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."

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