Friday, July 30, 2010


In the previous post, we mentioned se'ora שעורה - "barley", so this is a good opportunity to finish the discussion of the five grains of the Land of Israel. There's not much to say about the etymology of se'ora other than to quote Klein who says that it's related to se'ar שער - "hair", and literally means "the hairy or bearded (grain)".
Chita חיטה - "wheat" also has a fairly simple explanation. Klein points out that it probably derives from the root חנט, meaning "to ripen" (with a dropped nun). And we've already discussed shibolet shual שבולת שועל - "oats" and shifon שיפון - "rye" (at least according to their use in modern Hebrew.) What's left? Kusemet כוסמת.

As with shibolet shual and shifon, the identity of kusemet isn't clear. The word appears in the Bible (Shemot 9:32, Yeshayahu 28:25, Yechezkel 4:9) and in the Talmudic literature. The medieval rabbis generally identified it as spelt, but the current scholarly opinion is that it was more likely emmer wheat (unlike emmer, spelt has not been found in Egypt and the Land of Israel in archeological excavations of biblical sites). The name probably comes from the root כסם - "to shear, clip", and "the names derives from the short hairs of the ears which look as though they have been cut" (Encyclopedia Judaica, "Wheat"). However, with kusemet there's an added twist: in Modern Hebrew the word means "buckwheat". Unlike shibolet shual and shifon, there's no halachic opinion that buckwheat is one of the five grains (with all of the laws relating to them). So how did this come to be?

I couldn't find any clear answers, but after a lot of research, I believe I have a possible theory.

First of all, it's important to note that this wasn't an invention of Ben Yehuda. In fact, his dictionary doesn't mention the identification of kusemet with buckwheat at all (even to reject it). I did find it in three different sources from 19th century Haskala writers. Mendele Mocher Sfarim in 1862 (Toldot HaTeva) and Moshe Studentzky in 1853 (Orchot Chaim) both use the word kusemet as buckwheat in “scientific” definitions, as well as an earlier use by a Jewish convert to Christianity, Aaron Pick, in 1845.  I have no reason to believe they were all influenced by one common contemporary source - and if it exists, I couldn't find it.

So I think it was probably more likely that these various sources were all inspired by common usage (Jewish or non-Jewish). Here the trail goes cold, but I think there are certain hints about what might have led them to this translation.

If we go all the way back to the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, we see that kusemet was translated as "far". Interestingly, far, at the time, could mean either spelt or emmer (the confusion continues to this day). But later, far came to mean grain in general. The Vulgate was the main influence for pre-Lutheran bibles, written in Low German, which weren't known for their scholarship. Some of them translated kusemet as boekwete, the German word for buckwheat. (Luther translated kusemet as spelt, and his translation became the standard in Germany after his Reformation, and supplanted those earlier bibles.)

Low German is closely related to Dutch, and here we get a few more clues. There are two legends in Holland about buckwheat. One is that buckwheat was first brought to Europe from the Holy Land by Joos van Ghistele in 1485, and the other is a folk etymology mentioned in a number of sources, such as Bert Greene in The Grains Cookbook (page 56):

It was the Dutch who gave buckwheat its rightful name. In 1549 the officially dubbed it boek weit (book wheat) to honor the Scriptures whose auspices, they claimed, brought it to flower on their shores.

Neither of the above is likely true (buckwheat was never found widely in the Land of Israel, and the correct etymology is "beech wheat", since buckwheat seeds and beech seeds look similar). But that's not terribly relevant to our search - if people in that area thought that buckwheat was a biblical grain from the Holy Land, then it makes sense that when they found a strange word in the Bible, which they understood as just meaning "grain", they would connect the two. And so therefore kusemet could go from far to boekweit, and if this association continued for a few more centuries, then Jews could make buckwheat into kusemet.

And this is apparently what happened, for in addition to the Haskala sources I found, the Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim 208:181) writes in the 19th century that most people knew that buckwheat was not one of the five grains. The fact that he needed to point that out is a sign that there was already wide use in Europe of kusemet as buckwheat.

As we mentioned, Ben Yehuda made no reference to this usage. And in halachic literature, kusemet continued to refer to spelt. But even heavyweights such as these didn't have control over the living language of Modern Hebrew. And the language seemed to come up with a solution of its own, and a strange on at that. Kusemet continued to be used for buckwheat, but the plural, kusmin כוסמין, was reserved for spelt - and you can actually find the two next to each other in the supermarket, even produced by the same company.


