Sunday, December 30, 2007


The first initial in the acrostic PaRDeS is peshat (or pshat) - פשט. The definition of peshat is - "the plain, simple meaning". Of course, what defines the peshat of a text or a subject is debatable. Nechama Leibowitz is quoted here as saying: ""If I say it, it's peshat. If you say it, it's derash."

The word peshat comes from the root פשט, for which Klein gives a number of meanings: "to spread, to strip off; to make a dash, make a raid; to stretch out; to make plain, explain." The verb להתפשט therefore means "to undress". From this root we get the adjective pashut פשוט. Rut Almagor-Ramon explains here that pashut originally meant "straight" as in a shofar pashut שופר פשוט - a "straight shofar". She explains that only in the Middle Ages did the word take on its more popular meaning today - "simple".

The Arabic cognate to פשט is basat. From here we get two familiar expressions in Hebrew slang:

a) basta - A market stand. Stahl writes that the original meaning was produce "spread out" on display for purchase. We also have the expression sagar et habasta - סגר את הבאסטה, which literally means "to close the stand" but has the sense of "to end a continuous activity".

b) mabsut - satisfied, pleased. Stahl writes that when a person is happy his "heart expands". In English we also see a connection between relaxed and happy.

Friday, December 28, 2007

pardes and paradise

I'm trying to get back in to writing again. After spending several weeks indexing my sources, I thought I was ready to go. But it turned out that my home computer wasn't working well (talk about the shoemaker's child going barefoot!). So I was delayed again.

Well, I think I'm past those issues now - mostly I have to get into the routine of regular writing. Usually a good way for me to do that is to start a series of related posts. I came up with the idea of discussing the words in the mnemonic פרד"ס PaRDeS: פשט peshat, רמז remez, דרש derash, סוד sod. Of course it made sense to discuss the word pardes פרדס itself, and its connection to the English word "paradise".

So I checked my newly-created index, and lo and behold - everyone and his uncle has something to say about pardes and paradise. I'm not quite sure how to start, so I guess I'll just quote a source, and then add on additional sources that have something new.

Here's Klein's entry for pardes (the first definition is the biblical one):

1. park, orchard.
2. (Post Biblical Hebrew) esoteric philosophy
3. (New Hebrew) orange grove

From Avestic, of Old Persian origin. Compare Avestic pairidaeza (= enclosure), which is compounded of pairi (=around) and daeza (=wall). The first element is cognate with Greek peri (=around, about). The second element is cognate with Greek teichos ( = wall). Greek paradeisos (= park, the garden of Eden, paradise), whence the Latin paradisus, is also of Old Persian origin. Aramaic פרדס, פרדסא is borrowed from Hebrew.
The Online Etymology Dictionary definition is similar:

c.1175, "Garden of Eden," from O.Fr. paradis, from L.L. paradisus, from Gk. paradeisos "park, paradise, Garden of Eden," from an Iranian source, cf. Avestan pairidaeza "enclosure, park" (Mod. Pers. and Arabic firdaus "garden, paradise"), compound of pairi- "around" + diz "to make, form (a wall)." The first element is cognate with Gk. peri- "around, about" (see peri-), the second is from PIE base *dheigh- "to form, build" (see dough). The Gk. word, originally used for an orchard or hunting park in Persia, was used in Septuagint to mean "Garden of Eden," and in New Testament translations of Luke xxiii.43 to mean "heaven" (a sense attested in Eng. from c.1205). Meaning "place like or compared to Paradise" is from c.1300.
The American Heritage Dictionary explains how the Persian term entered Greek:

The history of paradise is an extreme example of amelioration, the process by which a word comes to refer to something better than what it used to refer to. ... Zoroastrian religion encouraged maintaining arbors, orchards, and gardens, and even the kings of austere Sparta were edified by seeing the Great King of Persia planting and maintaining his own trees in his own garden. Xenophon, a Greek mercenary soldier who spent some time in the Persian army and later wrote histories, recorded the pairidaeza- surrounding the orchard as paradeisos, using it not to refer to the wall itself but to the huge parks that Persian nobles loved to build and hunt in. This Greek word was used in the Septuagint translation of Genesis to refer to the Garden of Eden, whence Old English eventually borrowed it around 1200.
The Encyclopedia Mikrait lists pardes as one of the Persian words that entered into Biblical Hebrew. It appears three times in the Tanach: Shir HaShirim 4:13, Kohelet 2:5, and Nechemiah 2:8. In these cases it has the general meaning of "orchard", compared to the specific sense in Greek of fenced off areas belonging to the king.

Kutscher points out that most of the Persian words that entered Hebrew at that time were related to governance, and therefore pardes probably originally was borrowed from the word referring to the parks or gardens of the king.

On the other hand, Ben Yehuda mentions that the word pardesu was borrowed from Persian to Late Babylonian (Kaddari also mentions Akkadian), and perhaps from here pardes entered Biblical Hebrew.

In History of Paradise: THE GARDEN OF EDEN IN MYTH AND TRADITION Jean Delumeau writes that:
Then the Septuagint used paradeisos to translate both pardes and the more classic Hebrew word for garden, gan.
So if Xenophon lived from 431 - 355 BCE, the word had certainly entered Greek rather strongly, since it was used in the Greek translation of the Bible only a few centuries later, and not only for the similar sounding "pardes".

