Wednesday, May 27, 2009

aguna and ogen

In our last post, we discussed the possible connection between almana (widow) and the root אלם - "to bind". Steinberg wrote that one meaning of the root is "restrained, imprisoned, alone" and provided another Hebrew root with a similar meaning - עגן. From this root we get the word agunah עגונה - a deserted woman, a woman whose husband has disappeared, and who is restrained from marrying again.

The root עגן only appears once in the Bible, in Ruth 1:13, when Naomi addresses her daughters-in-law, discussing her future, unborn sons:

הֲלָהֵן תְּשַׂבֵּרְנָה, עַד אֲשֶׁר יִגְדָּלוּ, הֲלָהֵן תֵּעָגֵנָה, לְבִלְתִּי הֱיוֹת לְאִישׁ

"Should you wait for them to grow up? Should you shut yourselves off for them (te'agenah) and have no husbands?"
(Ibn Ezra, perhaps deliberately, notes that the word is unique by writing that it "has no friend".)

Rashi in his commentary on Ruth tries to show that actually the root here is עוג and that the word תעגנה is the feminine plural future form of the verb. His proof for this is that if the nun was part of the root, it should have had a dagesh or appeared twice. He still says the word means "restriction", but gives the example of Honi HaMe'agel who "עג עוגה ועמד בתוכה" - drew (ag) a circle and stood inside it until it rained.

However, Avineri in Heichal Rashi points out that according most grammarians the nun is part of the root (for example the Radak in Sefer HaShorashim), and even Rashi himself in his commentary on Bava Kama 80a (s.v. ha'aguna) connects the word aguna and the verse in Ruth.

Many people connect aguna and the Hebrew word for "anchor" - עוגן ogen. For example, this book: aguna, a woman whose husband for whatever reason cannot be reached for the purposes of a divorce. She is legally married, but she has no husband and yet cannot remarry. (The Hebrew word ogen means "anchor"; the woman is "anchored," tied to a situation from which there seems to be no release.)

There seems to be support for the connection from the gemara in Bava Batra 73a:

משנה: המוכר את הספינה מכר את התורן ואת הנס ואת העוגין...

גמרא: תורן איסקריא ... נס אדרא ... עוגין תני רבי חייא אלו עוגינין שלה וכן הוא אומר (רות א) הלהן תשברנה עד אשר יגדלו הלהן תעגנה לבלתי היות לאיש

Mishna: If a man sold a ship, he sold also the mast, the anchor (ogin)
Gemara: Toren is the mast (iskarya) ... Nes is the sail (idra)...Ogin (anchor) - R. Hiyya taught: these are its anchors, as it said, "Should you wait for them to grow up? Should you shut yourselves off for them (te'agenah) and have no husbands?" (Rut 1:13)
And both Jastrow and Ben Yehuda write that ogen and aguna are related.

But the more recent dictionaries, like Klein and Even Shoshan say that the etymology of ogen is Greek - from the word onkinos, meaning "hook". Why do they reject what seems to be a shared meaning of the two words, the gemara in Bava Batra and the opinion of Ben Yehuda, who they generally follow?

Well, on a linguistic level, some other heavyweights have shown that ogen has a Greek source, such as Fraenkel on page 229 here, Fleischer on page 557 here, Krauss in his Tosafot Ha-Arukh Ha-Shalem, page 155b (although conspicuously not in his dictionary of Greek and Latin loanwords in Rabbinic Literature) and Sperber in his Nautica Talmudica (page 139). They point out that the Yerushalmi version of Bava Batra (as well as a number of manuscripts of the Mishna) has hogin הוגין (with a heh) instead of ogin (with an ayin). This spelling is found frequently throughout Rabbinic literature, such as in Sifrei Devarim 346 and Bereshit Rabba 12:12. They believe this is the earlier spelling, and as such is more likely to come from the Greek than the Hebrew עגן (and it's important to remember that both Jastrow and Ben Yehuda tend to emphasize Semitic origins for words).

It also seems that the original meaning of עגן was not to "tie down" or "hold back", but more to "shut in, imprison", as found in the Arabic cognate ajama - "to lock up". So we have a coincidence of two similar sounding words having a similar meaning, but not a common origin.

So what do we make of the gemara? According to Gabriel Birnbaum in his book "Mishnaic Hebrew as Reflected in the Cairo Geniza", the explanation of the gemara is due to folk etymology, helped along by the admittedly similar meanings, and perhaps as well by the Babylonian difficulty distinguishing between the guttural letters (see here, note 165.)

