Sunday, December 25, 2011


On Chanukah we light the candles - מדליקים את הנרות madlikim et ha nerot. The root of madlik מדליק - is dalak דלק - "burn, kindle", and is familiar from many related words such as delek דלק - "fuel", the verb tadlek תדלק - "to refuel" (the tiphel - like hiphil and shaphel, also a causative form of the verb), and daleket דלקת - which likely meant fever in Biblical Hebrew (Devarim 28:22) and today means "inflammation".

The verb dalak appears nine times in Biblical Hebrew as well, and in about half the appearances it also means "to burn". However in the other half it has a different meaning - "to pursue, chase," such as in Bereshit 31:36 - מַה חַטָּאתִי, כִּי דָלַקְתָּ אַחֲרָי  - "What is my sin that you should pursue me". (In some of the verses there is some disagreement as to which meaning applies, such as Yeshaya 5:11. Rashi and Radak say it means "burning" while Ibn Ezra says "chasing". Kutscher (p. 88) writes that perhaps this is a play on words and both senses are alluded to.)

What is the connection, if any, between "burning" and "chasing"?

Not surprisingly, there are a few opinions on this issue. One opinion is that the original meaning was to burn, and the concept of "chasing" came later - in the sense of "hot pursuit", as we say in English. Kaddari finds a similar development in Akkadian, where hamatu means both to burn and to hasten.

A second opinion is that the first meaning was "to chase", and later came the idea of burning, because of the way the fire chases the wick. This idea can be found in Rashi on Tehilim 7:14, who says that "every delika דליקה is chasing". Shadal on Bereshit 31:36 writes that dalak is related to dalag דלג - "leap" and both mean to ascend, which is why kindling the lamps in Shemot 25:37 is called וְהֶעֱלָה אֶת-נֵרֹתֶיהָ - literally, "raise up the lamps", because the fire ascends (also discussed in his Igrot Shadal, p.14).

The last opinion is that of Ben Yehuda, who feels that the two meanings are unrelated, as they each have separate Arabic cognates (and begin with different letters). Klein follows this approach as well, and says that the meaning "to burn" is cognate to the Arabic dhaliqa (=was sharp), but the sense "to chase" is cognate with the Arabic dalaqa (=he advanced, proceeded).

Whatever the connection - Chanukah is almost over. So make haste, get in hot pursuit, go up - and light those candles!

Friday, November 18, 2011


The word tag תג has some new popular usages: tag mechir תג מחיר - the "price tag" reprisal attacks carried out by extremists in Israel, and "tagging" photographs in Facebook - known in Hebrew as tiyug תיוג. A reader asked - is there a connection between the English word "tag" and the Hebrew one?

The answer is "well, maybe, maybe not".

Let's look first at the Hebrew word tag. Meaning "crown", it is first found in Talmudic Hebrew (also used for the "crowns" on tops of Hebrew letters) - and is borrowed from the Aramaic תגא taga. Taga is related to the Arabic taj, and both were borrowed from the Persian word taj of the same meaning (as appears in the famous Indian building Taj Mahal - the "crown of palaces"). Klein writes that the Persian word comes from the Indo-European base *steg meaning "to encircle, crown". In Greek this root gives us the word stephein (to surround, encircle, wreath), which is the origin of the name Stephen (meaning crown).

The English word "tag" has an entirely different origin. The Online Etymology Dictionary has the following entry:

"small hanging piece," c.1400, perhaps from a Scandinavian source (cf. Norw. tagg "point, prong," Swed. tagg "prickle, thorn") cognate with tack. Meaning "label" is first recorded 1835; sense of "automobile license plate" is recorded from 1935, originally underworld slang. Meaning "an epithet, popular designation" is recorded from 1961, hence slang verb meaning "to write graffiti in public places" (1990). The verb meaning "to furnish with a tag" is from mid-15c. To tag along is first recorded 1900.
So no connection between the two terms. So why was I hesitant earlier?

Because today in addition to the meaning crown, the Hebrew tag also has the same meaning in the word in English - "badge, label". (There is also the related word mutag מותג meaning "trademark, brand"). To me it seems crystal clear that this sense of the word is borrowed from the English. However both Klein and Even Shoshan, while providing the definition "badge" only mention the "taga" etymology. Stahl (in his Arabic/Hebrew etymological dictionary) goes so far as to say that the Hebrew tag used for labels on merchandise and army uniforms comes from the meaning "little crowns". (Mordechai Rosen his new book Sipurei Milim also has a full entry on tag and mutag with no mention of the English word "tag").