Steinberg's entry for pardes mentions that it was used to translate the word אשל (Bereshit 21:33) into Aramaic in the Targum Yerushalmi, as described in Sotah 10a. The meaning there is "an orchard with many types of fruits." Steinsaltz there writes that the word developed from specifically a pomegranate orchard (see Ibn Ezra on Kohelet 2:5, where he says that a gan has many types of trees, and a pardes has only one type), to an orchard of many types of trees (Vayikra Rabba 13), and finally an orchard where people would go to relax and play in. This last sense would seem to be the esoteric one that Klein mentioned above, as in the famous Talmudic statement "Four entered pardes" (Chagiga 14b.)

However, the Jewish Encylopedia has a slightly different understanding of pardes in that context:

The word pardes is used metaphorically for the veil surrounding the mystic philosophy (Hag. 14b), but not as a synonym for the Garden of Eden or paradise to identify a blissful heavenly abode for the righteous after death. The popular conception of paradise is expressed by the term "Gan 'Eden," in contradistinction to "Gehinnom" = "hell."
In any case, I stay far away from the Artscrollian theory mentioned here (although read the very interesting comments as well - no mention of Xenophon's early use however) that pardes was originally a Hebrew word...

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Before I switched to a small Jewish day school, I attended a very large, fairly prestigious public high school. I've written elsewhere how it was at this school I stopped studying Japanese, and began studying Hebrew. That was certainly the benefit of a large school - they offered many foreign languages for study.

In addition to languages, there were also an impressive amount of "clubs". Students could participate in after-school groups ranging from "Pre-Med" to "Model Airplane" to "Bowling". Looking at the current list, it's interesting to see how interests have changed in the past 20 years. For example, when I went to school there, they had an "Israeli Culture Club". Today they have "Schmooze For Jews".

One of the clubs that I still remember reading about, but never really understood what it was about was "Agape". The yearbook entry states:

Agape in Greek, means unconditional love. Members share in this unconditional love at each meeting. During the course of the year, members sing, have group discussions and hear from different special speakers.

I only found out recently that agape (pronounced ah-GAH-peh) is a Christian term (and the club was indeed a Christian club). I just finished reading a fascinating book - highly recommended to readers of this site - Empires of the Word - A Language History of the World, by Nicholas Oster. On page 270, he writes in the footnote:

It has been suggested that the favourite choice of the Christian word for 'love', agape, is influenced by Hebrew aheb, 'love' (which happens to have much stronger sexual overtones than the Greek), and Greek skene, 'tent', by Hebrew seken, 'dwelling' (Moule 1959:186)
I tracked down Moule's book, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, and he has a list of:

Greek words whose use, or at least frequency, may have been suggested by a certain (perhaps fortuitous) similarity of sound or spelling to certain Semitic words.
So while the use of the word agape may have been influenced by Hebrew, please don't make the mistake (that I did when I first read the footnote) of thinking that agape actually derives from the Hebrew אהב.

While agape is generally used in a Christian context, the word helps us understand a difficult Talmudic phrase (found on Menachot 44a). The columnist Philologos quotes (his uncle?) Rabbi Saul Lieberman:

There is a Talmudic legend about a pious Jew who, hearing of a famous courtesan in Italy who charged the astronomical sum of 400 gold coins to spend a night with her, could not control his curiosity and traveled to her with the money to find out what she charged so much for. Yet his religious inhibitions got the better of him and at the crucial moment he was impotent — which made the courtesan, no less curious herself, react by saying, “By the limb of Rome [gapa shel Romi, in Hebrew], I will not let you go until you tell me what is wrong with me.”
What is “the limb of Rome”? Lieberman convincingly shows that the Hebrew word gapa, “limb of,” is actually a later corruption by scribes who no longer understood Greek of the Greek word agape, “love,” and that in the original story, as told and understood by Jews in Palestine, the courtesan swore by “the love of Rome.”
In Lieberman's book (Greek And Hellenism In Jewish Palestine), he explains what "the love of Rome" meant:

It seems quite certain to me that גפה דרומי really means agape of Rome, but refers not to some obscure love of Rome, but to the famous goddess - Isis, who was called Agape.
Lieberman than shows how the one other Talmudic mention of גפא דרומא (Pesachim 87b) also likely refers to an oath to the goddess Isis.

So we have a Greek word that is used by Christians via Jewish influence, and was used by idolatrous Romans as quoted in the Jewish Talmud. How can you not love this - unconditionally?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

chalifa and california

In this week's parasha, Yosef gives to his brothers clothing - chalifot smalot - (Bereshit 45:22):

לְכֻלָּם נָתַן לָאִישׁ, חֲלִפוֹת שְׂמָלֹת

While in Modern Hebrew a chalifa is a suit of clothes, clearly there is a connection here to the root חלף meaning "to pass, to change", and particularly the hifil form of the verb - החליף - "to exchange, replace." We see this from the previous parasha (41:14), where Yosef has his clothes changed: וַיְחַלֵּף שִׂמְלֹתָיו. On this basis, the JPS translates chalifot smalot as "a change of clothing." This seems to capture the sense of the term better than Kaplan's "outfit of clothes." Therefore I'm not sure I understand Kil's note in Daat Mikra that "there is an opinion" (whose?) that chalifot and smalot are synonymous, but chalifot is Assyrian and smalot is Lashon Torah (Hebrew?).

