Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Since we discussed the father (Cham), let's talk about the son - Mitzrayim מצרים - the Hebrew name for Egypt. In the last post we ran into difficulties reconciling the Hebrew word cham with the Egyptian kmt. However, with Mitzrayim, there are less difficulties, since this word is only found in Semitic languages - the ancient Egyptians didn't use it themselves. Here's the entry for the etymology of Mitzrayim in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament:

The Hebrew name for Egypt, misrayim, corresponds to Ugar. msrm, Phoen. msrym, Egyptian Aram. msryn, Syr. mesrem, Akk. Musur/Musru/Misri, Old Persian Mudraya, Arab. Misr; the word is not, however, attested in Old Egyptian. The Egyptians themselves called their land ... t3.wy, the "two lands" (referring to Upper and Lower Egypt) ... If misrayim constitutes a genuine dual form, and if it is connected with Akk. misru, "border, region", and Arab. misr, "border, land, capital city," it might be a translation of t3.wy, although this explanation is extremely uncertain. Meir Fraenkel's derivation of misrayim, associating it with matar, "rain," "water," is untenable.

The singular form masor also occurs in the OT (Mic. 7:12; 2 . K 192:24 par Isa. 37:25; Isa. 19:6) and the gentilic form misri is richly attested.
A few notes about this entry:

1) There is a Hebrew cognate to the Akkadian misru -metzer מצר, which also means "boundary". According to Klein, the word only appears in post-biblical Hebrew (e.g. Bava Batra 61b, 62b) and is a secondary form of the biblical word metzar מצר. That word is said to mean either "distress" or "a narrow place" ("strait" in modern Hebrew). It is familiar from the phrase בין המצרים bein hametzarim - which is used to describe the three weeks preceeding Tisha B'Av. The origin of the phrase is Eicha 1:3 -

כָּל-רֹדְפֶיהָ הִשִּׂיגוּהָ, בֵּין הַמְּצָרִים
The JPS translates this as "all her pursuers overtook her in the narrow places", but adds their common note to "in the narrow places": "Meaning of Hebrew uncertain". The Daat Mikra says that "narrow places" is probably the plain meaning of the verse, but says there are those that explain it as meaning "distress", so the verse would mean "all her pursuers overtook her when she was in distress." Interestingly, they also quote the Rashbam as saying the word here means "border" - in the borders of the Kingdom of Yehuda, and that whenever the Jews would flee to the border, their neighbors would hand them over to their enemies. So perhaps the word does have a biblical origin.

2) The Arabic misr meaning "capital city" explains how Cairo is referred to as Masr in modern Egyptian Arabic. Stahl, in his Arabic etymological dictionary, writes that this title originally applied to Fustat. He quotes Maimonides, in a letter to Ibn Tibbon, where he writes, "I reside in Mitzrayim [meaning Fostat]; the king resides in Cairo."

3) The Daat Mikra generally writes that Matzor מצור is simply a poetic form of Mitzrayim, and not a singular form (however in their commentary to Bereshit 10:6, when the word Mitzrayim first appears in the Tanach, they write that it might be a double form, indicating the two kingdoms.) In a footnote to Melachim II 19:25, they note that Matzor might preserve an earlier form of the name, and that the suffix "-im" in Mitzrayim might be locative, like Yerushalayim. This explains the Akkadian and Arabic forms, which otherwise might appear to be singular.

4) Steinberg, while clearly aware of the division of Egypt into the Upper and Lower Kingdoms (he mentions it in his entry), writes that the plural nature of Mitzrayim is due to the Nile river splitting the country into east and west (or as this book writes, "the two banks of the Nile"). This could help answer the question raised in this book, who after acknowledging the theory that Mitzrayim is a dual form, writes:

However, prophetic texts from Jeremiah [44:1] and Isaiah [11:11] differentiate between מצרים [Mitzrayim] and פרתס [Partos] as Lower and Upper Egypt, indicating that מצרים [Mitzrayim], if it is to be located as a geographic reference, at least in these prophetic texts refers to Lower Egypt or the Nile delta.
This site writes that:

Northern or Lower Egypt is called Mazor, .. while Southern or Upper Egypt is Pathros, the Egyptian Pa-to-Res, or "the land of the south" (Isa. 11:11). But the whole country is generally mentioned under the dual name of Mizraim, "the two Mazors".
However, this explanation ignores the fact that Mitzrayim and Patros are listed together in Yishayahu and Yirmiyahu.

