Friday, January 01, 2010


As I've mentioned before, William Safire was the first language writer I ever read, and a major inspiration for Balashon. Since his death earlier this year, I've been trying to think of a post that would be a worthy tribute to him. Hopefully, this one will fit the bill.

In his 1982 book, What's the Good Word?, Safire discusses "shibboleths" (page 246), which he defines as "those passwords that signal who is a native and who an outlander." Most of the entry contains examples of various American shibboleths, but he does provide the following background:

"Shibboleth," the Hebrew word for "stream," was used by the soldiers of Gilead to separate their neighbors from the Ephraimites, who pronounced the sh as an s; because they couldn't get it right, according to Judges 12:6, 42,000 Ephraimites were slain. In those days, pronunciation meant something.

However, this etymology was challenged in these two letters he received:

The Concise Oxford Dictionary states that "shibboleth" derives from the Hebrew word for "an ear of corn," not "stream," as you report. Perhaps you base your information on rabbinical authority that would eclipse Oxford.


You state that "shibboleth" is the Hebrew word for "stream." That is not quite correct. It means the current of a stream, not the stream itself. It is used with this meaning in verse 2 of Psalm 69. The word, which is pronounced "shibolet" in modern Hebrew, also means "an ear of corn or a spike." It is also the Hebrew name for the star Spica.

He then prefaces the next letter, from David B. Guralnik (Dictionary Division, Simon & Schuster) with the note, "The current etymology is in the following letter from an eminent lexicographer":

The Hebrew word שבלת, from an Ugaritic root, has several meanings: flowing stream (as in Isaiah 27:12 or Psalms 69:2), ear of corn (as in Ruth 2:2 or Isaiah 17:5), or twigs or branches (as in Zechariah 4:12). The first meaning makes most sense in the Judges narrative precisely because the incident took place at a stream. Seems like a logical password.

So who's right?

First of all, let's look at the verses themselves (Shoftim 12:5-6):

וַיִּלְכֹּד גִּלְעָד אֶת-מַעְבְּרוֹת הַיַּרְדֵּן, לְאֶפְרָיִם; וְהָיָה כִּי יֹאמְרוּ פְּלִיטֵי אֶפְרַיִם, אֶעֱבֹרָה, וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ אַנְשֵׁי-גִלְעָד הַאֶפְרָתִי אַתָּה, וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא.  ו וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ אֱמָר-נָא שִׁבֹּלֶת וַיֹּאמֶר סִבֹּלֶת, וְלֹא יָכִין לְדַבֵּר כֵּן, וַיֹּאחֲזוּ אוֹתוֹ, וַיִּשְׁחָטוּהוּ אֶל-מַעְבְּרוֹת הַיַּרְדֵּן; וַיִּפֹּל בָּעֵת הַהִיא, מֵאֶפְרַיִם, אַרְבָּעִים וּשְׁנַיִם, אָלֶף

The Gileadites held the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any fugitive from Ephraim said, "Let me cross," the men of Gilead would ask him, "Are you an Ephraimite?"; if he said, "No," they would say to him, "Then say shibolet"; but he would say "sibolet," not being able to pronounce it correctly. Thereupon they would seize him and slay him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell at that time.

(An interesting discussion of how the words shibolet and sibolet were transliterated in various non-Hebrew Bibles can be found in this Philologos column and in this book.)

All of the classical Jewish commentaries identify the shibolet in the story as the "current of a stream", although I was surprised to see relatively little discussion of the linguistic nature of this episode (other than by the Radak, who we'll come back to later.) However, a number of scholarly articles in the past 70 years have done much to clarify the issue further.

One of the first was E. A. Speiser, in his 1942 article, "The Shibboleth Incident". Speiser doesn't put much significance in the meaning of the word, but does explain:

The meaning of the word is of minor importance. Elsewhere in the Old Testament it has the sense of "ear of corn" (Gen 41:5 ff.; Ruth 2:2; Zach 4:12) or, less commonly, "flood, torrent" (Psalms 69:3,16; Isa. 27:12). In out passage it is taken in the former sense by such versions as the Greek Codex Vaticanus and Aquila, as well as some modern scholars (Cf. Liebmann ZAW 25 (1905) 161). On the other hand, reference to flowing water is assumed by the medieval Hebrew commentators and a majority of the moderns, evidently because such an allusion would be more appropriate to the occasion.