So if all these experts are correct, then there is no connection between any of the meanings of tag in Hebrew and "tag" in English. But I'm rather doubtful. Do any you have more information? Tag - you're it!

Friday, November 04, 2011


In our discussion of the word shelet שלט, we said that Targum Yonatan on Divrei Hayamim translated שלטים as "shields". The word used in his translation is תריסין - terisin, or in the singular, tris תריס.

Klein writes that tris as shield comes from the Greek thyreos, meaning shield, which in turn derives from the Greek thyra - "door". (Going back to the Indo-European root, Klein shows that thyra is cognate with the English word "door" as well.) However, the connection between thyreos and thyra is strange to me. He writes that thyreos is a "stone put against the door". I don't see how that means shield.

I have an easier time understanding the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary for "thyroid", which also derives from thyreos:

1690s (in ref. to both the cartilage and the gland), from Gk. thyreoiedes "shield-shaped" (in khondros thyreoiedes "shield-shaped cartilage," used by Galen to describe the "Adam's apple" in the throat), from thyreos "oblong, door-shaped shield" (from thyra "door") + -eides "form, shape." The noun, short for thyroid gland, is recorded from 1849.
The Hebrew word for thyroid reflects this origin as well - בלוטת התריס balutat hatris.

Another meaning of tris - and unlike shield, this one is still used in modern Hebrew - is "shutter, blind". Here Klein points out that it comes from the Greek thyris - "window", which in turn also derive from thyra - "door".

We also have a verb that derives from tris - התריס - "to contradict, oppose". Klein is not clear about which sense - shield or shutter - led to this verb. First he has an entry for התריס meaning "he shielded, protected", and then figuratively meaning "he protested against, contradicted, debated." His second entry for התריס is defined as "to contradict, oppose", but the etymology is given as "denominated from תריס (=shutter)".

In his dictionary, Even Shoshan agrees with the former, and says it derives from shield, but doesn't explain why. He does, however, say that the great debaters known as baalei terisin בעלי תריסין (mentioned in Berachot 27b), knew how to argue in the "wars of Torah". (According to Rashi; the Aruch says they were literally soldiers). So perhaps this military imagery - Jastrow calls them the "shield bearers" - led to the connection between tris as shield and hitris התריס as "to contradict, oppose".

Yaakov Etsion in this article suggests that perhaps the development went like this: these were people who were willing to shield and defend themselves, and not give in to others. From here the concept progressed to those who took the offensive, and contradicted others when necessary.

Perhaps therefore this is an early version of the adage "The best defense is a good offense". But as comedian Norm Macdonald noted, "The second best defense is a good defense"...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

shalit and shelet

Both before and after Gilad Shalit's release, we've seen many signs related to the campaign.

His surname Shalit שליט means "ruler, leader" in Hebrew. Is there any connection to the word shelet שלט - meaning "sign"?

Let's first look at the word shalit. It derives from the root שלט, meaning "to rule". Klein provides the following etymology:

borrowed from Biblical Aramaic שלט (= he ruled, was master of, had dominion), which is related to Jewish Palestinian Aramaic and Syriac שלט (of same meaning), Ugaritic shlt (=ruler), Arabic saluta (he overcame, prevailed), Akkadian shalatu (=to rule), shaltu, shitlutu (= powerful, mighty), Ethiopian shallata (=he gave power.)

From this root we get the words shilton שלטון - "authority, government", sholtan שָׁלְטָן - "dominion" (note the kamatz katan, as this word that appears in the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayers - שהשלטן לפניך - is often mispronounced), and shlita שליטה - "control" (the honorific for living rabbis שליט"א is not related, but is an acronym of שיחיה לאורך ימים טובים אמן - "may he live many long and good days, Amen".)