One unexpected derivative of Mitzrayim - actually the Arabic Misr - is the song Misirlou. Even if you don't recognize the name (it means "Egyptian girl"), there's a good chance you know the song. Listen to this brief NPR story, and you'll hear how the song spread all over the world, including to the niggunim of rabbis and to klezmer bands. I guess you can take the Jews out of Mitzrayim, but you can't really take Mitzrayim out of the Jews...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


In my last post I dabbled in chemistry, so I thought it made sense to discuss the origin of the word.

Today we might view chemistry as real science, as opposed to the unrealistic pursuit of a way to turn common metals into gold - alchemy. However, both the word and the discipline of chemistry derived from alchemy:

1605, originally "alchemy;" the meaning "natural physical process" is 1646, and the
scientific study not so called until 1788.
And from the Columbia Encyclopedia:

The alchemists became obsessed with their quest for the secret of transmutation; some adopted deceptive methods of experimentation, and many gained a livelihood from hopeful patrons. As a result, alchemy fell into disrepute. However, in the searching experimental quests of the alchemists chemistry had its beginnings; indeed, the histories of alchemy and chemistry are closely linked. Transmutation of elements has been accomplished in modern chemistry.
What is the origin of the word "alchemy"? Klein gives the following in his CEDEL:

alchemy, n. medieval chemistry. -- OF. alquemie (13th cent.), alchimie (14th cent.) (F. alchimie), fr. ML. alchemia, fr. Arab. al-kimiya, fr. al-, 'the', and MGk. chimeia, chimia, 'the art of the black land (Egypt)', fr. Gk. Chimia, 'Black-land, Egypt', fr. Egypt. khem, khame, 'black'. The derivation from Gk. chymeia , 'pouring', from the stem of cheein, 'to pour', is folk etymology. See W. Muss-Arnolt, Transactions of the American Philological Association, vol. XXIII, p. 149
Muss-Arnolt writes in that article that the Greek word Chimia is

borrowed from the Egyptian (Coptic) kam (chame), 'black'

Now when I see Egypt and kam or khame - I can't help but thinking of חם Cham, the son of Noach, the father of Mitzrayim - the biblical Egypt. And indeed, in Tehillim (78:51, 105:23,27, 106:32) Egypt is called Cham.

It's important to note that Muss-Arnolt wrote this article in 1892. Doing a search of articles and books from the 19th century and early 20th century finds many sources that connect Cham and Khemia. For example, from this 1929 book:

It appears to be the Land of Kham or Ham, the oldest traditional name for Egypt, and a usual name for that land and its people in the Hebrew Old Testament ... The Greeks called Egypt sometimes Khemia or Khimia (Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 33)

Now I'm certainly aware that not everyone agrees with this theory. This 1812 book already writes that "the derivation of Chemia from this son of Noah, rest with me on grounds too slight and fanciful to be implicitly relied on". And since Noach's curse of the "dark" Cham and his son Canaan was often used to justify the slavery of blacks, it's not surprising that many more modern sources would challenge the whole proposition, including the etymology. For example, David M. Goldenberg's 2003 book "The Curse of Ham" spends many pages discussing the issue. He mentions a possible connection:

A derivation of Ham (ham) from kmt 'Egypt', also seemed like a good choice despite the differences between the first and last letters of the two words, and scholars until about a generation ago entertained the notion that Ham was a Hebraized form of this Egyptian word for "Egypt"...Not only Coptic documents provide us this information, but Plutarch (d. after 120 CE) does too. He noted that the Egyptians called Egypt "Chemia". With the loss of the final t and the realization of k as kh or the Greek [chi], the word looked very much like the biblical Ham. This theory too had more than phonology on its side. First, from a political-geographic perspective, the extent of Egypt's rule during the New Kingdom is neatly circumscribed by the four areas that the Bible allocates to Ham's sons...
However, he clearly rejects the theory:

Despite the attractions of the various theories, however, not one of these etymological suggestions is acceptable.
He goes on to give a thorough argument, which includes the fact that the Hebrew letter chet "is not transliterated at all or is transliterated by a vowel" in Greek - as in Noach נח becoming "Noah".

