Wednesday, April 30, 2008

shoah and holocaust

This week Israel observes Yom HaShoah - יום השואה, whose full name is Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה. This is generally translated as "Holocaust Remembrance Day". However, it is very common for Jewish writers to use the Hebrew word "Shoah" instead of the English word "Holocaust". Why is that?

Let's start by looking at the word "holocaust". Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry:

c.1250, "sacrifice by fire, burnt offering," from Gk. holokauston, neut. of holokaustos "burned whole," from holos "whole" + kaustos, verbal adj. of kaiein "to burn." Originally a Bible word for "burnt offerings," given wider sense of "massacre, destruction of a large number of persons" from 1833. The Holocaust "Nazi genocide of European Jews in World War II," first recorded 1957, earlier known in Heb. as Shoah "catastrophe." The word itself was used in Eng. in ref. to Hitler's Jewish policies from 1942, but not as a proper name for them.
The word "holocaust" referring to a burnt offering sacrifice can be seen clearly in this Jewish Encyclopedia article on sacrifices. In the article, written over 100 years ago, the term holocaust as a sacrifice appears frequently. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum discusses the development of the term:

While the word holocaust, with a meaning of a burnt sacrificial offering, does not have a specifically religious connotation, it appeared widely in religious writings through the centuries, particularly for descriptions of "pagan" rituals involving burnt sacrifices. In secular writings, holocaust most commonly came to mean "a complete or wholesale destruction," a connotation particularly dominant from the late nineteenth century through the nuclear arms race of the mid-twentieth century. During this time, the word was applied to a variety of disastrous events ranging from pogroms against Jews in Russia, to the persecution and murder of Armenians by Turks during World War I, to the attack by Japan on Chinese cities, to large-scale fires where hundreds were killed.

Early references to the Nazi murder of the Jews of Europe continued this usage. As early as 1941, writers occasionally employed the term holocaust with regard to the Nazi crimes against the Jews, but in these early cases, they did not ascribe exclusivity to the term. Instead of "the holocaust," writers referred to "a holocaust," one of many through the centuries. Even when employed by Jewish writers, the term was not reserved to a single horrific event but retained its broader meaning of large-scale destruction. For example:

You are meeting at a time of great tragedy for our people. In our ... deep sense of mourning for those who have fallen ... we must steel our hearts to go on with our work ... that perhaps a better day will come for those who will survive this holocaust. (Chaim Weizmann, letter to Israel Goldstein, December 24, 1942)

What sheer folly to attempt to rebuild any kind of Jewish life [in Europe] after the holocaust of the last twelve years! (Zachariah Shuster, Commentary, December 1945, p.10)

By the late 1940s, however, a shift was underway. Holocaust (with either a lowercase or capital H) became a more specific term due to its use in Israeli translations of the word sho'ah. This Hebrew word had been used throughout Jewish history to refer to assaults upon Jews, but by the 1940s it was frequently being applied to the Nazis' murder of the Jews of Europe. (Yiddish-speaking Jews used the term churbn, a Yiddish translation of sho'ah.) The equation of holocaust with sho'ah was seen most prominently in the official English translation of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, in the translated publications of Yad Vashem throughout the 1950s, and in the journalistic coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961.

Such usage strongly influenced the adoption of holocaust as the primary English-language referent to the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry, but the word's connection to the "Final Solution" did not firmly take hold for another two decades. The April 1978 broadcast of the TV movie, Holocaust, based on Gerald Green's book of the same name, and the very prominent use of the term in President Carter's creation of the President's Commission on the Holocaust later that same year, cemented its meaning in the English-speaking world. These events, coupled with the development and creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum through the 1980s and 1990s, established the term Holocaust (with a capital H) as the standard referent to the systematic annihilation of European Jewry by Germany's Nazi regime.