Another related word is the Arabic sultan. The Online Etymology Dictionary has this entry:

1550s, from M.Fr. sultan "ruler of Turkey" (16c.), from Arabic sultan "ruler, king, queen, power, dominion," from Aramaic shultana "power," from shelet "have power." His wife, mother, daughter, concubine, or sister is a sultana.
What about shelet - "sign"?  The word appears in the Bible six times, always in the plural, and always relating to military matters. The exact meaning, however, is not clear. Some (Rashi on Shir Hashirim 4:4, based on the usage in Yirmiyahu 51:11) say it means the quiver that holds the arrows, and others say it means "shield", perhaps specifically of leather (Ibn Ezra; Targum Yonatan on Divrei Hayamim I 18:7 and Divrei Hayamim II 23:9). Ben Yehuda writes that as a military term, shelet is related to שלט in the sense of power and might.

The German word for shield is "schild", and this apparently led to the word shelet taking on the meaning sign. Klein writes:

Borrowed from שלט shelet = (shield), on analogy of the homophonic German Schild, which has both meanings 'shield', and 'signboard' (however, there the two meanings are artificially differentiated inasmuch as Schild in the sense 'shield' is masculine, in the sense 'signboard' it is neuter).

Philologos, in this interesting article discussing why the Magen David מגן דוד is translated as "Star of David" instead of "Shield of David" notes:

Why did medieval Jews change David’s star to a shield? The obvious answer is that whereas stars have no great resonance in Jewish religious tradition, shields do. In numerous passages in the Bible, God is referred to as the shield of those who trust in Him, including more than a dozen times in the book of Psalms, of which the supposed author was David himself. And in the Songs of Songs we have the verse, referring to the mail-like plates in the necklace of the poem’s beloved, “Thy neck is like the tower of David built for an armory, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers [magen], all shields of [shiltei, the plural possessive of shelet] mighty men.”

It is undoubtedly a pure coincidence that shelet, which is a biblical synonym for magen, sounds very much like the English “shield” and the German and Yiddish Schild, which means both “shield” and “coat of arms” or “sign.” (It was under the influence of Schild, in fact, that shelet came to mean a store or street sign in contemporary Hebrew.) But can it be that the double-triangled hexagon, which was adopted by Yiddish-speaking Prague Jews as the emblem of their flag, was first called by these Jews of Prague a Schild, in the sense of a coat of arms, and then translated into Hebrew as magen and re-interpreted as the warrior’s shield that protected David? I wouldn’t rule out this possibility

So yes, the words shalit and shelet are connected. However, I think it's a good thing that we no longer need to associate Gilad Shalit with the signs requesting his release, but rather with the shielding and protection he finally received. May he live many long and good days, Amen!

Sunday, October 16, 2011


One of the strange sounding words from Sukkot is koshiklach קוישיקלך (or sometimes spelled koishelach קוישלך). It refers to the woven holders used to bind the lulav to the hadasim and aravot. But what is the etymology?

Let's start by taking off the suffixes and then we'll see what's left. The Yiddish suffix -ach indicates a plural, as in rogelach or kinderlach. So removing the -ach leaves us with koishekil (or koshikel)- and "-il" is a diminutive suffix. So koishiklach is the plural of "little koishik". But what's a koishik?

While much of Yiddish comes from German and Hebrew, there's a significant amount that comes from the Slavic languages, and this is where we find the meaning of koishik - "basket". For example, basket in Polish is "koszyk" and in Czech and Slovak - "košík" or "koš". In fact, the Yiddish translation for basketball is koyshbol.

Are there any cognates to these words in English? I think so. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following etymology for "chest":

O.E. cest "box, coffer," from P.Gmc. *kista (cf. O.N., O.H.G. kista, O.Fris., M.Du., Ger. kiste, Du. kist), an early borrowing from L. cista "chest, box," from Gk. kiste "a box, basket," from PIE *kista "woven container."

This seems to me likely to be the origin of kos(ik) as being a basket in the Slavic languages as well.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


On Yom Kippur we read about the service in the Temple that was performed on that holy day. Part of the service involved sending away a goat, marked "to Azazel"  לעזאזל (Vayikra 16:8). The meaning and origin of the word Azazel עזאזל is subject to much debate. Levine, in the JPS commentary to Vayikra, writes the following (I've added Hebrew text to his transliteration):

The precise meaning of Hebrew 'aza'zel עזאזל, found nowhere else in the Bible, has been disputed since antiquity and remains uncertain even to the present time. Over the centuries, exegesis of this name has followed three lines of interpretation.