He concludes:

One thing is, however, absolutely clear. The name Ham is not related to the Hebrew or to any Semitic word meaning "dark," "black," or "heat" or to the Egyptian word meaning "Egypt". To the Early Hebrews, then, Ham did not represent the father of hot, black Africa and there is no indication from the biblical story that God intended to condemn black-skinned people to eternal slavery.
While I agree that the Bible did not justify the slavery of Africans, I'm still not fully convinced of the etymological proof. People from one language can refer to another nation by a word that sounds like what they call themselves, without fully matching up with the lingustic laws that generally determine word borrowings. Just look at how the Europeans "converted" the indigenous place names when they came to the New World. Some are so far off that it's hard to even see a connection (for example see here for the etymologies of the U.S. state names).

One person who did believe that there might be a connection between Cham and Khemia was Yitzhak Avineri. In a 1945 article published in Yad HaLashon (page 202), he complains about how recently the spelling of the Hebrew word for chemistry - chimiya - has changed from חימיה (with a chet) to כימיה (with a kaf). While the linguist pushing for the change base it on the Arabic cognate al-kimiya, he gives two proofs: 1) that chimiya might originate either in the chum (dark) color of the Nile soil, or be related to Cham, and 2) everyone pronounces the word chimiya, not kimiya. If it was to be spelled with a kaf, it would require a dagesh in the beginning, making it kimiya (my guess is the pronunciation is influenced by those of European languages, such as the Russian khimiya.) Avineri quotes a couple of dictionaries that still spell the word with a chet, but the new spelling won out, and only כימיה is found today.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


With Pesach coming soon, I'd like to take a look at a word that appears in the very beginning of the Haggadah. Before Ha Lachma Anya, even before kiddush - there is the phrase: מוזגים כוס ראשון mozgim kos rishon. Generally translated as "pour the first cup", this might seem like a simple instruction, and not worthy of much notice. And in fact, none of the many hagadot that I checked discussed the word mozeg מוזג at all. But as we often see here, there's more to it than meets the eye.

Let's start by looking at the word mozeg. While it does mean "pour" in modern Hebrew, that wasn't the original meaning of the word. It appears in Biblical Hebrew once - in the noun form mezeg מזג, in Shir HaShirim 7:3. Its sister form, מסך, appears a number of times - both as a verb masach (Yishayahu 5:22, 19:14, Tehilim 102:10, Mishlei 9:2,5) and as the nouns mesek (Tehilim 75:9) and mimsak ממסך (Yishayahu 65:11, Mishlei 23:30). What does it mean? It means "to mix", specifically to mix wine.

Some of my readers will jump at the similarities between mezeg/mesek and the English word "mix" - or its Greek source misgein. As this scholar pointed out, the מָסְכָה יֵינָהּ - mascha yeina of Mishlei 9:2 looks a lot like English and Latin:

When Jerome must translate miscuit vinum, and the RSV "she has mixed her wine," we have an uncanny feeling that Latin and English are part of the same linguistic world as Hebrew.

And there are those who do try to connect them. We've seen before that there seems to be a Greek connection to many of the words in Shir HaShirim, and Graetz thinks that mezeg might be a Greek borrowing as well. However, most scholars think that's not likely, and they don't even point to a possible earlier common root (as we saw with wine and yayin). There are those that actually connect מזג / מסך to the Egyptian mdg/mtk.

While mesek shows up more times than mezeg in the Tanach, in Rabbinic Hebrew, the verb mozeg is much more common. (The Even Shoshan dictionary strangely quotes the Mishna in Berachot 8:2 and Pesachim 10:2 as examples in their entry for מזג under the meaning "pour", when the Mishna clearly meant "mix". ) In fact in Avoda Zara 58b, we see that the rabbis noted this development:

R. Assi asked R. Yochanan: How is it when wine is mixed (masak) by a heathen? — He said to him: Use the verb mazag! [R. Assi] replied: I used the Scriptural word as in, "She has slain her sacrifice, she has mixed [masekah] her wine" (Mishlei 9:2). He said to him: The language of the Torah is distinct and so is the language of the Sages.