Ibn Ezra suggest that the word chalifot means that each outfit was different than the other - which also explains why the word is in plural. Chizkuni says that the word means clothes that are changed occasionally. In any case, a connection between "change" and "clothes" is not unique to Hebrew. Klein points out Arabic badlah (=suit of clothes) and badala (=he exchanged). Kaddari mentions the Italian mutande, meaning "pants" which I'm sure is related to the Latin mutare, meaining "to change". If I'm not mistaken, the Latin phrase mutatis mutandis (literally "with those things having been changed which need to be changed") is used as a translation of the Hebrew phrase lehavdil להבדיל.

Another meaning of chalifa in the Bible is "replacement, successor". This is Kaddari's explanation of Melachim I 5:28:
וַיִּשְׁלָחֵם לְבָנוֹנָה, עֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים בַּחֹדֶשׁ חֲלִיפוֹת - "He sent them to Levanon in (alternating) shifts - chalifot - of 10,000 a month"
and Iyov 14:14:
כָּל-יְמֵי צְבָאִי אֲיַחֵל-- עַד-בּוֹא, חֲלִיפָתִי. - "All the time of my military service I wait / Until my replacement - chalifati - comes".

This sense of the word has entered Arabic as well. The Arabic word caliph - a leader of an Islamic state - is related to the Hebrew חלף, and has the following etymology:

1393, from Arabic khalifa "successor," originally Abu-Bakr, who succeeded Muhammad in the role of leader of the faithful after the prophet's death. Caliphate, "dominion of a caliph" is from 1614.
But if you read the title of this post, you may be wondering how this all connects to California. Well, it turns out that the name California predates the discovery of the Golden State by centuries. While there are a number of different theories as to the origin of the name California, this one seems very convincing:

California first appeared in a popular romance of chivalry called Las Sergas de Esplandián ('The Adventures of Esplandian'), written by Garcí Ordóñez de Montalvo around 1510. In this story there is a fabulous island, peopled by black Amazons and rich in gold and precious stones. The island is ruled over by a queen named Calafia and is called California. It is located "on the right hand of the Indies...very near to the region of the Terrestrial Paradise."

When the Spanish reached the tip of what is now Baja California in 1532, they thought it was an island and called it California after the fantastic island of riches in Montalvo's tale. The belief that California was an island persisted long after later expeditions explored the coastline to the north. A 1719 atlas prepared for George II still showed it separated from the mainland.

Montalvo probably made up the name California although the name Califerne appears in the mid-11th century French Song of Roland where Charlemagne laments:

Against me then the Saxon will rebel,
Hungar, Bulgar, and many hostile men,
Romain, Pullain, all those are in Palerne,
And in Affrike, and those in Califerne.

Since the Roland poem concerns the "evil" Saracens, it's possible that the poet derived "Califerne" from 'caliph'. Montalvo might also have been influenced by such similar names as Californo and Calafornina in Sicily or Calahorra in Spain.
So it is certainly possible that the name California is related to the Hebrew verb חלף. Perhaps this is not so surprising, considering that California is the home of the passing and changing fad...

Friday, December 07, 2007

avuka and ptil

It's clear by now that my indexing is taking much longer than I originally expected. And there have been a number of "distractions" that have come up during this time period. But I have received a few requests to continue to write even before the index is done. So just so you know that I continue to pay my electric bill (and that I'm still alive), I'll make sure to put up a regular post (although less frequently than before.)

Although I've spent most of my time indexing books and websites that I've used in the past, I have come across some new material. Well, new to me anyway. An amazing book that I picked up a couple of weeks ago is Yad Halashon (1964) by Yitzhak Avinery, the linguist also well known as the author of Heichal Rashi. This 600+ page book has hundreds of articles that Avinery wrote over a course of decades. The English subtitle calls it a "lexicon of linguistic problems in the Hebrew language." I'm sure I'll refer to it regularly, as it provides an important bridge between the Ben Yehuda's dictionary and innovations and the modern Hebrew I speak in 2007. There are not a few entries about words that I've already written about - but it will probably take even longer for me to go back and review them.

Anyway, on to today's post. In a 1949 article, Avinery makes a connection between two words: avukah אבוקה - "torch" and ptil פתיל - "wick, cord" (also ptila פתילה). The etymology of ptil is well known. It derives from the root פתל - "to twist, twine". It also means "to wrestle", and from here we get the origin of the name Naftali (see Bereshit 30:8).

The origin of avuka is less clear. Klein says the origin is unclear. He is probably following Ben Yehuda, who writes that "the origin of the word is not clear, but perhaps it is a shortened form of אבהוקה avhuka, from the root בהק - "to shine, glow".

However, there is an earlier etymology for avuka, as presented by the Ramban in his commentary to Bereshit 32:25 In this verse we find the root אבק as a verb:
וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר

"Yaakov was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn".

It is clear that the word ויאבק means "he wrestled", but what is the etymology? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in Chullin 91a provides two different theories:

וריב"ל אמר אמר קרא (בראשית לב) בהאבקו עמו כאדם שחובק את חבירו
"Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: The Torah writes (Bereshit 32:26) 'as he wrestled בהאבקו with him' - as a person embraces - chovek חובק - his friend".

אמר ר' יהושע ב"ל מלמד שהעלו אבק מרגלותם עד כסא הכבוד
"Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: this teaches us that the dust - avak אבק - of their feet went up to the Divine Throne."

