Sunday, March 16, 2008


My previous post discussed cinnamon / kinamon - a word dating back to biblical times. In Mishlei 7:17, we find kinamon listed with two other spices:

מֹר אֲהָלִים, וְקִנָּמוֹן

The JPS translates this as "myrrh, aloes and cinnamon". We've already discussed mor / myrrh. Let's take a look now at ahal / aloe.

Just as with myrrh and cinnamon, aloe is said to derive from the Hebrew ahal אהל:

O.E. aluwan (pl.) "fragrant resin of an E. Indian tree," a Biblical usage, from L. aloe, from Gk. aloe, translating Heb. ahalim (pl., perhaps ult. from a Dravidian language). The Gk. word probably was chosen for resemblance of sound to the Heb., since the Gk. and L. words originally referred to a genus of plants with bitter juice, used as a purgative drug, a sense which appeared in Eng. 1398. The word was then mis-applied to the American agave plant in 1682.
However, what exactly were the ahalim (and ahalot)? This seems to be a matter of dispute.

In addition to the verse in Mishlei, we find the word ahal three other times. In Tehilim 45:9, we have מֹר-וַאֲהָלוֹת קְצִיעוֹת - "myrrh and aloes and cassia", and in Shir HaShirim 4:14 there is מֹר, וַאֲהָלוֹת, עִם, כָּל-רָאשֵׁי בְשָׂמִים - "myrrh and aloes - all the choice perfumes." The fact that ahal is grouped together here with mor each time, and that all are talking about fragrant trees, leads to a general consensus that these verses are referring to a certain type of tree.

Klein, in his CEDEL, explains that this is the agarwood tree - also known as lignum aloes (thanks Mike G for the lookup):

aloe, n. -- L. aloe [there is long sign over the "e"], fr. Gk. [unaspirated alpha, lambda, omicron with an acute accent, eta], 'aloe', prob. borrowed fr. Heb. ahalim, ahaloth (pl.), wihc are perhaps borrowed fr. OI. agaruh, aguruh [the "h" has a dot under it in both words], 'aloewood', these latter being prob. of Dravidian origin. Cp. agalloch.

, n. aloewood. -- ModL., agallochum, fr. Gk. agallochon, agalochon [I'm transliterating the Greek here], 'aloe, aloewood', which is prob. a loan word from OI. aguruh [again, a dot under the "h"], 'aloewood'. Cp. eaglewood. Cp. also aloe.

eaglewood, n., agalloch. -- Loan translation of F. bois d'aigle, fr. Port. aguilla, 'aloewood', fr. Gk. agallochon, 'aloe, aloewood'; see agalloch. French bois d'aigle arose from a confusion of Port. aguila, 'aloewood', with Port. aguia, 'eagle'. See eagle.
In Plant Resins: Chemistry, Evolution, Ecology, and Ethnobotany Jean H. Langenheim writes that the related Indian name "gharu wood" derives from "the Sanskrit word connoting the wood's heaviness". An opposite, but related, opinion is mentioned in this article by Wilfred H. Schoff. However, it discusses the resin instead of the wood:

Why now the name agar or agur by which this Eastern resin is generally known in India? The Sanskrit lexicographers give a+guru, 'not heavy'
The root - whether it gave the name meaning "heavy" or "not heavy" - is also the source of the word "guru":

from Hindi guru "teacher, priest," from Skt. guru-s "one to be honored, teacher," lit. "heavy, weighty," from PIE base *gru- (see grave (adj.))

It's not clear to me if the gelatin like material "agar agar" is related to agar. On the one hand, the origin of the word(s) is Malay, but Malay borrowed many words from Sanskrit, so there could be a connection.

The remaining verse - Bamidbar 24:6 - isn't as clear. Here we have Bilaam blessing Israel:

כַּאֲהָלִים נָטַע ה', כַּאֲרָזִים עֲלֵי-מָיִם

"Like aloes planted by the Lord / Like cedars beside the water".

"Aloe" is a fair translation for ahal here as well. And indeed some point out that the parallel to cedars in the second half of the verse should be a tree as well, and therefore the agarwood tree is appropriate (Feliks here). Others (Immanuel Low, as quoted in Feliks and here) point out that unlike the imported spices mentioned in the other three verses, Bilaam was not likely to find agarwood trees in the steppes of Moav. (Of course those who claim that this verse is also talking about agarwood would point out that cedars were not in that exact area as well. They also don't grow "beside the water", so there is clearly poetic imagery here.)

So if ahal isn't referring to agarwood trees - what other aloes could we be talking about?

We find two other plants (not trees) called ahal. One is what most of us think of as aloe - "aloe vera". It is now spelled in Hebrew אלוי - alvay - and it appears in that spelling in Yerushalmi Shviit 35b. According to Klein, this seems to have been borrowed from Greek or Latin back into Hebrew.

The other is the iceplant - which is what Low (and Kaddari) claim Bilaam is referring to. It is mentioned in the Talmud (Shabbat 50b and 90a, although Rashi and Jastrow on 110b say in that case it means aloe vera), where Steinsaltz points out that it contains a significant amount of soda (the Targum on Iyov 9:30 translates lye - בור bor as אהלא ahala) , and was used for soap. They come up in large numbers after the rains, covering the Arava. So according to this theory, Bilaam was comparing the tents (ohalim אוהלים) of Israel to the ahalim covering the plain.

So how did two (or three) such different plants come to share the same name? In 1922, Schoff (linked above) offered a possible explanation. He rejects the Sanskrit etymology of the word ahal. I have some doubts about that, considering how universal that understanding is today. However, he does mention that:

The word 'aloe' seems to be derived from an Arabic root, lawaya, to bend or twist, and could refer to any product obtained by bending or doubling back a growing branch, or otherwise injuring it whereby an excrescence would be produced charged with accumulated and hardened sap.
This makes sense in regards to the medicinal aloe. So perhaps there were two similar words - one Semitic, one from Sanskrit. Both ended up as ahal (in Hebrew) or aloe (in English - eventually). While I have no concrete proof of this, it would certainly help explain some of the confusion found in both biblical and post-biblical sources - let alone the confusion about "aloe" on the internet today...

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