Clearly, it can be understood why it might be considered offensive to describe the murder of millions as a sacrifice, particularly a religious one. So even though the term had been so used before the Nazi genocide, once the phrase "The Holocaust" came to describe the acts of the Nazis, there was a need for a more appropriate term, and many began using the Hebrew "Shoah" in English as well. This is Yad Vashem's explanation of the use of the term Shoah in languages other than Hebrew:

The biblical word Shoah (which has been used to mean “destruction” since the Middle Ages) became the standard Hebrew term for the murder of European Jewry as early as the early 1940s. The word Holocaust, which came into use in the 1950s as the corresponding term, originally meant a sacrifice burnt entirely on the altar. The selection of these two words with religious origins reflects recognition of the unprecedented nature and magnitude of the events. Many understand Holocaust as a general term for the crimes and horrors perpetrated by the Nazis; others go even farther and use it to encompass other acts of mass murder as well. Consequently, we consider it important to use the Hebrew word Shoah with regard to the murder of and persecution of European Jewry in other languages as well.

What is the origin of Shoah? The word שואה meaning "catastrophe, devastation" derives from the root שאה. According to Klein, this root originally meant "to make a din or crash", then "crash into ruins", and then "to ruin, lay waste". The original sense of making noise can be found in the related word teshua תשואה - "noise, tumult", which doesn't have a negative connotation at all (see Zecharia 4:7).

Monday, April 28, 2008


One of the columnists who inspired this site is Philologos of The Forward. He writes about Jewish words and phrases, and specifically has a good knowledge of Yiddish (which I do not share). Nowhere on the site is his name given, but most of the speculation on the internet indicates that it's the writer Hillel Halkin. I have no inside knowledge to confirm or deny this, but there are some hints in his writing. For example, in this week's column he quotes Prof. Meir Bar-Ilan, who happens to be Halkin's cousin. (We've also seen him quote Halkin's uncle Rabbi Saul Lieberman before, but Lieberman was such a well known expert that it doesn't necessarily indicate a family relationship.)

Until recently, I hadn't read any of Halkin's identified writings. But not long ago, I started reading a very interesting book by him called Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist's Polemic. The book consists of long letters that Halkin, living in Zichron Yaakov in the 1970s, wrote to an American friend. The letters discuss the roles of Israel and the diaspora, and the importance of making aliya. I haven't finished the book yet, but although it's over 30 years old, I think it still seems very relevant (and some of the anachronisms are fun too.)

At one point reading the book, I got a feeling that if Halkin isn't Philologos, they certainly share an interest in Hebrew etymology (as of course, I do.) On page 22, Halkin quotes his anonymous American correspondent:

It's a little like that butt of so many old jokes, the bagel. What other item of food is more quintessentially Jewish in America? And then you come to Israel and discover that there is something called a bagel there too, or rather, a bageleh (Moisheleh, Saraleh, imaleh, why not bageleh?), and that it shares certain properties with the bagel you know: it's round, there's a hole in the middle, etc. ... only the taste just isn't the same. (For one thing, it's sprinkled with sesame, and I happen to hate sesame. The hole is too big, the dough is too soft, I won't even mention cream cheese or lox, which you can look high and low for - a grilled porkchop is far easier to find in your Jewish state.) One could, I suppose, investigate the common European ancestor of the two to determine which is more authentic, but this would lead to the discovery of a third bagel, resembling the first two yet unique unto itself. And why should one have to choose among them?
And regarding the bagel, Halkin responds:

Concerning the real sesame on your metaphorical bagel, by the way, it certainly is not European in origin; in fact, it derives from the Arabs, who bake a hard, round doughnut calld ka'ak similar to the Israeli; yet this only complicates the problem, since it's likely that the Arab ka'ak is a descendant of an ancient Palestinian Jewish bagel or ka'ach that is referred to in the Mishnah. Such are the strange dialectics of the return of a people to its land.
So this is one of those anachronisms - today it's easy to find in Israel lox, cream cheese and "American bagels". (Haven't tried looking for pork chops for comparison). But lets look a little further at how the Israeli bageleh and the American bagel diverged.