Each of these explanations finds expression in the views of the Rishonim. Rashi quotes Menachem as saying that the verb אבק meant "he was covered in dust", because they were kicking up dirt while they were moving. This is in line with the second opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, and is the view of Ibn Ezra and Radak.

Rashi brings a second opinion, saying that the word אבק is of Aramaic origin, and means "he attached himself." Heb brings a few Talmudic quotes where אבק means "attached", and then says that it is the way of two who struggle, for one person to throw the other down, then he grasps him - אובקו - and entwines him - חובקו -in his arms."

By connecting the roots אבק and חבק, Rashi here seems to be following the first opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.

The Ramban continues in this vein, and points out that alef and chet often interchange, and brings a number of examples. And getting back to the topic of this post, the Ramban writes that the word avuka meant "a bundle of sticks bound together". And here we see the similarity between ptil / ptila and avuka - both may originate from the idea of string or wood bound or twisted together.

Why did Avinery mention all this? Because he noticed that when people were talking about twisting someone's arm, they would say הוא מסובב את היד. But he points out that the root סובב means "to surround" - not "to twist". So he recommends using the verb ovek אובק - and here he is inspired by none other than Rashi, the subject of his major work. For it seems that Rashi coined the kal form of the verb אבק in his commentary we read above. (In Heichal Rashi, Avinery has a list of Hebrew words coined by Rashi.)

So while it would have made a nice Chanukah post to end with a discussion of wicks and torches, I can't leave out an interesting note about the word avak meaning "dust". Klein provides the following etymology:

Together with Aramaic-Syrian אבקא (= dust), probably derived from [the verb] אבק [related to the Arabic abaqa (= he ran away)] and literally meaning 'that which flees or flies.' ... Greek abax, genitive abakos (= a square tablet strewn with dust for drawing geometrical diagrams; reckoning board) is a Hebrew loan word.
So the word abacus may very well come from Hebrew. (See this Philologos article for a theory of how the word entered Greek from Hebrew.)

So maybe we can still connect all this to Chanukah after all. Two concepts which seem very much Greek - wrestling and abacus - both have a strong Hebrew background. Just to show that the relationship between the Jews and the Greeks wasn't always black and white, lightness and darkness...

Friday, November 16, 2007


Almost back to regular posting, but I came across something that I had to ask the readers here about.

There is a type of long grain rice called "basmati". All the etymologies I have seen say that basmati in Hindi means "fragrant". I immediately had an association with the Hebrew words bosem בוסם - "perfume", and besamim בשמים - "spices". (I wrote about those two words previously here.)

Now I know that the Hindi language was influenced by Muslim rule in India, and many Arabic and Persian words entered the language. However, I cannot find any source that says that basmati was one of those words. It does seem like more than just a coincidence.

Can anyone prove - or disprove - my conjecture?

Sunday, November 04, 2007


As I wrote earlier, I've been spending my blogging time on trying to index my various sources, to make it easier to find places where a particular word or root is being discussed. It's taking a little longer than I thought, but I'm already seeing benefits. I've found a number of interesting words, and already have a new series lined up for when I get back to writing "full time".

However, despite my late night efforts at note taking, all is not "not fun and games". I have been playing Scrabulous, a form of online Scrabble, on Facebook (anyone interested in finding me can click here.)

Well, English Scrabble is fun and all, but this week my wife picked up the Hebrew version of the board game Scrabble. (Check out her blog post to see an amusing typo...)

I played the first time this morning with two of my kids. Before I started, I figured it would be very easy - it seemed like you can do more with Hebrew letters than English ones. But it was actually pretty challenging. First of all, there are a number of caveats about word forming:

  • The letters ב, כ, ל , מ can not be used as prefixes, unless the word as such appears in the dictionary (e.g. בהחלט, מפני)
  • The letter ה can not be used as a definitive article in the beginning of a word
  • You can't add an object at the end of a word (e.g. יאכלוהו - "they will eat it")
  • You can't use a word that is part of a pair of words, when it doesn't have any meaning alone (e.g. שמיכת, which is part of שמיכת חורף)
And while they don't mention it in the rules, I'm guessing you can't add the letter vav to the beginning of a word.

Also interesting was the point value for each letter (as marked inside each tile):

I wouldn't have guessed that kaf or bet would have such high values.

It was a fun game, and I got to teach the kids some new words. One of them I will share with you now. I put down the following word:

מ ר צ ד ת

When they asked what it meant, I hearkened back to my days in tech support at a government ministry, when people would call to complain about a מסך מרצד masach meratzed. They were talking about the computer monitor flickering (which could be usually resolved by adjusting the refresh rate.)

However, the dictionaries I consulted did not have that definition, but rather said that the root רצד meant "to dance". This is the popular translation of the word in Tehilim 68:17, but some also offer "ambush".

And this is what Klein writes for his entry on רצד:

Some lexicographers see in it a secondary form of רקד [dance], others connect it with Jewish Palestinian Aramaic רצד, Arabic rasada (=he watched with hostility).
In any case, I have no time left for dancing, or even for Scrabble. Back to the indexing...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kri and Ktiv - Game #6

Over the next several days, I'm going to be using my allocated "Balashon" time to better organize my sources. This should hopefully result in more interesting and robust posts.

In the meantime, I'm bumping this Kri and Ktiv game, since I never got any guesses...

So give it a shot!
a) just as bad
b) Yaakov hit it

A belated congratulations to Omer for his solution of Game #5. He even put his own difficult challenge in the comments!