According to the first, Azazel is the name of the place in the wilderness to which the scapegoat was dispatched; the term is taken as synonymous with 'erets gezerah ארץ גזרה, "inaccessible region," in verse 22. Verse 10 may also suggest this interpretation. When translated literally it reads: "and send it [the he-goat] off to Azazel, to the wilderness." Yoma 67b understands 'aza'zel as "a fierce, difficult land," taking the first part of the word to mean 'azz עז, "strong, fierce".

According to the second line of interpretation, Azazel describes the goat. The word 'aza'zel is a contraction (notarikon) comprised of 'ez עז, "goat" and 'azal אזל, "to go away," hence "the goat that goes away." This interpretation occurs both in the Septuagint and the the Vulgate, and underlies the rabbinic characterization sa'ir ha-mishtalleah שעיר המשתלח, "the goat that is dispatched," in Mishna Yoma 6:2. This is, in fact, the interpretation that led to the English rendering "scapegoat" (from "escape-goat"), which first appeared in Tyndale's English translation of the Bible in 1530. [See this Philologos column for more about the considerations in the creation of the phrase "scapegoat."]

Both of the above interpretations are contrived. The third line of interpretation is preferable. Azazel in later myth was the name given to the demonic ruler of the wilderness. The derivation of the word is uncertain, but the thematic relationship of Azazel to the se'irim שעירים, "goat-demons," of 17:7  suggests that the word 'ez, "goat," is represented in it. The form 'aza'zel may have developed through reduplication of the letter zayin: 'ez'el, "mighty goat," was pronounced 'ezez'el and, finally, 'aza'zel.

Bula, in the Daat Mikra, quotes the "fierce, difficult land" interpretation mentioned in Yoma (and by Rashi on the verse). In a footnote, however, he offers some additional options. First of all, he points out that the letter lamed might be added to the root עזז, as we find in a number of other nouns like barzel ברזל and karmel כרמל, and the alef was also added in, like in the word tzavar צואר. This would make azazel related to the Arabic azaz, meaning "hard, unworkable land".

He then goes on to say that he doesn't think the theory that Azazel refers to a place of idol worship is likely, but even if it is true, it doesn't mean that the service was still associated with idol worship. He points out that there are many phrases in Hebrew that originally had idolatrous connotations, but received new meaning according to the monotheistic Hebrew approach. For example, he says that the phrase ריח ניחוח - "pleasing odor to God" (Vayikra 1:9) also was adopted by the Torah from the language of idolators, even though Judaism doesn't believe that God actually takes pleasure from smells.

His last theory, based on the BDB Lexicon, is that perhaps it is related to the Arabic root עזל 'azzala, meaning "he removed", so this would refer to the removal of the sins, by means of the goat.

In Modern Hebrew the phrase "lech l'azazel" לך לעזאזל means "go to hell". I don't think that this is due to an association with demons. The Even Shoshan dictionary quotes the responsa of the 17th century Chavat Yair as saying לך לעזאזל המדברה! - "go to Azazel in the desert!" So I think the idea here is just to send to an uninhabitable place, in a similar way that the Dead Sea is referred to in Talmudic Hebrew.

So for those of you who don't have access to water to do Tashlich, perhaps casting off your sins to the uninhabitable desert could have the same effect...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


In the previous post on teruah, we mentioned that while teruah refers to the short blasts (of the trumpet or shofar) and tekiah תקיעה refers to the long blasts, the verb taka תקע simply means "blowing on an instrument" (regardless of the length of the blasts). Klein writes that the verb fully means "to thrust, clap, give a blow, blast", and he point out that the sense development is similar to the German stossen - "to thrust, to give a blast, blow" and das Horn stossen - "to blow the horn". Ben Yehuda writes that perhaps the origin of the root comes from the sound of the tekiah.

Kaddari writes that the biblical meanings of the root include: a) to strike - with hands to clap, or to shake hands (to guarantee),  b) to drive in - with a sword (e.g. Shoftim 3:21), with a peg (Shoftim 16:14, Yeshaya 22:23), or a tent (Bereshit 31:25), c) to thrust - in regards to wind (Shemot 10:19), and of course d) to blow on an instrument. He quotes the linguist Eliezer Rubinstein from an article in this book as saying that the basic meaning of the Biblical root תקע is "to cause an object to change its location". This is interesting, because in Modern Hebrew it refers to something much more permanent, as seen by the related words takua תקוע - "stuck" and teka תקע - "(electrical) plug".