Clearly the words have the same origin. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following origin for "bagel":

1919, from Yiddish beygl, from M.H.G. boug- "ring, bracelet," from O.H.G. boug, related to biogan "to bend" and O.E. beag "ring"
William Safire (the first language columnist to inspire me) writes in this 1994 column:

The bagel, according to the Yiddishist Leo Rosten, was first cited in the community regulations of Cracow, Poland, in 1610; the toroidal roll was said to be a gift to women in childbirth. (That strikes me as apocryphal; next we'll hear that the Civil War expression about bearing pain, to bite the bullet, was rooted in to bite the bagel. Not so.)

The word for the medieval jawbreaker was imported into English from the Yiddish beygl, which in 1919 was spelled beigel and in 1932 was shortened to bagel. According to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, it is rooted in the Old High German boug, related to biogan "to bend," from the Proto-Germanic biuzanan and the Indo-European bheugh-, the pronunciation of which is a melancholy exhalation.

If bending, ring shaped dough reminds you of another food - the pretzel - that's not a coincidence. In her book Classic Russian Cooking, Elena Molokhovets writes that

Pretzels are a very old form of baked goods and were referred to in Jewish sources as early as the first half of the thirteenth century. (A bagel is simply a type of pretzel.) Bagels, with many local variations, were known throughout the historic territory of the Ashkenazi Jews.

The term bageleh in Hebrew therefore refers to pretzels. The original association of course is with soft bagels, not the hard ones found in vending machines, but the term applies to both.

If you're finding it difficult to make the connection between bagels and pretzels, take a second and try to describe the difference (other than the sesame seeds mentioned above - I always been a fan of sesame bagels.) It turns out that the difference is in the boiling process:

Homemade pretzels and soft pretzels are often made much the same way as bagels, by poaching them in boiling water before baking, the difference being that bagels are usually poached in salt water rather than water and baking soda.
So we today find in Israel bageleh בייגלה - pretzels and bageleh amerikai - American bagels. What about ka'ach כעך?

While it might be the more official word, it seems to be much less popular than bageleh. This is evidenced by the discussion on the Hebrew Wikipedia page, where the writers aren't sure whether a ka'ach is a bagel or a pretzel.

Stahl writes that the word ka'ach was chosen in Modern Hebrew because of its use in Talmudic Hebrew (see Pesachim 48b and Brachot 38a where it appears as כעבין). Then it seemed to mean small loaves of bread. Klein defines it as "ring-shaped cake", and provides the following etymology:

Aramaic כעכא, borrowed from Persian kak, whence also Arabic ka'k.
Stahl says that there are even earlier references in Ancient Egyptian and Coptic. The word kahk seems rather similar to the English word "cake", with cognates in other European languages. However, Stahl writes that linguists do not feel that the words are connected, but perhaps both developed independently from baby-talk, similar to "mama" and "papa".

I'll end with a cute joke I found while researching this topic.

שני בייגלה יושבים על המדף בחנות.
פתאום בא מישהו
ולוקח אחד מהם, אז השני צועק: "לאא!!!! היינו כאחים!!"

"Two bagelach were sitting on the shelf of a store. Somebody comes and takes one of them, and the other shouts - 'No!!! We were k'achim!! (literally 'like brothers')"

Friday, April 25, 2008

new category: Shir HaShirim

Since I started this site, I've found that Shir HaShirim שיר השירים (which we'll be reading tomorrow, the seventh day of Pesach) has some of the most interesting words in Hebrew. I don't have a new one to write about today, but I've put all the posts that refer to words in Shir HaShirim in the following category:

In the meantime, I'm working on an interesting post for next week, but because it's chametz related, I won't mention the topic until after the holiday...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