But I'm willing to cut them a little more slack. If we look at the other terms in the gemara, we see the following pattern:

Hebrew word -> explained with "foreign" word (Aramaic with Greek origin)
So if R' Chiya was familiar with the Greek origin of ogen, it would make sense that he'd reverse the order:

foreign word -> explained via Hebrew word (by asmachta - where a verse is given as "proof", even though the author knows the verse may be referring to something else)
By the way, if we look at the Greek word onkinos (as well as the related Greek word onkos and the Latin uncinus, all of the same meaning) we find some interesting cognates. They all seem to derive from the Indo-European root *ang-/*ank, meaning "to bend":

  • ankle - ME ancle, ancleou from OE ancleow (& ? ON ǫkkla) from IE base *ang-, limb, var. of *ank-, to bend > angle, angle, Gr ankōn, elbow, ankylos, crooked
  • oncidium (type of flower) - New Latin Oncidium, genus name : Greek onkos, barb, hook (from the shape of its labellum) + New Latin -idium, diminutive suff. (from Greek -idion)
  • angle - both the verb (to fish):

    Middle English angelen, from angel fishhook, from Old English, from anga hook; akin to Old High German ango hook, Latin uncus, Greek onkos barbed hook

    and the noun (intersecting lines):

    from L. angulum (nom. angulus) "corner," a dim. form from PIE base *ang-/*ank- "to bend"
  • Angles: a modern English word for a Germanic-speaking people who took their name from the cultural ancestral region of Angeln, a modern district located in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. The region got its name due to"its hook-like shape". When the inhabitants of that region together with the Saxons (and Jutes) invaded Britain, they gave it the name "England" and the language "English".
  • and of course the word anchor: O.E. ancor, borrowed 9c. from L. ancora, from or cognate with Gk. ankyra "anchor, hook"
Over the course of researching this post, I kept saying words like onkinos, ankylos and ankle, and had a hunch that perhaps the name of the famous convert and translator Onkelos was also related. And indeed, according to these two sources - his name did derive from Greek and probably meant "crooked" - possibly alluding "originally to some physical imperfection". (I won't get into the question of whether Onkelos and Aquila were the same person - for more read the sources linked to above.)

I wonder if perhaps an Eastern European immigrant to America ever thought he heard "Onkelos translation" when someone mentioned an "English translation" to the Torah. Certainly Onkelos didn't know English, but their names might actually be related...

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Previously we discussed the word "omer", and I mentioned that one of the definitions is "sheaf". Someone wrote to me with the following request:

One suggestion: most English speakers, myself included, do not have a clue what the word "sheaf" really means--in English. A word or two explaining what on earth a "sheaf" is would be helpful!
Fair enough. So according to the American Heritage Dictionary, a sheaf is:

A bundle of cut stalks of grain or similar plants bound with straw or twine.
This may actually would be even a better definition for aluma אלומה than for omer עומר. Why? Because as we discussed, the word omer may be related to "handful" or "armful". But the word aluma clearly is related to "bind/bundle", as we see in Yosef's description of his dream (Bereshit 37:7)

וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶה

"There we were binding (me'almim) sheaves (alumim) in the field"

Onkelos translates both the noun and the verb with the root אסר, and the Targum Yerushalmi uses the root כרך (see Rashi on Bava Metzia 21a) - both of which mean "to bind".

There are a number of other words that have the root אלמ - and various authorities connect them. Let's look at a few:

  • אלם - ilem: mute, silent. Klein writes that is usually explained as meaning "bound in one's speech".

  • אלמוני - almoni: anonymous. It is always found in the Bible as part of the phrase פלוני אלמוני ploni almoni - "an uncertain man". Klein derives it from the root אלם - "to be silent" and says it literally means "one whose name is unknown". (The etymology of ploni is unclear.)

  • אלים - alim: Originally meant "strong", in Modern Hebrew "violent". Eliahu Netanel, in his column in Shabbat B'Shabbato writes that the root אלם had different, but related, meanings in the various Semitic languages: in Arabic - pain, Aramaic - strength, Syriac - anger. He feels that binding is related to strength. This is also the opinion of both Jastrow and Steinberg, who both connect the root to an earlier two-letter root א-ל, meaning "strength". (We discussed that root in the post about ilan.) However, Klein feels that the Arabic and Syriac roots mentioned are not related to the Hebrew root meaning "to bind". He says the root אלם - "to be strong" is related to the root עלם - "to be mature".