Steinberg, and many others say that the Biblical town of Tekoa (not far from my home in Efrat) originally meant "place of setting up a tent". This also inspired the founders of the city of Tekoa, Washington. On the town's website they explain how in 1884:

Mrs. Dan Truax, standing on the porch of her house on the west bank of Hangman Creek, looked at the large number of tents in the city, temporary shelters for the railroad workers and others. She suggested to her husband that they accept the counsel of Amos in the Bible and call the community Tekoa, from the Hebrew word meaning "city of tents", which was about all that Tekoa was at the time. And so the name stuck.

I wonder if they understood the play on words when they wrote "the name stuck..."

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Rosh Hashana is coming up this week, and I thought I'd look at some of the words associated with the shofar sounds heard on that day. Since the biblical name for Rosh Hashana is Yom Teruah יום תרועה (Bamidbar 29:1) or Zichron Teruah זכרון תרועה (Vayikra 23:24), lets start by looking at the word teruah תרועה.

In the section of the Torah detailing the laws of the trumpets (Bamidbar 10:1-10), a distinction is made between the tekiah תקיעה - "the long blast" and the teruah, "the short blast". The tekiah is used for gathering the camp together and happy occasions, whereas the teruah indicates the camp should move, and is used at times of war. However, the verse (10:5) uses a combination of the roots to describe the blowing of the teruah: וּתְקַעְתֶּם תְּרוּעָה (ut'kat'em teruah). Milgrom, in his JPS commentary there, explains as follows:

short blasts:  Hebrew teru'ah, verbal form heri'a, in contrast to "blow long blasts," taka'. It should be noted that the term "blow long blasts" is expressed simply by the verb taka' (vv. 3-4), but "blow short blasts" requires the compound expression taka' teru'ah (vv. 5-6). The reason for these distinct forms is twofold.

(1) The term teru'ah and its corresponding verb heri'a refer elsewhere to a vocal shout by warriors (e.g. Josh. 6:5,10, 16, 20) and worshipers (e.g. Pss. 47:2; 95:2), whereas the sole verb signifying the blowing of a horn is taka' (e.g. Josh. 6:13). Hence when the text wishes to express the idea of blowing the teru'ah signal on the trumpet it must either use the verb taka', signifying blowing on an instrument, and the object teru'ah to indicate the appropriate signal, or, if it uses the verb heri'a, it must specify that the sound was produced by a trumpet (v. 9).

(2) Teru'ah can refer to a battle cry (cf. Amos 1:14, Jer. 14:19); and hence, its use in breaking camp implies signaling the Israelites to move from an encamped peaceful position to a mobile battle formation. Thus the trumpets taken into the Midianite war are actually called "the trumpets of teru'ah" (31:6, cf 2 Chron 13:12).

So we see from Milgrom that teruah (or the verb heria הריע) can be used to refer both to the noise of a trumpet/shofar, or the noise of people. Dr. Nissan Netzer discusses this in the latest issue of the parasha sheet Me'at Min Ha'or. He writes that the original meaning of the verb heria (from the root רו"ע) meant to blow on a shofar or trumpet, and later that was expanded to mean the shouts of a crowd of people (Klein seems to indicate the reverse development). Netzer then goes on to point out than in Rabbinic Hebrew, the verb hitria התריע was created by adding the letter tav from the word teruah (similar to the process we saw in the verb taram from teruma). Whereas originally the Biblical and Rabbinic forms of the verb had the same meaning, in Modern Hebrew they diverge: heria has a positive connotation - "to applaud", whereas hitria has a negative one - "to protest, to warn" (and neither meaning today refers to blowing a shofar; for that we only have the verb taka).

It is very easy to mix up hatra'ah התרעה - warning, with the similar sounding hatraah התראה - which also means warning. But the former means also "alert, alarm" (think of the shofar, and the original distinction of teruah), while the latter also has the sense of "give advance notice" (for example, as witnesses are required to do in capital cases). Or as the site Safa Ivrit has it, התראה means "warning someone not do something" and התרעה means "warning about something that is about to happen" (see also this explanation by the Hebrew Language Academy).

Friday, September 23, 2011


In my previous post on the word "bar" בר, I mentioned that there was one more meaning I hadn't discussed. That, of course, is the identical meaning in English - "tavern", which is borrowed from English for use in Modern Israeli Hebrew. The "bar" in that bar refers to the counter on which the food or drinks were served.

