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...

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