The verb mozeg continues to mean "mix" in Medieval (and later) Hebrew as well. In fact, there's an interesting parallel between the English word "temper" and mezeg. Temper originally meant "to mix". From here we get temperament - the composition (mix) of one's personality, and mezeg had the same meaning in Jewish philosophical writings. Another derivative of temper is temperature - the composition of the weather - and in Hebrew, we have the related terms mezeg avir מזג אוויר- "weather" and mizug avir מיזוג אוויר or mazgan מזגן - "air conditioner". (There is also the English word temperance - but as it means "abstinence from alcoholic drink", I don't think we'll find a related word in Hebrew with the root מזג...)

We've skipped over an important question: Why was there a need to mix their wine at all? We see from Talmudic sources that wine was mixed with water, generally three parts water to one part wine (see Shabbat 77a, Niddah 19a). Since today we never mix wine with water, a common explanation is that the wine of that time was much stronger than the wine today.

However, as a doctor friend of mine pointed out to me, there's a problem with that explanation. Before the discovery and spread of distillation, no wine could ever reach a higher alcohol content than 14%. (In research for this post, I learned that brandy is wine that has been distilled, and can reach 36-60% alcohol content, and port is wine that has been fortified by adding brandy - and has approximately 20% alcohol.) Diluting such a wine by 75% leaves a very low alcohol content. It's not likely that they were so sensitive to alcohol that they need such a weak wine. So what's the answer?

So as we did when we looked at mesubin, let's go to the Greeks. They too diluted their wine (in a special bowl called a krater, from which we get the English word crater) - often at the same proportions mentioned in the Mishna. In The Chemistry and Biology of Winemaking, Ian Spencer Hornsey describes the Greek and Roman practice of diluting wine:

Wine was almost invariably mixed with water before being drunk, and drinking undiluted wine, called merum, was either viewed as a provincial and barbarian habit, or, as a drink reserved for the gods.
(The English word "mere" actually comes from the Latin word merum).
They continue:

The Romans usually mixed one part of wine to two parts of water, and hot water, or even seawater could be used. This contrasts somewhat with the Greeks, who also diluted their wine, but with three, or four, parts of water. According to Pliny, seawater was added to 'enliven the wine's smoothness'. Diluting wine in ancient times served two purposes: firstly, it turned it into a thirst-quenching drink that could be consumed in large quantities; and, secondly, the presence of alcohol made the water safer to drink, an important consideration in the growing cities of the Greek and Roman empires, where potable water was at a premium.
We see that drinking straight water was discouraged in Jewish sources as well (Gittin 69b).

The book The Road to Eleusis also discusses the issue of the Greeks diluting their wine, and comes up with the same question about the alcohol content. And the authors find something fascinating:

This custom of diluting wine deserves our attention since the Greeks did not know the art of distillation and hence the alcoholic content of their wines could not have exceeded about fourteen percent, at which concentration the alcohol from natural fermentation becomes fatal to the fungus that produced it, thereby terminating the process. Simple evaporation without distillation could not increase the alcoholic content since alcohol, which has a lower boiling point than water, will merely escape to the air, leaving the final product weaker instead of more concentrated. Alcohol in fact was never isolated as the toxin in wine and there is no word for it in ancient Greek. Hence the dilution of wine, usually with at least three parts of water, could be expected to produce a drink of slight inebriating properties.

That, however, was not the case. The word for drunkenness in Greek designates a state of raving madness. We hear of some wines so strong that they could be diluted with twenty parts of water and that required at least eight parts water to be drunk safely, for, according to report, the drinking of certain wines straight actually caused permanent brain damage and in some cases even death. Just three small cups of diluted wine were enough in fact to bring the drinker to the threshold of madness. Obviously the alcohol could not have been the cause of these extreme reactions. We can also document the fact that different wines were capable of inducing different physical symptoms, ranging from slumber to insomnia and hallucinations.

The solution to this apparent contradiction is simply that ancient wine, like the wine of most early peoples, did not contain alcohol as its sole inebriant but was ordinarily a variable infusion of herbal toxins in a vinous liquid. Unguents, spices, and herbs, all with recognized psychotropic properties, could be added to the wine at the ceremony of its dilution with water. A description of such a ceremony occurs in Homer’s Odyssey, where Helen prepares a special wine by adding the euphoric nepenthes to the wine that she serves her husband and his guest. The fact is that the Greeks had devised a spectrum of ingredients for their drinks, each with its own properties.
(One of the authors, Carl A. P. Ruck, discusses the issue in more detail in his book Sacred Mushrooms: Secrets of Eleusis, on pages 92-97).