The Hebrew word for "counter" is delpak דלפק (particularly the counter of a bank or a kiosk). Klein has the following entry:

1. Post-Biblical Hebrew: small tripod, small table. 2. New Hebrew: counter [Perhaps of Greek Delphike (= a table from Delphi)]

In the mishna we find alternate spellings: according to Albeck in Kelim 22:1 it is vocalized dulpeki דלפקי, and in Avoda Zara 5:5 dulbeki דלבקי.

One theory as to the origin of the name of the Greek site Delphi is that it derives from the "Greek delphis 'dolphin'. Supposedly Apollo assumed this form to found the shrine." In Modern Hebrew we also use the word "dolfin" דולפין to refer to the aquatic mammal, but there are those such as Yehuda Felix (quoted in the Daat Mikra on Yechezkel 16:9) and Sarna in in the JPS Shmot (25:5) who say that the Biblical tachash תחש was a dolphin (due to the similarity with the Arabic tuhas, meaning dolphin).

According to Klein and others, the Greek delphis for dolphin is related to delphus, "womb", in allusion to the womb of the female (unlike other non-mammalian sea creatures). A related word is the Greek adelphos "brother," literally "from the same womb," as is found in the city Philadelphia - the city of "brotherly love".

The older name for Delphi was Pytho, which gave the name "python", which was originally a "fabled serpent, slain by Apollo, near Delphi". Since at this oracle the gods would speak through the body of the priestess (who sat on a tripod), in Rabbinic Hebrew a pitom פיתום came to mean a ventriloquist. (And if you think this has anything to do with the phrase Ma Pitom - well, no way!)

Sunday, September 18, 2011


In my post about bar mitzva, I wrote

bar בר means "son" (primarily in Aramaic, but also in Hebrew, see Mishlei 31:2)
The question is what is the connection between bar and the Hebrew word for son - בן ben? And does bar as "son" have a connection to any of the other meanings of the word bar, such as "outside", "pure" or "grain"?

In his entry for ben, Klein writes that
The change of n to r in Aramaic, Syriac, and Mehri is difficult to explain; it may be due to regressive dissimilation.
(See more detail in the article The Forms of 'Son' and 'Daughter' in Aramaic, by Steven Fassberg in the book Aramaic in its Historical and Linguistic Setting.)

Regarding the other meanings of bar, Klein doesn't connect them to "son", but does show how they are related to each other.  He discusses them all under the root ברר, meaning "to purify, select, set apart, separate". In his Hebrew etymological dictionary, he derives from this root the following words:

  • bar בר - threshed grain or corn, from ברר (to purify, select)
  • bar בר - pure, clean, related to ברר
  • bor בור - lye, alkali, potash, from ברר. Related to another word for lye, borit בורית. Surprisingly, he makes no connection to "borax", which has the same meaning, but is of Persian origin (this book does connect the two).
  • bar בר - exterior, outside. May have developed from another meaning of bar - "open field". Also related is the adverb bar, meaning "except, outside of". 
  • beram ברם - but, however. A contraction of the Aramaic בר מא - "except what".
  • baraita ברייתא - the Tanaitic sayings not incorporated in (excluded from) the Mishna.
  • barur ברור - chosen; clear, distinct, certain
  • borer בורר - arbitrator 
An English word with the same source is "barrio".  The Online Etymology Dictionary has the following:

"ward of a Spanish or Spanish-speaking city," sometimes also used of rural settlements, from Sp. barrio "district, suburb," from Arabic barriya "open country" (fem.), from barr "outside" (of the city). Main modern sense of "Spanish-speaking district in a U.S. city" is 1939; original reference is to Spanish Harlem in New York City.

It's worth noting that Stahl, in his Arabic etymological dictionary, disagrees with Klein, and connects bar as "son" with bar as "out". He notes the Hebrew word for "offspring, descendant", צאצא tze'etza, which derives from the root יצא - "to go out". So too does the child "go out" from his parents.

