Sunday, May 11, 2008


Degel דגל is an interesting word. Ask any Israeli - or any Hebrew speaker for that matter - and they will tell you that it means "flag". That certainly is the uncontested meaning in Modern Hebrew. But I imagine that only a precious few will know the meaning the word had in Biblical Hebrew (do you?). And as far as when that meaning changed? I'm still working on it myself...

In the Tanach, the word degel primarily appears in the beginning of the book Bamidbar, in the section describing the arrangement of the camp. Verse 1:52 says:

וְחָנוּ, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אִישׁ עַל-מַחֲנֵהוּ וְאִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ, לְצִבְאֹתָם

The JPS translation is: "The Israelites shall encamp troop by troop, each man with his division and each under his standard". The translation of degel here is "standard", which originally meant a "flag or other conspicuous object to serve as a rallying point for a military force".

Similarly, verse 2:2 -

אִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: מִנֶּגֶד, סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ.

is translated, "The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance"

However Milgrom, in his (JPS) commentary on Bamidbar, disagrees with the translation of degel as "standard". On 2:2 he writes:

Hebrew degel possibly originally meant a military banner. This is supported by the Akkadian dagalu, "to look", and diglu, "sight". The meaning "banner" was later extended by association to include the army division, just as shevet and matteh, the two terms for "tribe", were probably derived from the "rod" that served as the official tribal insignia (cf. 1:45; 14:17-18). The meaning "unit" better fits the context here, as verse 3 shows, and is supported by the Targums and the Septuagint as well as by Aramaic usage as evidenced from the Persian period by an ostracon from Arad (no. 12) and the papyri from Elephantine. It comprised a garrison of 1,000 men that lived together with their families and, as attested by the Aramaic documents of the Persian period, was an economic and legal unit as well as a military one. This situation corresponds closely to the makeup and function of the Israelite tribes in the wilderness, as depicted in the Book of Numbers. The meaning "military unit" is also present in the War Scroll from Qumran.
Verse 3 that Milgrom refers to says:

וְהַחֹנִים קֵדְמָה מִזְרָחָה, דֶּגֶל מַחֲנֵה יְהוּדָה לְצִבְאֹתָם

The JPS translates it as "Camped on the front, or east side: the standard of the division of Judah, troop by troop." But Milgrom notes that the translation should read

Rather, "camped ... the unit". The verb "camped" renders the translation of degel
more likely as "unit" than "standard"
(As an interesting side note, there are those who claim that the Akkadian word dagalu can be traced even further than its Semitic roots, and is related to the Indo-European root *deik, meaning "to show", and is the source of many English words including "teach" and "diction". My friend Mike Gerver, who is more familiar with this theory than I am, recommended that I add "a caveat that it is highly speculative (but still respectable).")

Moskowitz in the Daat Mikra on Bamidbar also agrees that "unit" is the meaning of degel here. He writes that this was the meaning not only in the Tanach, but in Rabbinic Hebrew as well, as in the Midrash (Shmot Rabba 16:7) - אין דגלים אלא צבאות "Degalim means none other than troops". He writes that the word is related to the Arabic dajjalah - "a large crowd". Unlike Milgrom, he claims that the meaning of "flag" is secondary, and derived from the original meaning of "division, unit".

Either the development from "flag" to "the unit under the flag", or from "unit" to "the flag representing the unit" is easy to accept. However, most scholars say that throughout the Tanach, degel meant unit. (The other instances - a few in Shir HaShirim and one in Tehillim, are often translated as if degel means "flag", but are explained by the Daat Mikra and others as either relating to sight or to a military unit). In Talmudic Hebrew, all the examples of degel that I could find were discussing or quoting the section above from Bamidbar. (The word digla דגלא appears in Beitza 30a and Bava Metsia 83a, but other manuscripts have the word appearing with a different spelling.)

So it would seem that the adoption of degel as flag happened in the post-Talmudic period. Rav Saadia Gaon on 1:52 translates degel as מרכז merkaz - which Kapach says means "the designated place that a soldier is assigned" - i.e. a military unit.