Instead, he prefers to focus on the phonetic aspect of the issue. While we've been translating the words as "shibolet" and "sibolet" - are either of those accurate representations of how the word was pronounced in Gilad and Efraim? And why couldn't Efraim pronounce it "properly"? Who had the non-standard pronunciation? How were the various pronunciations represented with the limited letters available (and no dots available to indicate the difference between shin and sin)?A full discussion of these questions is beyond the scope of this post, but it turns out that the meaning of the word remains significant, even for Speiser.

He mentions a theory, foreshadowed by the Radak on Shoftim 12:6, and later developed by Joseph Marquart and Zellig Harris. According to them, the two meanings of shibolet have two separate etymologies: "ear of corn" comes from the root sh-b-l  שבל, whereas the meaning "flood, torrent" comes from a distinct root:  th-b-l. Therefore, the Ephraimites pronounced the word as "thibolet", which gave them away. Beeston (1979) thinks that the original root was sbl סבל (as pronounced by the Ephraimites, but agrees the two meanings of shibolet have two different origins:

If we assume that "ear of corn" was indeed *sblt in Proto-Semitic, then the Ephraimite, Arabic and MSA forms are adequately accounted for, and the problem assumes the shape, "Why did non-Ephraimite Hebrew show the shift to shblt?" The latter is a homonym of the word for "watercourse", but it is unlikely that the two words have a common origin. "Watercourse" is closely linked with the very common shebil "road, way", and both should probably be assigned to a PS root *shbl; but "ear of corn" is isolated in the lexicon, with no associated terms. This fact, together with the very close phonetic similarity between it and "watercourse" may have led to a confusion of the two words and the creation of a homonym.

He goes on to say that shevil שביל and shovel שובל (in Yishayahu 47:2, which he translates as "well, fountain") have an "underlying feeling of semantic association".

While Speiser agrees that the anomaly began on the eastern side of the Jordan, with the Gileadites, he does not accept either theory regarding the separate etymology, and instead writes that both of meanings of the word shibolet, along with its various Semitic cognates, derive from one root:

In reality, however, there is no reason for deriving the established homonyms for "ear of corn" and "flood" from two distinct roots. Arabic sbl may underline both "hang down" (whence we get sunbulat-, sabalat- "ear of corn") and "rain, flow." The two ranges are thus easily linked semantically, which accords fully with their apparent etymological identity.

(Yet another view can be found in Rendsburg, 1986, who agrees that the two meanings of shibolet come from distinct roots, but that the Gileadites, influenced by their neighbors the Ammonites, pronounced the meaning "torrent, stream" as thibbolet, which the fleeing Ephraimites rendered as "sibbolet".)

Klein agrees with Speiser, and connects the various words to one root. For example in the entry for shibolet ("ear of corn") he writes:

Formed from שבלת shubolet through dissimilation of the vowels u-o to i-o, related to Aramaic שבלתא, Syriac שבלתא, Arabic sunbulah, sabalah, Ethiopian sabl, Akkadian shubultu (= ear of corn). These words derive from base שבל (= to hang down, draw along, move along)

And for the meaning "flowing stream, current of a river", he adds:

Derived from שבל (= to move along), hence of the same origin as shibolet ["ear of corn"]

As far as shovel, he gives the more common translation as "flowing skirt, train of a robe", and says that it too derives from שבל, literally meaning "that which hangs down". Shevil - "path, way" - has the same origin, and literally means "that which runs along". (From here we get beshvil בשביל - "for", and literally means "in the path of".)

In the end, I find aspects of all the arguments convincing. Luckily for me, I don't need to decide who's right and wrong. But I am curious - shouldn't the meaning of the Biblical text be more obvious? Shouldn't the reader simply know what is meant without all of these debates and discussions? Perhaps it was left deliberately ambiguous, either to encourage study (and future Safire columns), or to allow the word play found with homonyms. That certainly seems to be the case in Yishayahu 27:12, as Hendel points out. The verse reads:

וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, יַחְבֹּט ה' מִשִּׁבֹּלֶת הַנָּהָר עַד-נַחַל מִצְרָיִם; וְאַתֶּם תְּלֻקְּטוּ לְאַחַד אֶחָד, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

And in that day, the Lord will beat out [the peoples like grain] from the flowing stream (shibolet) of the River [Euphrates] to the Wadi of Egypt; and you shall be picked up one by one, O Children of Israel!

Here we have a wonderful play on words. On the one hand, we have the beating of the shibolet of grain (see Ruth 2:2,17) and on the other the shibolet of a river. Maybe understanding this is a sign that when it comes to Hebrew, we're natives, and not outlanders...

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