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"...

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