  • אלמנה - almana: widow. Jastrow says this is connected to our root by the associated meanings "to be tied up, excluded, lonely, mute". Steinberg points out the verse in Shmuel II 20:3 where it describes women who:

    וַתִּהְיֶינָה צְרֻרוֹת עַד-יוֹם מֻתָן, אַלְמְנוּת חַיּוּת
    "remained in seclusion (tzerurot) until the day they died, in living widowhood (almenut)"
    The root צרר also means "to bind". The Ritva on Ketubot 10b writes that the almana is like someone who is mute, for no one defends her. (The gemara there has a drasha to prove a a halachic point.) This is also the opinion of many of the Medieval Hebrew grammarians.
    However, many sources say that almana is not related to the root אלם. For example, Klein quotes Barth as saying that the base is רמל, related to the Arabic words murmil, armal, meaning "needy, helpless." He also quotes Noldeke and Ruzicka as connecting the word with the Arabic alima - "he felt pain" (which we've already seen that Klein does not connect to the meaning "to bind".)

  • אולם - ulam: Jastrow says the word means "in front of, opposite", and from there "entrance, hall". He says it also derives from the root אלם, but doesn't explain how (perhaps he feels there's a connection between "in front of" and "surround / bound". In any case, no one else connects the terms, but I was surprised to see that the two meanings of ulam - "but, however" and "porch, vestibule, hall, parlor" are accepted by most as deriving from the Akkadian ellamu - "in front of, opposite."

Monday, May 11, 2009


With the Pope visiting Israel, we hear the unusual Hebrew translation for pope - afifyor (or apifyor) אפיפיור. What is the origin of the word?

It appears once in the Talmud, in Avoda Zara 11a, in a story describing Onkelos the convert, and how the Emperor (his uncle) sent Roman soldiers to arrest him. However, Onkelos was able to convert them as well, by presenting arguments to them. One the arguments was the following:

אמר להו אימא לכו מילתא בעלמא ניפיורא נקט נורא קמי (א)פיפיורא (א)פיפיורא לדוכסא דוכסא להגמונא הגמונא לקומא קומא מי נקט נורא מקמי אינשי אמרי ליה לא אמר להו הקב"ה נקט נורא קמי ישראל דכתיב (שמות יג) וה' הולך לפניהם יומם וגו'

He said to them: 'Let me tell you just an ordinary thing: [In a procession] the torchlighter carries the light in front of the afifior, the afifior in front of the leader, the leader in front of the governor, the governor in front of the chief officer; but does the chief officer carry the light in front of the people [that follow]?' 'No!' they replied. Said he: 'Yet the Holy One, blessed be He, does carry the light before Israel, for Scripture says. "And the Lord went before them … in a pillar of fire to give them light" (Shmot 13:21)
Onkelos was demonstrating God's "humility" as compared with the Roman leader's pride.

From this story we can see that afifyor had no religious standing, but was a type of dignitary or high official (so explain both the Arukh and Rashi). This Aramaic word is generally assumed to come from Greek. Krauss says that it derives from the Greek papias - which Ben Yehuda explains as "torch bearer", Klein as "keeper or janitor of the palace" and Steinsaltz as "the official responsible for the gates". (This book says that the Greek noun papias means "porter, conductor or guide".)

Even-Shoshan says that perhaps the word derives from the Greek epiphoros. I couldn't find an exact match for that word, but I do see that epiphero and phoros can mean "carrier" or "bearer". This would fit Jastrow's definition of apifior as "litter carrier, chief lecticarius" (see my post on apiryon for a description of this position). Phoros can also refer to a tribute or tax, so maybe the word describes someone who collects or receives tribute.

Kohut in the Arukh Hashalem quotes the Maharif (Rabbi Yaakov Feraji Mahmah?) as saying that afifyor derives from the Greek purphoros - meaning "torch bearer".

Kohut then goes on to mention the Christian Hebraist Johannes Buxtorf, who in his important Talmudic dictionary says that afifyor means "Papa, Pontifex Romanus" - i.e. the Pope. Kohut correctly points out that this was clearly not the meaning in the Talmudic passage. But by Medieval times (see examples here), this was the term Jews used to refer to the Catholic Pope.

Why was this obscure word chosen? Ben Yehuda offers a few suggestions.

It may have been due to a similarity to the Greek title "papas" (father) for the Pope, or a longer title: "papas hiereus" - chief priest or "papas hieros" - holy father. (Even Shoshan's transliteration papas ieros seems to perhaps be in error.)

He quotes Berliner as claiming that the word comes from "avi pior" - Father (avi אבי in Hebrew) and Pior (Peter in Italian, the first pope). Similarly, Meir Wiener, in his German translation of Emek HaBacha says that afifyor comes from "epi Pior" - after (epi in Greek) and Pior (Peter) - the Pope is Peter's successor.

The question still remains - why use this unusual word, instead of a direct translation? Ben Yehuda suggests that the Jews were avoiding saying the Pope's title ("papa") directly (the Pope generally wasn't such a good friend of the Jews). I'm sure that the Jews living in those times could never have imagined that the Pope would be hosted by a Jewish state, and that the visit of the afifyor would be the top of the news...