One of the first words people often learn in Hebrew is ken כן - "yes". However, that meaning only began in the Middle Ages. In the Bible it appears frequently, but as an adverb with the more general sense of "so" or "thus". Klein provides two possible etymologies. One is that the word, and its Semitic cognates

probably derive from the Semitic demonstrative base *ka- . Compare כה, כי and אכן.
The other theory is that

according to some scholars כן derives from כון, hence literally means "established, confirmed" and is related to כן [second definition]
That second entry for ken is an adjective and means "right, truthful, honest". The root כון "set up, establish, be firm; prepare, ready; straighten, direct", and its related form כנן "regulate, adjust" provide us with many common Hebrew words:
  • konan כונן - rack, computer disk drive (from "set up, established")
  • konanit כוננית - shelf, book stand
  • konanut כוננות - preparedness
  • hachana הכנה - preparation
  • muchan מוכן - ready
  • mechina מכינה - preparatory class, school
  • nachon נכון - correct
  • techuna תכונה - originally "arrangement", now "character"
  • kavana כונה - intention (from "he directed")
  • kivun כיוון - direction
  • machon מכון - fixed place, later institute, institution
In the Bible we also find the word mechona מכונה meaning "base, stand". In the Haskala period the word mechona was used to mean "machine" - only due to its similar sound. From here, Itamar Ben-Avi (Ben-Yehuda's son) coined the term mechonit מכונית for "automobile" (originally agala mechonit עגלה מכונית - "mechanical carriage"). According to Kutscher here, monit מונית - "taxi" is also connected:

There is no end to innovations in the domain of technology. Understandably, few were founding ancient sources and the majority have been borrowed from foreign tongues. The Greek mekhane has been given a Hebrew garb in mekhona for “machine.” Hence mekhonit for “motor-car,” and, by dropping the “kh” we have monit, a taxi, which looks as if it were related to the root מנה (mnh – “to count”) and is thus closer to the original meaning of “taxi” (which, of course, is short for “taximeter”).

The word ken appears in a number of common words and phrases as well:

  • בכן - if so, thus
  • לכן - therefore
  • שכן - because
  • אחר-כן - afterwards
  • אם כן - if so
  • אלא אם כן - unless
  • אף על פי כן - nevertheless
  • על כן - therefore
  • גם כן - also
  • כמו-כן - likewise
While many of these phrases appear with these meanings in the Tanach, the last one - kmo khen - has a very different origin. Avshalom Kor in Higiya Zman Lashon writes that the origin of this phrase is from Yeshayahu 51:6 -

שְׂאוּ לַשָּׁמַיִם עֵינֵיכֶם וְהַבִּיטוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ מִתַּחַת, כִּי-שָׁמַיִם כֶּעָשָׁן נִמְלָחוּ וְהָאָרֶץ כַּבֶּגֶד תִּבְלֶה--וְיֹשְׁבֶיהָ, כְּמוֹ-כֵן יְמוּתוּן; וִישׁוּעָתִי לְעוֹלָם תִּהְיֶה, וְצִדְקָתִי לֹא תֵחָת.

The JPS translates it as:

Raise your eyes to the heavens,
And look upon the earth beneath:
Though the heavens should melt away like smoke,
And the earth wear out like a garment,
And its inhabitants die out as well,
My victory shall stand forever,
My triumph shall remain unbroken.

The phrase kmo khen yemutun is translated as "will die as well", where kmo khen means as we offered above "as well". But Kor points out that the singular of kinim כינים - "lice" is ken כן - "louse", just as the singular of izim עיזים - "goats" is ez עז -"goat" (another example is ניסים nissim - "miracles", and nes נס.) While we are more familiar with the singular form kina כינה, Kor writes that it is only the feminine of ken (as iza עיזה is the feminine of ez).

He writes that the structure of the verse indicates that a better translation would be "die like a louse", because the previous two examples were "melt away like smoke" and "wear out like a garment". To die "as well" doesn't make sense in the context.

While we do find kmo and ken connected (but not adjacent) in the Tanach - Mishlei 23:7 - this is a nice way of showing how our initial assumption of the meaning of the phrase can be affected by its more common use. Or maybe we just don't like to think about lice...

