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...

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