So it wasn't the alcohol that made the wine strong - it was the spices! And in fact, we see that "spices" were added to wine in a number of Hebrew sources. We see that almost all the mentions of mesek can be explained to be adding spices or other drugs to the wine (see for example Daat Mikra on Yishayahu 19:14, and Shadal on Yishayahu 5:22, who writes, "they would add spices סמים to wine in order to make it more intoxicating"). In Maccabees III 5:45 it says that the elephants were driven to madness before battle by giving them "wine mixed with frankincense". Kaddari mentions Mark 15:23 , where we see that myrrh was added to the wine as an anaesthetic (we've previously discussed how in Jewish sources wine was provided before an execution.) And there are similar sources in the Talmud as well (Maaser Sheni 2:1). Note that the Aramaic word for intoxication was besumei בסומי- from besamim בשמים, "spices"!

We've mentioned before (for example in our discussion of afikoman) that the seder was modeled on the Greek symposium. However, the rabbis made sure that this special occasion did not denigrate into simple revelry or worse. So of course it was very important to mix the wine with water. In fact, there was an opinion in the Mishna that if one did not dilute the wine the blessing "borei pri hagafen" could not be made (Berachot 50b). And one of the descriptions of the "rebellious son" was that he drank neat wine - without dilution (Sanhedrin 70a). Certainly this would not be appropriate for the Seder night (see Pesachim 108b for a discussion of whether one fulfills the seder night obligation with undiluted wine).

Of course as time went on, as Rashi and the Tosafot mention (on Pesachim 108b), there was no longer a need or a practice to dilute the wine. However, I do find it strange that nothing is done at the Seder to recall this once common custom. We saw that with mesubin and afikoman that the the meaning and practice of the words have changed significantly over the generations. But we still do eat the afikoman and lean on our side - even if that wasn't the original intent. What is left of the mixing of wine? Maybe, if only to get the children to ask questions - we should be inspired by Shir HaShirim, and not leave out the "mezeg" -אַל-יֶחְסַר הַמָּזֶג al yechsar hamazeg!

Sunday, March 08, 2009


Purim is coming up, so let's talk about the word bira בירה. No, I'm not talking about the Hebrew word for "beer" - although I will mention that Avineri in Yad HaLashon writes that it would be better if we used the Biblical shekhar שכר for beer. He also doesn't know why the letter heh was added to the end of bira - no European language calls it bira, so we may as well have called it "beer".

No, I'm talking about the unrelated word bira - which in modern Hebrew means "capital (city)". However, the word meant something different originally. It derives from the Akkadian birtu, meaning "fortress", and according to the Encyclopedia Mikrait entered Hebrew via the Aramaic בירתא. We find it in the later Biblical books - Nechemiah (1:1, 2:8, 7:2), Divrei HaYamim I (29:1,19) where it referred to the Beit HaMikdash or the fortress protecting it, Daniel (8:2) and of course frequently in Megilat Esther as Shushan HaBira שושן הבירה.

The meaning in the biblical passages is up to some debate, but is generally understood to mean fortress, citadel or palace. My own theory is that perhaps it is equivalent to armon ארמון - which only appears in the earlier First Temple books (see also Radak, Sefer Hashorashim pg 42.)

Prof. Paul Mandel in his article "Birah as an Architectural Term in Rabbinic Literature" in Tarbiz 61 (1992) shows how by the time of Talmudic Hebrew, the word bira came to mean "a large building" or an insula. This is the sense used in the midrash where Avraham is compared to someone seeing a bira (mansion) on fire, and looks for the ba'al habira בעל הבירה (master of the mansion).