If we go even further, we get to Rashi. Rashi writes on 2:2 -

כל דגל יהיה לו אות מפה צבועה תלויה בו

Before I continue, I'd like to note that I often get asked why I don't write this site in Hebrew. Aside from the fact that my inevitable mistakes in Hebrew grammar would distract from my content, I think there's an inherent difficulty in writing about a language in that language. This Rashi is a good example of that. I'm sure Rashi knew exactly what he meant when he wrote the word degel. But it is not as clear to his readers, and so I have found two different translations of Rashi, each with an entirely different meaning of degel.

The first is the Metsudah edition of Rashi, as quoted here. They translate the commentary as:

Each banner shall have [as] its insignia a colored cloth hanging from it
They translate degel as "banner", which is certainly the popular understanding of the word. However, it does not make much sense in this context - why would a banner have a cloth hanging from it?

Judaica Press, brought here, changes the translation, so that degel means division:

Every division shall have its own flag staff, with a colored flag hanging on it
They translate ot אות, as "flag staff", which is likely to having a flag hanging from it. (This site says that degel actually means flagpole. This would be a fitting parallel to shevet and matteh, which Milgrom mentioned above - however, I have not found their source. Perhaps it's their own interpretation of Rashi.)

Artscroll also offers "division" for degel, with a slight variation in translation from Judaica Press:

Every division shall have for itself a sign, namely, a colored sheet of cloth hanging in its midst.
The main difference is how they translate ot - Artscroll says that the ot was the cloth. In their notes on Rashi on 1:52, they write:

Unlike other commentators, who understand דגל as "flag", Rashi sees it as "division, disposition of forces, military formation." This is indicated by his comments to 2:2 ... See Rashi to Isaiah 5:26, s.v. נס לגוים, where he describes a flag in detail, yet never once uses the word דגל. See also his comments to Psalms 20:6, Song of Songs 2:4 and 5:10
Who are these "other commentators"? Probably the earliest one I could find is Ibn Ezra, who on 2:2 writes that "the insignia were on every degel" and goes on to describe the images on the degel of each tribe (he's also the earliest example given by Ben-Yehuda). By the 19th century, Shadal needed to write that

degel didn't originally mean banner or flag, because that is the meaning of ot, as in "each with his degel, under the banners (otot)". But rather it is like Onkelos and all the early translations, "an ordered grouping" ... and you will see that throughout the section degel refers to people, not banners ... But after time, the word was borrowed for the meaning "flag", since every degel had a flag...
And in the end, as I mentioned above, Ben-Yehuda writes that today, in both speech and literature, the only meaning of degel is "flag".

So we've seen a word transform from referring to an actual group of people, to a flag that symbolizes them. My father often quotes the Polish-American philosopher Alfred Korzybski, who said that "the map is not the territory". (We've already noted that the English word map comes from the Hebrew word mapa - meaning banner.) The idea here is not to confuse the description of something with the thing itself.

And in a way, that concern is mentioned in the official song for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel (click here for the song with Hebrew subtitles). In this great song, which blogger Esther Kustanowitz describes as follows:

Subliminal's collaborating with the legendary Israeli band Givatron, creating a new version of their song "Bat Shishim" (sixty years old) in commemoration of Israel's 60th birthday this spring. The song, written 26 years ago for Russian olim to Israel, now gets reborn as part folk, part hip-hop.

we find the following lyrics:

כי אמיתית היא ולא סמל ולא דגל ולא אות העבר מאחוריה היא צופה אל הבאות

which Esther translates:

For she is true, and not a symbol, nor a flag, nor a sign.
The past now behind her, she looks forward to what is coming.

So all I can add is that maybe the State is much more real than a degel according to its current meaning, but I hope (by looking to the past?) that we are becoming a chevra mesuderet חברה מסודרת - "organized society" - as Shadal wrote...

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