Monday, October 22, 2007


When I first lived in Israel in the early 1990s, it wasn't that easy to make an international phone call. You had to often speak to an operator, and then you would get put on hold, with a recording in a number of different languages - Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Amharic and English (if I remember correctly). The only word that I remember from the recording was the Arabic word for "thank you" - shukran.

Now, all these years later, I started wondering - does shukran have a Hebrew cognate? Indeed it does. Stahl writes that shukran is related to the Hebrew word שכר sachar, meaning wages or reward. The verb שכר means "to hire, rent", and Klein also shows the connection to Arabic:

Phoenician שכר (=to hire), Ugaritic shkr (= to let out on hire, let), Arabic shakara (he rewarded, thanked), Ethiopian shekar ( = hired)
The name of the singer Shakira is also related, as it comes from the Arabic meaning grateful or thankful.

Continuing with the etymology of שכר, Ben Yehuda suggests that perhaps it was originally the shafel form of the Aramaic אגר or the Hebrew כרה. The root אגר means "to hire", and is familiar to us from the Mishnaic phrase לפום צערא אגרא - "according to the suffering is the reward." According to Klein, this is the root of the word אגרה agra - the fee for government services in Israel, and may also be the source of the word אגורה agora - a coin, now meaning one hundredth of a shekel.

The root כרה means "to buy, trade", and is related to the Arabic kara - "he let for hire".

One more root that may be connected is חכר, meaning "to lease". Klein writes that it is probably related to שכר.

Knowing that shukran is related to שכר may help me (and others) with a common mixup that English speakers have when speaking Hebrew. In English, "rent" is one of those rare verbs that can be used in more than one direction - he rented the apartment to a tenant, he rented the car from the company. In Hebrew however, the verbs are clearly different לשכור is to "rent from", whereas להשכיר is to "rent to". Knowing that shukran meant to give thanks - i.e. to give reward - makes it easier for me to remember that the verb לשכור means to give reward, to give payment.

I can think of one other English verb that has this same phenomenon - "to nurse". A mother nurses a child, a child nurses from a mother. And again in Hebrew, there are two different verbs - ינק and הניקה. And here too, I've heard English speakers get them mixed up when speaking Hebrew. Can anyone think of other examples? Shukran in advance...

Friday, October 19, 2007


I recently received a great gift (thanks!) - the unabridged Even-Shoshan dictionary, which includes etymologies. Flipping through it, I found something interesting.

I noticed the entry for pargit פרגית - meaning "young / spring chicken", also rendered poussin, pullet or Cornish game hen. (In Israeli restaurants, it means dark meat from the thigh of the chicken - particularly boneless chunks.) It said it likely comes from the Greek pterix (pterygos) meaning wing. When I saw that, the first word that came into my head was "pterodactyl", the extinct flying reptile. An interesting association, as long as it's etymological, not culinary!

My instinct about the etymology of pterodactyl turned out to be right:

from Fr. ptérodactyle (1821), from the Mod.L. genus name, from Gk. pteron "wing" (from PIE base *pet- "fly;") + daktylos "finger"
There are a number of other words containing derivatives of pteron, including helicopter:

From Gk. helix (gen. helikos) "spiral" + pteron "wing"
The word pargit appears in Berachot 39a, where Rashi translates it as perdriz - the Old French word for partridge, and in fact, the source for the English word partridge as well.

It also is found in Tosefta Bava Metzia 6:5, parallel to the word efroach אפרוח meaning "chick". I haven't been able to find any difference between the two terms - perhaps it's an issue of age.

Jastrow tries to connect the two words, by saying that pargit derives from the verb פרג, meaning "to break through, sprout". The root פרח has the same meaning, from where he derives efroach. I assume here that Jastrow would include פרג and פרח together with a number of other roots beginning with פר that mean "to separate" or "to break out", such as פרץ, פרד, פרה, פרס and פרש.

However, first of all, it is not agreed by all that the somewhat obscure root פרג means "to sprout". Klein, for example, offers "worsened"; Ben Yehuda has "to be quite changed."

Secondly, as we've seen, Ben-Shoshan gave pargit a Greek etymology. He followed Ben-Yehuda, who disagreed with the majority of the researchers, including Loew, who said pargit had a Semitic origin.

Whether or not pargit and efroach are related, they both share an additional meaning - "a young woman". Pargit has the sense of an innocent, naive young woman.

On the other hand, the slang term frecha, is the Arabic cognate of efroach, also means a young woman, but with a different connotation. Haaretz gives this definition:

Mega-coutured female characterized by stiletto heels and language to match. Protective coloration provided by blinding if precision-executed patterns on nails of fingers and toes.
The slang term generally refers to Sefardic women, perhaps influenced by the North African Jewish name Frecha, which derives from the Arabic word farcha, meaning "joy".

English too has the term "chick" meaning "young woman", and in British slang "bird" as well. I wonder what causes these associations?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


You may have noticed an unusual word in my previous post. I quoted Yeshayahu 54:12 -

וּשְׁעָרַיִךְ לְאַבְנֵי אֶקְדָּח

and provided the JPS translation:

"Your gates of precious stones (avnei ekdach)"

But if you're familiar with modern Hebrew, you would know that ekdach means "pistol, revolver". So what's the connection?