The idea that bira meant some kind of fortress (either one building or a compound) seems to have been universally accepted by both commentaries and translations until relatively recently. For example, Ibn Ezra on Esther 1:2 distinguishes between the city of Shushan and the bira of Shushan (see here for an extensive discussion of the Ibn Ezra in English, along with diagrams). This distinction seems quite necessary, since we see twice (3:15, 8:14-15) that both the city and the bira are mentioned - indicating two separate entities. This article by Avraham Korman (based partially on Reuvein Margolies in HaMikrah v'Hamesorah, which is also quoted here) points out a number of difficulties that our distinction helps resolve:

  • In 1:5 it says that the king made a banquet in his garden everyone who lived in Shushan HaBira. If it referred to the entire city, it would be hard to understand how thousands of people could fit in his garden. But if it was only for the king's fortress, it is a reasonable (although still impressive) number. The assumption is that within the royal fortress lived approximately 1000 people.
  • In 2:5 it mentions that a Jew lived in Shushan HaBira - Mordechai. This seems to indicate that he was the only Jew. How is that possible - there were many Jews in the city of Shushan? However, he was the only Jew in the king's compound. The Vilna Gaon points out in his commentary that this is mentioned to highlight the miraculous nature of the story, where Mordechai was fortunate enough to be in the king's stronghold.
  • In 9:6, it says that the Jews killed 500 men in Shushan HaBira. In 9:15 it describes how after receiving permission from the king, the Jews killed 300 people in Shushan. This indicates two different incidents.
  • He also quotes Rabbi Meir Mazuz as pointing out that Shushan is always spelled with a kamatz, whereas Shushan HaBira is always spelled with a patach.
This is also confirmed by more modern archeological research (famously done by Dieulafoy), for example here:

The fortress ... This distinguishes the acropolis, in which the palace lay, from the less strongly fortified surrounding "city of Susa", which lay on the other side of the river Choaspses.
(It's interesting to note the the midrash in Megillah 15a notes that Mordechai had to cross a river in order to pass the message from Esther - who was in the bira - to the Jews in the city of Shushan.)

So if bira is distinct from "city", when and how did it come to mean "capital"? The linguist Yosef Klausner wrote in a 1912 essay that the use of bira as "capital" was common in literature, but should be abandoned, since the original meaning was "fortress". He says that this is a relatively new usage in any case, as it only began during the period of the Haskala - the Jewish Enlightenment.

And indeed if we look at the Biur, the Biblical commentary written by Mendelssohn and his students, we see that they deliberately gave the word a "new" definition. (Thanks so much to S. from On the Main Line for his help finding the Biur as well as other sources in this post.) According to this book, "the commentary on Esther (1788) contains a German translation by A. Wolfsohn and a Hebrew commentary by J. Lowe". Lowe (also known as Joel Bril) writes the following in his commentary on Esther 1:2 -

"the city where the king sits is called bira, and according to the Ibn Ezra, the meaning is palace"
Why they felt the need for this change is not clear to me. But it is evident that they "knew what they were doing". This wasn't a natural progression of meaning - it is a clear rejection of the Ibn Ezra, who represented the consensus.

The Biur's explanation seems to have had a major influence on Isaac Leeser, who wrote one of the first Jewish English translations to the Bible. According to this article

The Jewish prototype for the Leeser Bible was Zunz's Die vier und zwanzig Bucher der Heiligen Schrift (1838). Leeser even used the English equivalent, The Twenty-Four Books of the Holy Scriptures, for his Bible. "As respects the translation," Leeser wrote in the postscript to his Pentateuch, "he feels it his duty to acknowledge that he has received the greatest aid from the Pentateuch of Arnheim, and the Bible of Zunz, even to a greater degree than from the works of Mendelssohn, Hochstatter, Johlson, Heineman, and several anonymous contributors to our biblical literature.
However, in this case, Leopold Zunz translates bira as burg, meaning "castle", whereas Leeser translates Esther 1:2 as

In those days, when this king Achashverosh was sitting on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the capital

Leeser apparently had a great impact on future Jewish translations. For example, Koren's The Jerusalem Bible, translated by Harold Fisch, draws on Leeser as well as the later Jewish Family Bible by Friedlander. All three use "capital" for bira.

A comparison of Google search results is helpful here:

  • "the fortress shushan" - 121
  • "the capital shushan" - 159
  • "shushan the capital" - 1,080
  • "shushan the fortress" - 1,730
  • "shushan the palace" - 12,900
  • "shushan the castle" - 274
  • "shushan the capitol" - 158
Now I'm sure that the high number of "shushan the palace" is due to it being used in the very popular KJV translation. But what I find interesting is that from looking at the examples of "shushan the capital" (and "the capital shushan") is that they are nearly all from clearly Jewish websites. Even very Orthodox sites use this "non-traditional" translation. I have a feeling that this is not only due to the influence of Leeser, but also from the impact of teaching and speaking Modern Hebrew, even in English speaking countries. Everyone knows now that Yerushalayim is the bira of Medinat Yisrael - so it is logical that Shushan would be the capital of Persia.