1. See also Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 2:25 and Kehati's commentary on Hallah 1:1 for more recent halachic responses to the confusion regarding the meanings of kussemet.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

shiur and shaar

In the previous post, I mentioned how achuz אחוז means "percent", while shiur שיעור means "percentage". However, you might be more familiar with another meaning of shiyur (also pronounced in Yiddish, via reduction, as shi'er or shir) - "lesson, class". This leads to a cute joke my son told me:

למה פאה וביכורים משחקים בחצר? כי אין להם שיעור
Why were Peah and Bikkurim playing outside during school?
Because they don't have a shiur...
(based on Peah 1:1, where shiur means "fixed measure")

The meaning "measure" came first, and only in medieval Hebrew did shiur come to mean lesson - "a set measure of learning" (that sense is preserved in shiurei bayit שיעורי בית - "homework"), followed by the modern Hebrew sense of "class". The word shiur derives from the root שער meaning, "to calculate, to estimate, to measure". The verb form only appears once in Tanach, in Mishlei 23:7. The noun form also only appears once, but for me in a surprising location, Bereshit 26:12

וַיִּזְרַע יִצְחָק בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא, וַיִּמְצָא בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִוא מֵאָה שְׁעָרִים
Yitzchak sowed in that land and in that same year found meah she'arim

Meah shearim is a sign of blessing, and gave its name to one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem outside of the Old City. I had always thought that she'arim here meant gates (from sha'ar שער - "gate") and the meaning was poetic - "100 gates." But nearly every translation and commentary I've found said the phrase means "hundredfold" - literally "one hundred measures" - or "one hundred estimates". (Tur Sinai in his commentary Peshuto Shel Mikra, follows the Septuagint, and understands Onkelos in the same vein, and says that the word actually was se'orim שעורים - "barley". However, the footnote in Ben Yehuda's dictionary - which I believe were generally written by Tur Sinai - rejects this approach).

Is there a connection between שער - "measure" and shaar - "gate"? Horowitz (page 107) says no - that this one of those cases where "shin is a twin letter". He points out that while in Aramaic shaar meaning "price" (deriving from the root meaning "measure") is spelled with a shin, the Aramaic cognate for shaar meaning "gate" is תרעא - spelled with a tav.

Klein mentions this theory, but then mentions an alternate one:

However, Zimmern sees in the Aramaic words like Jewish Palestinian Aramaic שערא (=market price), etc., Hebraisms, and derives שער from שער, so that the original meaning of שער would be 'the price established at the towngate', the place where the markets were usually held, whence the meanings 'market place', 'price', 'value', 'measure' would have developed gradually.

I don't know where Zimmern wrote this (I don't actually know who Zimmern was, but I'm guessing it was probably the Orientalist Heinrich Zimmern, 1862-1931). I imagine that one possible source for this theory was the usage in Melachim II, 7:1

כָּעֵת מָחָר סְאָה-סֹלֶת בְּשֶׁקֶל וְסָאתַיִם שְׂעֹרִים בְּשֶׁקֶל--בְּשַׁעַר שֹׁמְרוֹן
This time tomorrow, a seah of choice flour shall sell for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, at the gate (shaar) of Shomron

Here we see price and gate being used together. 

While in most cases it's clear whether shaar means "gate" or "price", I did find one set of phrases which are confusing:
  • הבקיע שער - to score a goal (shaar, "gate" can mean "goal", in soccer)
  • הפקיע את השער  - to profiteer, raise the price

I imagine that in the recent World Cup games, both of those phrases were appropriate...

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


While discussing machoz, we mentioned Klein's theory that it is a derivative of the root אחז. This is a common root in Biblical Hebrew, generally with the meaning of "to seize", "to hold" or "to grasp". (Steinberg goes further and connects a number of other roots beginning with אח meaning "connecting two things", such as אחד  - "to unite, one", and אח - "brother".)  From אחז we get a number of familiar words and phrases:

  • achuza אחוזה - "possession, property, estate, mansion"
  • ma'achaz מאחז-  "stronghold, outpost" (I won't get into the political ramifications of the difference between the above two)
  • beit achiza בית אחיזה - "handle, hold" (noun)
  • achizat eynayim אחיזת עיניים - "deceit, delusion" (literally, "closing of the eyes", not letting the viewer see what is really happening. See the Mishna, Sanhedrin 7:11).
However, there is one derivative that is harder to understand - achuz אחוז - "percentage". What does that have to do with the root as we've seen it so far?