One other word that Klein thinks may be related to ברר is ברית brit (actually better spelled berit/b'rit, but that's not at all common) - "covenant". He writers:

Of uncertain etymology. Meyer derives it from ברה (= to eat bread); it would have been so called because in ancient times it was customary for those concluding a treaty or alliance to partake of a meal. Several scholars, with less probability, derive the noun ברית from ברה (= to choose.)
There's one more "bar" I didn't discuss, but I'll save that for the next post...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

bar mitzva

As you may have noticed, I have not written a post in several weeks (actually a few months). While life always has other distractions (like work), this time my biggest reason for not writing was my son's Bar Mitzva - both the preparation for it and recovery from it took up a lot of time. It was a wonderful event and we're very proud of him. And so in honor of the occasion, I thought I'd discuss the phrase a bit.

Since bar בר means "son" (primarily in Aramaic, but also in Hebrew, see Mishlei 31:2), and mitzva מצוה is generally translated as "commandment", a popular translation for bar mitzvah בר מצוה is "son of the commandment(s)", which would be understood as "a son, a boy, to whom the mitzvot apply (since he reached the age of 13)."

However, that translation isn't actually the best one. Bar, as well as ben בן (the more common Hebrew term for "son"), is a prefix found in many phrases with a meaning that is hard to pin down, but includes such senses as "belonging to", "worthy of", "capable of" and the one most relevant to us, "obligated in".

While in many cases mitzva can refer to an individual commandment, there are many times in the Torah where it refers to the Law as a whole, and actually is a synonym for the word "Torah". See for example Devarim 5:28 and 6:25. where we find the phrase כל המצוה. Some translations aren't consistent here, such as the Living Torah, who translates the phrase in the first verse as "all the rules" (despite the fact that it says "hamitzva" and not the plural "hamitzvot") and in the second as "the entire mandate". The JPS, however, uses the word "Instruction" throughout, noting that while the word mitzva literally means "commandment", here it refers to the entire legal corpus. In his JPS commentary on Devarim 4:1, where the additional synonyms חוקים ומשפטים chukim and mishpatim - "laws and rules" are found, Tigay explains them as well as edot עדות and mitzva. He then writes, regarding all these terms, that the Torah "employs the terms without distinction, just as English uses phrases like 'rules and regulations' and 'laws and ordinances'."

So bar mitzva simply means "one who is obligated in the Torah". (We might think that the phrase ben torah בן תורה or the Aramaic equivalent בר אוריין bar orayan would be synonymous, but they diverged into a different sense, with the meaning "one who has learned much Torah, a scholar"). And this meaning of bar mitzva is how it first appears in the Talmud, as in Bava Metzia 96a, where it compares a messenger who is a bar mitzva (i.e. obligated in the mitzvot of the Torah) to a slave, who is not a bar mitzva, since he is not obligated in the mitzvot. (We also find the the phrase bat mitzva בת מצוה in the Talmud, for example Bava Kama 15a, meaning a woman obligated in mitzvot.)

Only late in the Medieval period do we find bar mitzva refer to the boy who has turned 13. But the phrase always refers to the person himself - "he is a bar mitzva". I don't know when it first began to refer to the event or the celebration, but I suspect it is a Yiddishism.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

baal and adon

When I was in eighth grade, I asked a rabbi a question. If we believe in only one God, why is God’s name in Hebrew a plural? I know I was thinking of the name Elohim אלו-הים, but I might have also been thinking of Adonai אדנ-י (which would seem to mean "my Lords"). I don’t believe the rabbi ever directly answered me, but did say something like, “Now that’s a good question.” My understanding at the time was that there was some significant theological significance to the plural forms. In more recent years, I would have assumed that some secular biblical scholars might attribute the plural forms to a polytheistic origin of the Israelite religion.

But due to a question a friend recently asked me, I’ve realized that the plural form doesn’t necessarily say much about the nature of God at all.  She asked why is it that a husband (in Hebrew) is a baal בעל, but the (single) owner (of a pet, or a company) is called baalim בעלים. (We've seen the phenomenon of a plural noun being treated as a singular one before, in our discussions about tavlin and Artzot Habrit.) At first I thought this might be a phenomenon only in Modern Hebrew, but I found baalim meaning "owner" a number of times in Biblical Hebrew (e.g. Shemot 21:29, Yishaya 1:3, Kohelet 5:12) and in the Mishna (Bava Metzia 8:1) as well. After digging a little deeper, I found that the same rule applies to the synonym adon אדון. While the singular form (referring to people, not God) is found in the Tanach (also on one occasion meaning “husband”, Bereshit 18:12), it is frequently found in the plural form adonim אדונים, even though that word is used as a singular meaning "lord, master" (see Yishaya 19:4, Malachi 1:6, and the many cases of אדוניך adonecha and אדוניו adonav in the story of Avraham's servant and the story of Yosef. In no place in the Tanach do the words אדונו or אדונך appear.)