First, let's look at the biblical word, which only appears in this verse. The exact identity of the stone is not know, and so the JPS offers "precious stones." However, Targum Yonatan translates it as avnei gmar - and we have seen before that gmar means "coal" in Aramaic. Following the Targum, Rashi explains the word to be carbuncle, and that is offered by many other translations. Carbuncle is an obsolete word meaning "red precious stone", and gets its name from the "Latin carbunculus, small glowing ember, carbuncle, diminutive of carbō, carbōn-, coal". (Interestingly, carbuncle also means an infection of the skin, as does anthrax, which is also the Greek word meaning "coal".)

Klein says ekdach has a similar etymology to carbuncle:

Literally probably meaning 'flashing or sparkling stone' and derived from קדח (= to kindle). Compare Arabic qaddahah (= fire steel, fire iron).

The root קדח also means "to bore, to drill", and Klein feels that the meaning "to kindle" originally meant "to make fire by rubbing".

As far as ekdach meaning "revolver", this was a coinage of Ben Yehuda. In his dictionary, he says it means a weapon which shoots (fires) using firepower, which he derived from the root קדח - "to kindle, to burn". Based on this, Klein translates Ben-Yehuda's intention as "firearm".

However, lets look at the article where Ben Yehuda made his original suggestion (an article in his newspaper Hatzvi, 1896. The original can be viewed here, page 3.) He discusses there possible Hebrew words for "firearm" and rejects the term used at the time k'nei roveh קנה רובה, which Klein translates as "bowman's barrel". He says it sounds terrible in Hebrew, and would be difficult to make a plural of, conjugate, etc. David Yellin suggested shortening the word to roveh רובה, but Ben-Yehuda rejected that as well, for roveh should be the shooter, not the gun. (In the end, Modern Hebrew did adopt roveh for "rifle".)

Then he points out that many European languages have a word for a gun "in which a flint fixed in the hammer produces a spark that ignites the charge" - a flintlock in English. He therefore goes back to the stone ekdach, which based on Arabic, he connects to "flint". He points out that even if the actual stone referred to in Yeshayahu is identified, the word isn't commonly used, so there shouldn't be a problem appropriating the old word for a new meaning.

So if you like, when you hear the word ekdach, you can think of The Flintstones...

Friday, October 12, 2007

open sesame and sisma

On the Hebrewts mailing list, the following question was asked:

Could there be any connection between the word "Sisma" (a password) and the phrase, "open sesame?"
Should the word "Sisma" be spelled with an Aleph or a Heh?
What language did the word Sisma come from?

Let's first look at the word sisma. Surprisingly, I could only find one reference to it in all pre-modern Hebrew literature. It appears in Midrash Shmuel, a relatively late midrash (perhaps compiled around 1050), in the following quote:

אלולי שעשו סיסמא ביניהון
"unless they had agreed upon certain signals between themselves" (Jastrow's translation, who feels that the word is a plural - "fixed signals")

The word appears here with an alef at the end. I don't know when the word began to be used again in Hebrew - Ben Yehuda makes no mention of it in his dictionary, most likely because he viewed it as being a foreign (Greek) word. Whoever did reintroduce this word in to Hebrew, besides having a real knack for finding obscure words, chose to spell it with a heh at the end: סיסמה, and that is the spelling you will find in current Hebrew dictionaries. In modern Hebrew it also carries the meaning of "slogan, motto", in addition to the older sense of "signal, password".

As far as the etymology, Klein writes the following:

Greek syssemon (=signal), formed from Greek syn (=with, together with) and sema (=sign).
He points out that is related to the word siman סימן, also meaning "sign, signal" and deriving from Greek sema.

Now while the English word "sesame" does sound similar to the Hebrew word sisma, they are not related. Sesame has the following etymology:

c.1440, probably from M.Fr. sisame, from L. sesamum (nom. sesama), from Gk. sesamon (Doric sasamon) "seed or fruit of the sesame plant," via Phoenician from Late Babylonian *shawash-shammu (cf. Assyrian shamash-shammu "sesame," lit. "oil-seed")

The Hebrew word for sesame, שומשום, also was borrowed from the Akkadian (Assyrian). How is the word pronounced? Ask the average Israeli, and they'll likely tell you sumsum. However, all the dictionaries, and vocalized editions of the mishna have shumshum. (For those readers who weekly recite Bameh Madlikin - have you noticed that the siddur has shemen shumshumin?)

Why the disparity between the official spelling and the "street" pronunciation? I don't believe that it comes from the Israeli version of Sesame Street - רחוב סומסום - Rechov Sumsum, deliberately spelled with a samech. The pronunciation predates the show by many years, and the name of the show reflects popular usage. (I assume the spelling was changed to make it easier for younger viewers. Having a sin / shin might have been too confusing.)

Rather, the pronunciation was likely influenced by a foreign language. Perhaps it came from the European languages, which as we noted derived from Greek (who did not have a "sh" sound, e.g. Shmuel -> Samuel). But I think it is more likely that modern Hebrew was influenced by the Arabic rendition of the word: simsim. As we've seen before, the Hebrew shin becomes "s" in Arabic (shalom -> salam).

And the Arabic simsim is the root of our phrase "open sesame". The phrase iftah ya-simsim was used to open a cave in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. (If you know the phrase as "Open Sez Me", you probably watched Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves, which can be viewed here. He says the line at 14:39.)