The word actually comes from this week's parasha, Matot. We find a description of how the spoils of war should be distributed, with the soldiers and civilians each taking one half, and then 1/500th of the soldiers' take goes to the high priest, and 1/50th of the civilian share goes to the Levites. That levy is described in Bamidbar 31:30

וּמִמַּחֲצִת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל תִּקַּח אֶחָד אָחֻז מִן-הַחֲמִשִּׁים, מִן-הָאָדָם מִן-הַבָּקָר מִן-הַחֲמֹרִים וּמִן-הַצֹּאן--מִכָּל-הַבְּהֵמָה

And from the half-share of the other Israelites you shall take one seized (achuz) from every fifty human beings as well as cattle, donkeys and sheep - all the animals;

The same usage of achuz appears in Divrei Hayamim I 24:6. From here, the word was reinvented in modern Hebrew, apparently by the rabbi and linguist Zeev Yavetz, as "rate, proportion" (although this article finds an earlier usage), and percentage was created as achuz l'mea אחוז למאה - "a portion of 100". This is the usage described by Ben Yehuda - I'm not sure why they didn't use the biblical "achuz m..." אחוז מן, but rather "achuz l...". As time went on, I suppose with global mathematics becoming more integrated in Israeli culture, achuz began to be used on its own, meaning only "percentage" - 1 of 100. (Interestingly, Klein, whose dictionary was compiled in the 1960s or 1970s, doesn't mention the modern usage, only the sense that Ben Yehuda described.)

The Hebrew Wikipedia article for achuz points out that achuz should only be used for a specific number (e.g. achuz echad אחוז אחד 1%, shelosha achuzim שלושה אחוזים 3%). But if one wants to say percentage in general, as in "the percentage of students who passed the test has increased", the word shiur שיעור, should be used instead of achuz.

Friday, July 02, 2010

machoz and chozeh

In our last post, we showed how the Hebrew word for port, namel נמל, comes from Greek (and perhaps earlier from Egyptian.) But how could it be that Biblical Hebrew didn't have its own word for port?

Well, it turns out that it probably did. Kutscher (pgs 41-44), based on ancient translations, cognates in Arabic, and Bar Kochba letters, writes that the Biblical word for port was machoz מחוז. It appears once in Tehillim 107:30, a psalm describing travel at sea:

 וַיִּשְׂמְחוּ כִי-יִשְׁתֹּקוּ;    וַיַּנְחֵם, אֶל-מְחוֹז חֶפְצָם.
They rejoiced when all was quiet, and He brought them to the port they desired.

He writes that the word derives from the Akkadian maxazu, meaning "city". He claims the Hebrew word maoz מעוז, which also may have meant "port" (Yeshayahu 23:4), influenced the adoption of machoz from Akkadian; so the word went from "city" to "port city" to "port". (For further discussion, see this interesting article.)

Klein agrees that the Biblical machoz meant "harbor", but offers a different etymology. After mentioning Kutscher's theory, he writes:

However, it is more probably related to Ethiopian me'hez (=frontier place), which derives from 'ahaza (= he seized), so that מחוז would be a derivative of אחז
But in modern Hebrew machoz means "district". How did this come about? It appears to be from influence from Rashi (and others) who translate machoz in Tehillim as "border", based on the dictionary of Menachem ben Saruq1.

Yet there is something unusual about how Rashi (and Menachem) come to this conclusion. Rashi quotes Yeshayahu 28:15 which uses the word chozeh חוזה:

כִּי אֲמַרְתֶּם, כָּרַתְנוּ בְרִית אֶת-מָוֶת, וְעִם-שְׁאוֹל, עָשִׂינוּ חֹזֶה
For you have said, "We have made a covenant with death, concluded a chozeh with Sheol"

In every other verse in the Tanach, chozeh means "seer" or "prophet". But that clearly is not the meaning here. In modern Hebrew chozeh in this context means "contract", Ben Yehuda translates it as "stipulation", and the JPS uses "pact". But here too Rashi, based on Menachem, explains the word as "border" (from a root unrelated to "seer". Many others have tried to connect the two meanings of the word - see here for example.) To me, it certainly seems strange that Rashi explains one unique word in Tanach by using another unique word as a proof (and vice versa.) In any case, Modern Hebrew accepted Rashi's understanding of machoz, while rejecting that of chozeh.


1.  See Menachem's dictionary here, page 3. The dictionary also quotes the unusual root חזה in Iyov 8:17, and in the footnote mentions that Rashi quotes Malachim I 7:4 where we find the word מחזה (this word does not appear in any manuscripts of Menahem, despite the fact that Rashi quotes him on it.) All of these words are very unusual and unique, and as the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament points out here, "the text is so uncertain that it is impossible to use them for the meaning of the root and its history".