Sunday, April 13, 2008


I had thought of writing a post on mesubin over two years ago - when I started this site. We are all familiar with the fourth question at the Seder:

שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְבִין וּבֵין מְסוּבִּין, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כּוּלָנוּ מְסוּבִּין.

This is generally translated as "On all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night, we all recline." However, I recalled hearing or reading an explanation that said that mesubin in this case might mean "gathered around" and not "reclining".

So for two years this sat in my queue, until this year. And in the spirit of of the Haggadah, I decided to ask a question of my own: What was the original meaning of mesubin and when did it come to mean reclining? I asked this question of many experts - some regular readers of this site, others well known researchers. While I can't thank them all individually here - I would like to express my appreciation for all of their help.

So let's start explaining the term mesubin - מסובין (I'll discuss the vowelization of the word, with couple of alternatives at the end of the post.) I will review in parallel both the meaning of the word, and the practice of reclining.

Biblical Period: The root of the word mesubin is סבב, which appears frequently in Biblical Hebrew. However, it almost always means "surround, encircle, turn around." There are only two verses where it might be related to dining. One is Shir HaShirim 1:12 - עַד-שֶׁהַמֶּלֶךְ, בִּמְסִבּוֹ. While most translations have "while the king was at his table", Kaddari says it means "at his circle."

The other verse is from Shmuel I, and might be able to teach us more about the origin of the word. In chapter 16, the prophet Shmuel is visiting the family of Yishai, looking for the future king. The family is reluctant to bring the youngest brother, David, but Shmuel insists that they bring him. In verse 11, he says to bring David - כִּי לֹא-נָסֹב עַד-בֹּאוֹ פֹה. There are commentaries that explain this verse as "we will not continue (i.e. turn away) until he comes." But most translations offer "we will not sit down to eat until he comes". On the assumption that they were not going to be reclining on beds (as we will see shortly), the literal meaning would have been "sit around the table to eat". The association with reclining developed later.

Did they recline at meals in Biblical times? First of all, it is important to understand that the reclining we are discussing is not the leaning that we do today at the Seder. To eat while reclining meant reclining on a bed, with a small table below the bed for each diner. (Some pictures of this can be seen here.) However, as Meir Ish-Shalom points out in his commentary on the Haggadah Meir Ayin, the ideal images of dining in the Tanach involved all the participants in the meal sitting around one table:

בָּנֶיךָ, כִּשְׁתִלֵי זֵיתִים-- סָבִיב, לְשֻׁלְחָנֶךָ. - "Your sons, like olive saplings around your table" (Tehillim 128:3)

טָבְחָה טִבְחָהּ, מָסְכָה יֵינָהּ; אַף, עָרְכָה שֻׁלְחָנָהּ. - "She has prepared the feast, mixed the wine, and also set the table" (Mishlei 9:2)

The earliest examples of reclining at a meal are from the book of Amos. However, the practice is viewed as decadent and is highly criticized by the prophet:

וְעַל-בְּגָדִים חֲבֻלִים יַטּוּ, אֵצֶל כָּל-מִזְבֵּחַ; וְיֵין עֲנוּשִׁים יִשְׁתּוּ, בֵּית אֱלֹהֵיהֶם - "They recline by every altar on garments taken in pledge, and drink wine bought with fines they imposed, in the house of their god " (2:8)

הַשֹּׁכְבִים עַל-מִטּוֹת שֵׁן, וּסְרֻחִים עַל-עַרְשׂוֹתָם; וְאֹכְלִים כָּרִים מִצֹּאן, וַעֲגָלִים מִתּוֹךְ מַרְבֵּק - "They lie on ivory beds, lolling on their couches, feasting on lambs from the flock and on calves from the stalls".

The prophet Yechezkel also criticizes the practice: וְיָשַׁבְתְּ עַל-מִטָּה כְבוּדָּה, וְשֻׁלְחָן עָרוּךְ לְפָנֶיהָ - "you sat on a grand couch with a set table in front of it" (23:41).