If you noticed, one of those search results is a little strange. "Shushan the capitol"? As a reminder, capital and capitol are not synonyms. From The American Heritage Book of English Usage:

Capital and capitol are terms that are often confused, mainly because they refer to things that are in some ways related. The term for a town or city that serves as a seat of government is spelled capital. The term for the building in which a legislative assembly meets is spelled capitol.
So who called Shushan the "capitol"? If I'm not mistaken, this was first used by Artscroll, in their very first publication, an English edition of Megilat Esther. Here's an excerpt from that book. They translate Esther 1:2 as:

that in those days, when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne which was in Shushan the capitol
But in the commentary, they write:
Shushan the Capitol
This was the palace surrounded by the less fortified עיר שושן, the residential part of Shushan where the Jews lived. [The capitol was separated from the city by a river.]
Even after considering this for a while, I haven't been able to figure out what Artscroll was going for here. Was capitol a spelling mistake and they meant to write "capital"? That doesn't seem likely, as they clearly identified Shushan as a palace in the commentary. In the introduction to the volume, they explain how their translation is more in tune with tradition than the JPS 1917 translation. That translation uses "Shushan the castle.". Maybe they figured they could appear different from the JPS, while also staying connected to tradition by giving it the name of a building? And so perhaps they appropriated the term capitol for bira? Not sure. And why do they jump between upper and lower case?

In any case, in this later book, the Interlinear Megillah - they use the more common "capital".

So what we have here, is an innovation that should have been rejected by both the traditional Orthodox: כָּל אִישׁ שֹׂרֵר בְּבֵיתוֹ "every man should wield authority in his home" as well as the Modern Hebrew linguists - וּמְדַבֵּר כִּלְשׁוֹן עַמּוֹ - "and speak the language of his own people". But in the end - וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא - the opposite occurred...

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


Purim is coming up soon, and I was recently asked about the meaning of the phrase שושנת יעקב shoshanat yaakov, found in the piyut sung after the reading of the megila.

I grabbed the siddur closest to me, an Artscroll, and it gave the translation "rose of Jacob". However, the Sacks translation in the new Koren English siddur has "lily of Jacob". A number of other siddurim have either "lily" or "rose", so I thought perhaps Birnbaum could break the tie. He actually translates the phrase as "Jews of Shushan", which probably is closest to the figurative sense of the phrase, but doesn't help us as to the question of whether a shoshana שושנה is a lily or a rose. (Just to make it clear, there's no etymological connection between Shushan and shoshana. However, the folk etymology is ancient - going all the way back to the Babylonian conquest of the city. So it certainly makes sense that the anonymous author of the piyut would make a poetic connection between the two terms.)

So let's look at the dictionaries. Here's there is much more uniformity. Klein has two entries - one for שושן (shoshan or shushan) and the other for shoshana -both primarily based on Ben Yehuda. First shoshan:

lily. (Some scholars identify shoshan with the lotus, others with the ranunculus Asiaticus, still others with the cyperus papyrus.) [Related to Aramaic שושנתא (whence Ugaritic twt, Arabic sausan, Vulgar Arabic susan), Akkadian sheshanu (=lily), Syriac shishno (=butomus flowers). Several scholars derive these words from Egyptian sshshn and sshn, Coptic shoshen (=big flower; lotus). According to others the above words go back to Akkadian shushu (six-sided), shishshu (=sixth). Greek souson, whence Latin Susanna, are Semitic loan words.]
As you may recall, we discussed the connection between shoshana and six in our post on shesh. I mentioned there that Ibn Ezra connects shoshana to shesh in his commentary on Shir HaShirim 2:2 -
It is a white flower of sweet but narcotic perfume, and it receives its name because the flower has, in every case, six [shesh] petals, within which are six long filaments.
Klein continues with his entry on shoshana:

1. lily. 2. Post Biblical Hebrew: flower 3. PBH knot of a nail 4. New Hebrew: erysipelas (disease). 5. NH rose [a collateral form of שושן]
Steinberg identifies both the shoshan and shoshana as a lily, and Kaddari specifies the lilium candidum, the shoshan hatzachor שושן הצחור - the flower on the one shekel coin. (He does say that it could be referring to the lotus in Melachim I 7: 22, 26). Amos Chacham in his Daat Mikra commentary on Shir HaShirim, distinguishes between the shoshana bein hachochim שושנה בין החוחים - lilium candidum (2:2), and shoshanat ha'amakim שושנת העמקים - narcissus tazetta (2:1), also known as the narkis נרקיס (which also has six petals). The Encyclopedia Ivrit (quoted in this interesting article about shoshana) goes so far as to say that when the lilium candidum was found growing wild in the Galil and Carmel - the long debate about the identification of the Biblical shoshana was over.

So if the Biblical shoshana referred to a kind of lily - when did it become associated with the rose? Ben Yehuda writes that in Talmudic Hebrew, shoshana came to indicate "flower" in general. Paul Romanoff, in this article, writes:

The lily, shoshanah, is used generically, as it embraced other related flowers. Lilies had grown on hills and in the field. The choicest of lilies were those that grew in the valleys, in the proximity of water. Perah - flower in the Bible - is often rendered shoshanah - lily in the Targum.
In a footnote, he notes Targum Onkelos to Shmot 25:31-34 and Bamidbar 8:4 as examples of perach being translated as shoshana.

He then goes on to discuss Jewish coins with flowers on them, including one with what looks like a rose. He explains this as follows:

This seeming inaccuracy is explained by the generic term of shoshan which might have included such flowers as the lotus and even the rose. In fact, the Midrash contains a few passages which speak of a soft lily, and the excellent of this kind is the lily of the valley, paralleling the rose of the valley. Besides these allusions, the Midrash specifically mentions a shoshanah shel wered -a lily-rose - which grows in orchards, this species of lily-rose being the symbol of Israel.
So we see from this example from Vayikra Rabba (23:3), that the shoshana shel vered שושנה של ורד was a subset of the more generic shoshana. Vered is a post-biblical word, to which Klein gives the following etymology:

Aramaic ורדא, borrowed from Iranian *wrda, whence Greek rodon, whence Latin rosa (=rose)
Ben Yehuda says that the association of the rose with the shoshana eventually led to later commentators to identify the shoshana with the rose in general. He gives two reasons: a) because they viewed the rose as the most beautiful flower, and b) the rose was well known to them, whereas they had difficulty identifying the Biblical shoshana. This Safa-Ivrit article mentions two other reasons: a) the shoshana is described as the queen of the flowers - which could apply to the rose, and b) the word vered doesn't appear in the Tanach, so they didn't need to say that shoshana = lily and vered = rose. I would also add that in no verse is the color of the shoshana or shoshan mentioned - leaving room for it to be either the white lily or the red rose. (Shir HaShirim 5:13 does mention שפתותיו שושנים - "his lips are like shoshanim". However, that does not necessarily mean color - as Ibn Ezra points out it could refer to the fragrance of the shoshanim, or as suggested by the Daat Mikra, the shape of the leaves.)

Rashi in particular reinforced the identification of shoshana with rose in his commentary on Shir HaShirim 2:2, where he describes it as always remaining red (although he doesn't mention the word rose or vered.) It also appears that the Zohar identifies the shoshana as a rose.

As the Safa-Ivrit article points out, immigrants to Israel from Europe with names related to Rose - Raisel, Rosa, etc - generally used to adopt the name Shoshana. So while vered was still known to be "rose", I'm guessing it was more of a technical term, and less of a popular one. However, now the name Vered is also popular - which I think came in parallel to the flower being more popularly known as vered.

So which translation is right? In a way, this is similar to the phenomenon we've seen before, such as in the question of what is the nesher. We now live in a scientific age, where every plant and animal is classified and sub-classified into genus and species. So we expect that the Hebrew names should reflect that level of precision. But the ancients weren't as concerned with that level of detail as we are today, and therefore shoshana could refer to a number of different flowers - even those fairly distantly related botanically.

So while both the Biblical and modern shoshana mean "lily", it could be that the author of the piyut was actually thinking "rose." So maybe Birnbaum had the safest translation after all...