What is the meaning of the phrase? There are a number of theories as to why simsim would have been the word used as the charm to open the gate. Perhaps the most interesting theory to me was presented by regular Balashon commenter Moshe M, who wrote to me that in addition to sesame, simsim can mean in Arabic "gate" (although it's a rare literary word). He heard this from Prof. Jonas C. Greenfield. Therefore the phrase meant "Open O Gate". (Ali Baba's own brother did not understand this apparently, and when he couldn't remember simsim, he tried guessing other foods, trying "Open barley", "Open wheat", and "Open chick-pea").

In this article, Greenfield shows us a Hebrew cognate for simsim meaning "gate". In Yishayahu 54:12, we find a difficult term:

וְשַׂמְתִּי כַּדְכֹד שִׁמְשֹׁתַיִךְ, וּשְׁעָרַיִךְ לְאַבְנֵי אֶקְדָּח; וְכָל-גְּבוּלֵךְ, לְאַבְנֵי-חֵפֶץ.

The JPS (new) translates it as follows:

"I will make your battlements of rubies,
Your gates of precious stones,
The whole encircling wall of gems"

The question is the translation of the word shimshotayich שמשותיך, offered by the JPS as "battlements". This seems to be the opinion of Rashi, quoting Midrash Tehilim, based on Tehilim 84:12. However, Radak, and Menachem as quoted by Rashi, say that shimsha שמשה here means "a solid, translucent piece, placed in the window, that lets the sun in". This is its meaning in modern Hebrew as well - "windowpane".

However, Greenfield writes that shimsha here means "gates" as well, which is parallel to shaar שער "gate", found in the second section of the verse.

I'll conclude with the observations about sesame by comedian Mitch Hedberg. (Warning: Contains mild language).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Treppenwitz has a hilarious post about the Israeli fear of being a freier (sucker, chump), and how he got even at the supermarket.

What is the origin of this slang term?

There are a few theories.

Rosenthal (entry פראייר) says it comes from the German freier, meaning "suitor, bachelor". He says that the word went from German to Yiddish, where it came to be viewed negatively, "a person lacking social and financial confidence", and eventually came to mean "a person easy to deceive, take advantage of."

A commenter on this Haaretz article explained the development this way:

As with much modern Hebrew slang, `freier` is derived from Yiddish where it originally meant a "suitor" (it`s still used that way in Alsatian Yiddish) but came to mean the "customer of a prostitute." and eventually just a `sucker`.

Others say that it derives from the German word freiherr - a title of nobility. The Wikipedia article for Fraier has the following explanation (the English entry was a too literal translation of the Hebrew one, so I've adjusted it for clarity):

It is possible that the word was chosen because of the prominent German tone of the word, in order to suggest the local stereotype that the Israeli Jews that originated from Germany were too [accepting] of authority, [sticking] to firm and formal rules [at the expense] of flexibility, [quick-wittedness] and improvisation.

Another theory, presented by a linguist friend of mine, says that:

It's from Russian criminal slang, from Yiddish. The Jewish mafias in Odessa called non-criminals freiers. It's Yiddish for "free-ones". From the Jewish gangs it made its way into general Russian culture. It's mentioned in The Gulag Archipelago, where it is noted that the criminals in the gulag called the political prisoners freiers. But I was told that it's use is much wider than that; i.e. not just for non-criminal prisoners, but for all non-criminal classes in society.
So we have three very different etymologies here. My personal wish? That Israelis would worry more about the origin of the word, and less about how to avoid being one...

Monday, October 08, 2007


We're in the shmitta (sabbatical) year, so let's talk about a word related to it. According to the Torah, all debts are canceled in the shmitta year. However, Hillel the Elder made an enactment that would allow loans to be collected. This would help both the rich (who would get their loans repaid) and the poor (who would be more likely to have money lent to them). The document publicizing this enactment is called a prosbul (or prozbul) - פרוזבול (also occasionally פרוסבול).

What is the origin of this word? There is a discussion about this in the gemara (Gittin 36b-37a):

מאי פרוסבול אמר רב חסדא פרוס בולי ובוטי בולי אלו עשירים דכתיב (ויקרא כו) ושברתי את גאון עוזכם ותני רב יוסף אלו בולאות שביהודה בוטי אלו העניים דכתיב (דברים טו) העבט תעביטנו אמר ליה רבא ללעוזא מאי פרוסבול א"ל פורסא דמילתא

"What is (the meaning of ) prosbul? R. Hisda says: Pros (an enactment of) buli and buti. Buli means the rich, as it is written, 'And I will break the pride of your power' (Vayikra 26:19). And R. Joseph explained: These are the bula'ot (city councils) in Judah. Buti means the poor, as it is written, 'You shalt surely lend him sufficient [ha'avet העבט is similar to buti בוטי] ' (Devarim 15:8). Raba asked a certain foreigner [who spoke Greek, Soncino suggests "linguist"] 'What is the meaning of prosbul?' He replied: 'The pursa (enactment) of the matter.'"

So we see here that while the Rabbis felt it was important to learn moral lessons by drashot that found Hebrew words in foreign terms, they also knew when to ask foreign linguists what the words actually meant.

Even now, we don't know exactly what prosbul meant in Greek. Klein writes:

Probably shortened from pros boule bouleuton ( = before the assembly of the councilors), from pros (= toward, to, against, before, in presence of), dative of boule (= counsel, deliberation, assembly) and general plural of bouleutes (= councilor), from bouleuein ( = to take counsel), from boule.
The boule mentioned here is the same as in the gemara (although clearly the overall etymology is different.) The lower house of the modern Greek legislature is known as the Boule.