By the time we get to the book of Esther, the practice was viewed more neutrally, and we find Esther reclining on a bed: וְהָמָן נֹפֵל עַל-הַמִּטָּה אֲשֶׁר אֶסְתֵּר עָלֶיהָ - "Haman fell on the bed where Esther reclined" (7:8). In fact, Ish-Shalom claims that the common practice of reclining at meals began during the Persian period, and from Persia spread to Greece and Rome.

Post Biblical Period: In the Book of Ben-Sira (9:11) we first find the certain association of סבב and reclining. (Segal says that perhaps here it is already in the hif'il form, which is the form we are familiar with - mesubin and haseiba.) Guggenheimer quotes 41:19 - "With a married woman do not lie on the elbow, and do not lie on a couch- אל תסב עמה- with her mixing drinks." Based on the verse from Shmuel above, we can say that perhaps the meaning changed from "sit around and eat" to "recline and eat" - because that was the common way of eating. Another possibility is that the root סבב developed from "revolve", to "rotate", to "recline".

Period of the Mishna: By Greek and Roman times, reclining was the only proper way for free people to eat (primarily men for the Greeks, with the Romans we also find women reclining more). The Targumim (Onkelos and Yonatan) translated nearly every verse which included sitting and eating with the Aramaic root סחר - by which they meant "reclining", which was the practice when the Targumim were composed. (The exception that Ish-Shalom brings is Yechezkel 44:3, since it refers to sitting and eating before God, where reclining would not have been respectful). This root is identical with סבב - both mean "to turn, surround". However, it is not clear to me that the root סחר independently means "to recline" in Aramaic. I have only found its use in translations, and it seems to me they were perhaps trying to use a word that was similar to סבב. Rav Hai Gaon on Brachot 42b (mentioned also in the Arukh, as well as a number of Rishonim) uses the translations of Onkelos on Bereshit 37:25 and 43:33 as proof that the Hebrew word mesubin originally meant "to sit around the bread". He doesn't mention reclining at all.

There was a rather elaborate method of proper dining that involved reclining. From here we get the word mesiba מסיבה - a festive meal which naturally included reclining. This type of meal is referred to in the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:21):

רבי יעקוב אומר, העולם הזה דומה לפרוזדוד בפני העולם הבא; התקן עצמך בפרוזדוד, כדי שתיכנס לטרקלין.

"Rabbi Yaakov said: This world is like a vestibule before the world to come; prepare yourself in the vestibule that you may enter the banquet hall [traklin]". The word traklin, which in some manuscripts is spelled טריקלין - triklin, comes from the Latin triclinium and Greek triklinion - "a dining room with three couches". The Tosefta (Brachot 4:8) explains more about what happened before entering the triclinium:

כיצד סדר הסעודה אורחין נכנסין ויושבין על גבי ספסלים וע"ג קתדראות עד שיכנסו כולן נכנסו כולן ונתנו להם לידים כל אחד ואחד נוטל ידו אחת מזגו להם את הכוס אחד ואחד מברך לעצמו הביאו להם פרפריות כל אחד ואחד מברך לעצמו עלו והסיבו נתנו להם לידים אע"פ שנוטל ידו אחת נותן לשתי ידיו מזגו להם את הכוס אע"פ שבירך על הראשונה מברך על השניה הביאו לפניהם פרפריות אע"פ שבירך על הראשונה מברך על השניה ואחד מברך לכולן [הביאו לאחד] שלש פרפריות אין [לו] רשות ליכנס

What is the order of the meal? The guests enter [the house] and sit on benches, and on chairs until all have entered. They all enter and they [servants] give them water for their hands. Each one washes one hand. They [servants] pour for them the cup; each one says the blessing for himself. They [servants] bring them the appetizers; each one says the blessing for himself. They [guests] go up [to the dining room] and they recline, for they [servants] give them [water] for their hands; although they have washed one hand, they now wash both hands. They [servants] pour for them the cup; although they have said the blessing over the first cup, they say a blessing also over the second. They [servants] bring them the dessert; although they said a blessing over the first one, they now say the blessing over the second, and one says the blessing for all of them. He who comes after the third course has no right to enter.

