Wednesday, March 19, 2008

almog and coral

[This post is dedicated to the memory of Isaac Meyers, a regular commenter on this site. יהי זכרו ברוך.]

In the previous post, we discussed ahal / aloe. The Yerushalmi (Ketubot end of chapter 7) and Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 15a) identify the aloe tree (agarwood) אלוים - with almugim אלמוגים. This tree appears in Melachim I (10:11) and Divrei HaYamim II (2:7, 9:10) where it is called algom אלגום. It is also variously identified as red sandalwood by Gesenius and others or brazilwood (from where the country Brazil gets its name) by Radak. All of those trees are common to India.

However, in the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh HaShana 23a) it is identified with red coral - the skeleton of a sea animal. This also seems to be the meaning in the Mishna - Kelim 13:8. That is the common usage today.

How did this word come to mean two different things? Which was the first meaning? There are a number of different opinions, many of which use the etymology of the word to help find an answer.

First of all, as Kil points out in the Daat Mikra on Melachim, the Biblical usage cannot be referring to coral, since the almog is described as being used for harps, lyres and ramps - appropriate for wood, not for coral. On the other hand, in Kelim (the Mishna and Tosefta), it mentions that they made beads and rings from almog - which does make sense for coral.

Low identifies the almog with the Akkadian elammakku - a tree mentioned in the Gilgamesh epic. He writes that as building material it was called almog, and when used for incense was called ahal. Kaddari adds that in Ugaritic we find a tree called almg. Greenfield, however, here says that this etymology proves that this was not an Indian tree like the sandalwood, but rather a tree from Lebanon - like the cedar. This works well for the verse in Divrei Hayamim, which has the wood coming from Lebanon, but not for the one from Melachim, where it comes from Ophir, generally identified as India.

A possible solution to this is suggested by the Jewish Encyclopedia:

the simplest solution seems to be that Algum and Almug were originally two different trees—as already suggested by Celsius—which have been confused with one another.
However, most sources say that the letters gimel and mem were simply transposed due to metathesis.

To return to our original question - how due we have one word (or two similar words) for both a kind of tree, and coral?

Stahl writes in Motza HaMilim that a common theory is that both the sandalwood tree and corals share a common reddish color. That, and the tree like shape of the coral (Rashi on Rosh Hashana even calls the coral a "tree"), would seem to indicate that the almog first referred to a tree, and later became identified with coral.

Ben-Yehuda, on the other hand, reverses this theory. He connects the word almog to Latin margarita, Greek margarites and Aramaic marganita מרגניתא meaning "pearl". He suggests the following development:
אלגם, ארגם, ארגן, מרגן

He claims that the tree got its name from having a similar color to the coral. While Ben-Yehuda is in the minority in regards to almog, that does seem to be the case in English: one of the synonyms for the red sandalwood tree is coralwood. In this case certainly coral gave its name to the tree, and not the opposite.

If we're already discussing coral - what is the origin of the English word? The Online Etymology Dictionary provides this etymology:

c.1305, from L. corallium, from Gk. korallion, probably of Sem. origin (cf. Heb. goral "small pebble," Ar. garal "small stone"), originally just the red variety found in the Mediterranean, hence use of the word as a symbol of "red."
Klein writes that the Hebrew goral גורל originally meant "a small stone for casting lots". We find the word used in the Bible in a number of occasions used to determine the outcome of an unclear choice or future - a goral was placed on each of the goats in the Yom Kippur ceremony (Vayikra 16:8) and the Land of Israel was divided among the tribes according to lots (Bamidbar 26:55). (The English word "lot" meaning "plot of land" has the same origin. The word lottery also originally meant "to draw lots". ) From here the word developed into the more general concepts of fate or fortune.

But in perhaps the most famous use of the goral in the Bible, another word was substituted in most of the text. When describing the lot that Haman cast (literally threw the stone), it tells us that pur פור means goral גורל. Pur is an Akkadian word synonymous to goral (not Persian as I mistakenly wrote here. Akkadian was the lingua franca of the Middle East at the time). And of course this is where we get the name of the holiday of Purim.

Happy Purim everyone!

No comments: