means both spinach and beets in Arabic. A Google comparison between "salk + spinach + arabic" (16,300 hits) and "salk + beet + arabic" (9,790 hits) shows an advantage to spinach. But it turns out that the Portugese word for beet - acelga - comes from the Arabic salk.

However, I have another theory for the identification of silka with spinach.

The gemara (Brachot 38b) mentions מיא דסלקא maya d'silka. Rashi explains this term as "water in which was cooked teradin." And in Eruvin 28b, raw teradin are equated with raw silka. What are these teradin תרדין? Every authoritative source I could find says that the tered mentioned here is beet (Rambam on Kilaim 1:3 [according to Kapach], Jastrow, Ben-Yehuda, Klein, Melamed).

However, in Modern Hebrew, tered means spinach! How this happened is not clear - perhaps due to the similarly looking leaves. Ben-Yehuda already complained about it. (He suggested a new word for spinach - kotzit קוצית - but like some other of his suggestions, it was not adopted.) So if someone was to read the talmudic passages above, they would likely believe that silka was spinach as well. (That is apparently the basis for this halachic question.)

What about the etymology of silka? Klein says that the etymology is unknown, but Jastrow has a reasonable explanation. He says it comes from סלק ( also שלק) which means "to boil down". Therefore silka originally meant a "well-boiled vegetable." (We've seen Jastrow's approach before - in regards to lefet - where the way a vegetable was prepared or eaten eventually gave the food its name.)

In regards to the prayer associated with silka, we say שיסתלקו אויבינו - "may our enemies depart, be removed". However, the verb סלק originally meant "to go up, ascend", and is related to the root נסק (from where we get masok מסוק - helicopter). To "ascend" seems perhaps too complimentary for our enemies. So if we call the beets tered instead of silka (or actually eat spinach, like the Sefardim), then our association can be with the root ירד (to descend) - perhaps "שתרד קבוצת אויבינו"...

Monday, September 03, 2007


What holiday tradition could be more fun for fans of Balashon than that of the puns we recite about food on the first night of Rosh HaShana? What a great way to start the New Year! Over the next few days before the holiday, I'll try to write a bit about these "simanim".

We already discussed tapuach - apple (plus it's not really a pun), so let's go to the next word: כרתי karti - "leek". Klein writes that it is "a secondary form of כרשה". Kreisha is the proper Hebrew word for leek today, although we do also see the word luf, as we saw here. However, in the Mishna (Shviit 7:1), we find both wild luf and kreisha - so they were then known to be different species.

Karti is also used as a color - "leek green", which is used to describe the sky (Berachot 1:2) and an etrog (Sukka 3:6). This identification was used by the Greeks as well - they called the Indian Ocean the "Leek-Green Sea".

The biblical word for leek was chatzir חציר - see Bamidbar 11:5. However, chatzir in the Tanach primarily means "hay, grass", and that is its meaning today, so don't ask for chatzir in the supermarket if you're looking for leeks.

On the other hand, don't make the same mistake I did many years ago, and say karish כריש - instead of kreisha. Most supermarkets in Israel probably don't carry shark. It's not kosher (and not related to kreisha etymologically either)...