This Tosefta can help us understand the first Mishna of the tenth chapter of Pesachim. It says there:

ערב פסחים סמוך למנחה, לא יאכל אדם עד שתחשך. אפילו עני שבישראל, לא יאכל עד שיסב

"Pesach eve close to mincha, one may not eat until it becomes dark. And even a poor person in Israel may not eat unless he reclines."

The above translation is from the English Kehati, and it reflects the common understanding of the Mishna. But Tabori in his book Pesach Dorot, has a different understanding, in light of the above Tosefta. Since reclining was practiced at every meal, there didn't need to be a specific instruction to do so at the Seder. Rather the Mishna was telling the participants that they could not eat until (not unless) they recline. There could be no appetizers before the Seder meal as there were in other meals throughout the year.

Talmudic Period: In the times of the Amoraim, particularly in Bavel, reclining at meals was no longer the norm, but only an elite few practiced it. Haseiba had previously represented an established meal (unlike "casual" sitting). That status had been replaced by the significance of a number of diners sitting around one table (which indicated a communal meal). So the Amoraim interpreted the mishna in Pesachim to mean that reclining was an obligation in and of itself, because it represented a sign of freedom and high status. From here we get the halachic discussion about which parts of the seder require haseiva.

Geonim: By now reclining was so uncommon in ordinary meals, that it was regulated to the Seder. This was the time when the fourth question was formulated: "On all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night, we all recline." (Ironically, they didn't really recline any other nights, but then again, they didn't probably eat much matza other nights of the year as well.) As the Vilna Gaon pointed out - that question was not included in the Mishna, since reclining was the common way of eating at that time. (Rav Kasher in the Haggadah Shleimah p. 115-6 has an entirely different approach, which Goldschmidt challenges in his Haggadah - p. 13, note 18).

Rishonim: By this point, reclining was viewed as so foreign that a number of Rishonim suggested dropping it from the Seder altogether, as it no longer even represented freedom or high status. However, due to the fact that the "strange" behavior could encourage children to ask questions, haseiva is still widely practiced today.

Modern Hebrew: We seem to have returned to our Biblical roots. Today mesubim מסובים means "diners, participants in a meal", and a mesiba means "party" with no reclining necessary. Perhaps even a better use of mesiba would be mesibat itonaim מסיבת עתונאים - "press conference", which describes a gathering where people are surrounding the speaker.

A note about the pronunciation: The early acharon R' Shabtai Sofer, quoting R' Yosef Kimchi (the father of the Radak) writes that the word מסבין should be pronounced musabin - like the מוּסַבֹּת that appears in Bamidbar 32:38. He claims that the common vowelization mesubin is likely a scribal error.

However, the Teimanim spell the word meisabin, as described here:

In the "Mah Nishtanah" in some Yemenite Haggadah texts the two forms messubin (מְסוּבִּין) and meissabin (מֵיסַבִּין) both appear in the following sequence: "bein yoshvim uvein m'ssubin" בין יושבין ובין מסובין (whether sitting or reclining), "wahalaylah hazeh kulanu meissabin" והלילה הזה כלנו מיסבין (but this night we all recline). In other texts the form m'ssubin appears twice as it does in the versions of Rav Sa'adiah Gaon and Maimonides. One Yemenite scholar - Rabbi Yechiya Bashiri who lived in the 16th century - saw this differentiation in form as a definite semantic difference, as well. He noted: "m'ssubin" (מסובין) – "they assembled, and "meisabin" (מיסבין) - in the sense of "reclining," since it was the custom of the sons of the kings to recline on their left sides. This Yemenite scholar interpreted "m'ssubin" (מְסוּבִּין) to mean "coming together," and "meisabin" מֵיסַבִּין as "reclining" (from the Hebrew "hasibah"הַסִּיבָּה ), or sitting at the table in a slightly reclined position, in the manner of a free man.
Both of the forms in question come from the root samoch - bet - bet סבב in the "hiphil" construction. The form m'ssubin מסובין should have been m'ssibin מסיבין (as in the root qof - lamed – lamedקלל : meikelמיקל / m'kilimמקילים ) How then did the form m'ssubin actually come into being? What we have here is a distinctive linguistic - phonetic phenomenon called assimilation, accordingly the chirak (ִ) in the letter samoch (ס) becomes a "u" sound in order to assimilate to the labial consonant which follows it immediately [ב=bet]: missibin > m'ssubin.
The form meisabin (מֵיסַבִּין) which is found in the Yemenite Haggadah may possibly be explained as another example of the preservation of a basic vowel form, specifically, the vowelized singular from meisav מֵיסַב (as it appears in the Yemenite tradition, as opposed to meiseiv מֵיסֵב as it is pronounced by other communities ) was left in its place in the plural form, as well (and not replaced by a shva) thus producing the form meisabin.
Despite the convincing arguments of R' Shabtai Sofer on the one hand, and the Yemenite scholars on the other, Kohut in the Aruch Hashalem justifies the common pronunciation mesubin. He writes that from the term mesiba was derived the single participant mesuba מסובה. The plural of that should be מסוביין mesubayin, but this became assimilated to mesubin.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

karkom and crocus

The last of the Hebrew spices I'll be discussing (for now) is karkom כרכום. It too appears in Shir HaShirim (only once 4:14), and entered Greek (it's mentioned in Homer's Illiad), and then later Latin and English as "crocus":

1398, from L. crocus, from Gk. krokos "saffron, crocus," probably of Sem. origin (cf. Arab kurkum), ult. from Skt. kunkumam. The autumnal crocus (Crocus sativa) was a common source of yellow dye in Roman times, and was perhaps grown in England, where the word existed as O.E. croh, but this form of the word was forgotten by the time the plant was re-introduced in Western Europe by the Crusaders.
However, unlike some of the other spices we've seen, there are those that claim that the word entered Sanskrit from a Semitic language instead of the other way around. For example, Klein writes in his dictionary in his entry on karkom:

Related to Aramaic כרכמא, Syriac כורכמא, Arabic kurkum, Akkadian kurkanu ( = saffron). Old Indian kunku-man (= saffron) is probably a Semitic loan word.
However, not everyone agrees that the karkom should be identified as saffron, i.e. Crocus sativus. Both Steinberg and Kaddari quote Immanuel Low as saying that karkom was Curcuma longa - better known to us as turmeric.

Saffron and turmeric are not closely related botanically (turmeric is actually a kind of ginger), but they are both used to create a yellow color (both for food and as a dye). Saffron is actually the most expensive spice in the world, but turmeric is used as a cheaper substitute. So it is possible that karkom in whatever original language simply meant "yellow". From there it became "crocus" and "curcuma".

We see this in Talmudic Hebrew, where the verb כרכם meant "to be come yellow", and when one's face was נתכרכם - he was embarrassed or angry.

Interestingly, in Modern Hebrew we find both saffron and turmeric with almost the same spelling. Karkom is crocus, and also saffron, although ze'afran זעפרן is more commonly used. Ze'afran is borrowed from the Arabic (as is the English word "saffron"), where it apparently is related to the word asfar - "yellow" (the plant safflower - another saffron substitute - also got its name from this Arabic root). Turmeric in Arabic is kurkum, which now has the same meaning in Hebrew.

100,000 - thanks!

Just moments ago, Balashon got its 100,000th visitor. Someone (running Firefox on Linux) from Washington University in St. Louis searched for "dugri" on Google, and ended up on Balashon.

When I started this thing, I never quite expected I'd get this far. While it's a pleasure for me to research and write, I know that without the readership here, Balashon would be a very quiet place.
So thanks to all of you! A word-related post should be coming in the next day or so...