Steinsaltz (and others) also offer the Greek word prosbole, meaning the delivery, transfer in a sale.

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)...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


In the past few months, I've become more aware of the distinction between the vowels shva na (voiced) and shva nach (unvoiced). (For a good introduction to the concept, read the beginning of this post and this Philologos article.) While there are some words where the proper pronunciation affects the meaning (for example, the word וְיִירְאוּ in Tehilim 67:8), I think in general it is a good idea to improve my reading, particularly in prayer. I have also recently become aware that there are disagreements among the scholars as to the whether a particular shva is na or nach - some of which come in rather important sections of prayer. For example, in the Kriyat Shma, Devarim 6:7, there are those who say that the first bet in וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ has a shva na, others say a shva nach. How do we properly recite this word in the regular prayers? This is an issue I'm still researching; maybe I'll have a post about it in the future.

But while I've only recently become curious about the Hebrew shva, I've been aware of the English cousin "schwa" for many years, ever since I noticed the interesting rotated "e" back in elementary school:

However, until I started this blog, I had never thought about how strange it was that this English word would have been borrowed from Hebrew. How did this happen?

From the Oxford English Dictionary, we see that the word "schwa" entered English in 1895, borrowed from German. But English had other forms of the word for the Hebrew vowel, such as:

  • Like to a silent Hebrew Scheua (1589)
  • the Sheva of the Hebrews (1818)
  • When no vowel is expressed, then as in the Hebrew, a Sheva..will be implied and read accordingly (1837)
There are similar older quotes in French and German.

But the question remains - why would European linguists borrow a Hebrew word? The word shva only shows up in Medieval Hebrew, so it didn't have any of the Biblical sentiment that the Christian scholars might have attached to it. My guess? It was a matter of necessity. Until more recent linguistics, European languages could suffice with the Latin letters for all of their vowels. But when they "found" a vowel that couldn't be represented by any of the existing letters - it was convenient to use a foreign word. And here the Hebrew shva was a perfect fit. I'm still curious to see exactly what Hebrew texts were read by Christian scholars when they discovered the word, but that may be lost to history...

What about the etymology of the Hebrew word shva? The most well-known etymology (as suggested by the OED) is that it comes from the Hebrew שוא shav - "nothing, vanity" (also "lie, falsehood".) However, Klein provides a different source:

borrowed from Syr. שויא (= the seven points), lit.: ‘even’ or ‘equal’ (points) ... related to Hebrew שוה (was even, smooth, or like)
But Ben-Yehuda, while providing the same theory as Klein, does also mention the "nothingness" theory in the name of earlier Hebrew scholars. And I admit, it's what my first guess was...

(Thanks to my new friends at the Discussion Forums, for helping me find some of the sources.)

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Well, as you can see, my vacation - at least from blogging - took a little longer than I originally expected. But I did have a nice time, got to travel a bit, picked up some new books, and even made my computer a little easier to work with.

One new site that I have started to follow and highly recommend is Ethan Dor-Shav's The Hebrew-Wisdom Dictionary. Some deep thoughts and original insights - I hope to have some posts relating to his work in the future.

I did hope that my latest quiz would tide you over during my break. But I haven't even got one guess! So now that I'm back, you can give it a shot.

One book that I did finish reading during my vacation was the last installment of the Harry Potter series. Not much Hebrew in there, but we do find the killing spell "Avada Kedavra". J.K. Rowling herself believes that it comes from Aramaic:

Does anyone know where avada kedavra came from? It is an ancient spell in Aramaic, and it is the original of abracadabra, which means "let the thing be destroyed". Originally, it was used to cure illness and the "thing" was the illness, but I decided to make it the "thing" as in the person standing in front of me. I take a lot of liberties with things like that. I twist them round and make them mine.
While it is difficult to disagree with a talented and successful writer like Rowling, I don't quite buy it. First of all, she doesn't provide a source here. Secondly, it falls into a long list of theories that connect the word abracadabra with Hebrew or Aramaic:

  • אברא כדברא - avra k'davra - "I will create as I speak" (which is actually the opposite of Rowling's intent)
  • עברה כדברא - avra k'davra - "It will pass as I speak"
  • אברכה אדברה avarcha adabra - "I will bless, I will speak"
  • הברכה ודברה - habracha v'davra - "the blessing (perhaps a euphemism for a curse) and dever -disease"
  • אב, בן, רוח הקודש - av, ben, ruach hakodesh - "father, son, holy spirit"
Despite the temptation to connect the term to Hebrew or Aramaic, I'm inclined to follow Klein, who writes:

Late Latin, from Greek abracadabra, in which word the letter c (= s) was misread for k. It was originally written as a magical formula on abraxas stones, whence its name.
But don't give up Harry Potter fans! I've found two interesting coincidences to keep you going.

First of all, the Encyclopedia Judaica writes about "abracadabra" that:

It first appears in the writings of Severus Sammonicus, a gnostic physician of the 2nd century C.E.

(highlighting mine*)
And in Klein's Hebrew dictionary, the entry immediately before אברקדברא abracadabra is אברק avrek, which means nothing less than Sirius (the star)!

*Yes, I know that the name was probably Serenus, but we are dealing with fiction here, so I'm sticking with the more interesting option...