Why is this? Both Rav Hirsch in his commentary on Bereshit 1:1 and Shadal in his essay "Tzelem Elohim" (printed in the collection Mechkerei HaYahadut, pg. 225) explain it as showing full sovereignty and authority over the subject (see also Rashi on Bereshit 35:7).

Hirsch writes:

Using a plural form to designate a plentitude of powers combined in one person is moreover by no means unusual in expressions of mastery and power in the Hebrew language, such as אדנים, בעלים. They always designate a person who possesses the various powers which rule over any object, to whom, accordingly, this object completely subjected in every direction.
Shadal adds that if adon was written in the singular, you might think that the subject would have this master, and additional masters as well.

Some people have claimed that because baal means both owner and husband, this implies that in Judaism the husband "owns" his wife. But as we have seen, there are two different words - baalim for owner, and baal for husband.

The case in Hoshea 2:18

וְהָיָה בַיּוֹם-הַהוּא נְאֻם-ה', תִּקְרְאִי אִישִׁי; וְלֹא-תִקְרְאִי-לִי עוֹד, בַּעְלִי

where in the future we will call God ishi אישי instead of baali בעלי (in the analogy of God as the husband and Israel as the wife) is referring to the negative connotations the word baal got from association with the Semitic deity “Ba’al”, as evidenced from the following verse:
וַהֲסִרֹתִי אֶת-שְׁמוֹת הַבְּעָלִים, מִפִּיהָ; וְלֹא-יִזָּכְרוּ עוֹד, בִּשְׁמָם
For I will remove the names of the Baalim from her mouth, and they shall nevermore be mentioned by name.
So we should not learn from it the nature of the husband / wife relationship in Judaism, although there are those in Israel who prefer to use "ishi" for husband based on this verse.(For more on ish and isha, see this post.)

In any case, the above principle applies to the title Elohim as well. It too has a few uses in the Bible where it refers to people, although it overwhelmingly is a term used for God. But the plurality here is, as Ibn Ezra says in his commentary on Bereshit 1:1, a “plural of respect” (pluralis excellentiae in Latin). This is similar to the “royal we” (pluralis maiestatis/majestatis in Latin) except that in general we don’t find cases of the sovereign referring to themselves in the plural. (For an excellent review of the meaning and usage of Elohim in the Tanakh, see the chapter “The Knowledge of God” in Man and God: Studies in Biblical Theology, by R’ Eliezer Berkovitz.)

In addition to the definitions “husband” and “owner”, baal is a prefix in compounds meaning “possessing”, as in baal habayit בעל הבית – “landlord, host”, baal kriya בעל קריאה (or the Yiddish influenced, more popular, although less grammatically correct baal koreh בעל קורא) – “the Torah reader” (who possesses the knowledge of how to read), and baal teshuva בעל תשובה – a Jew who has returned to following the laws of the Torah, literally “master of return” (in Israeli Hebrew chozer b’teshuva חוזר בתשובה seems more popular.) However, the phrases baal-peh בעל פה - "orally", and baal-korcho בעל-כרחו - "against his will" do not use our word baal, but rather the letter bet as a prefix followed by the preposition al על.

Yet, while baal had the sense of “possessing” even in Biblical Hebrew, adon was used either to refer to God or a “master” even through Rabbinic Hebrew. Since slavery is no longer practiced, and even political leaders do not have full sovereignty over citizens today, that took the punch out of the second meaning of adon. Today it is almost entirely used to mean "mister" or “sir”. This meaning was lost (either deliberately or not) on the New York Times journalist David Shipler, who wrote in 1984 that Arab cab drivers in Israel refer to Israelis as “My Lord”. As Shmuel Katz (here) and David Bar-Illan (here) pointed out, calling someone “adon” or “adoni” does not necessarily suggest any respect, perhaps actually the opposite…

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

shabbat hagadol

The Shabbat before Pesach is known as Shabbat Hagadol שבת הגדול - "The Great Sabbath". While the phrase "shabbat hagadol" appears in other contexts earlier in Rabbinic literature (such as in the Retze section of Birkat Hamazon), it is first mentioned as the shabbat before Pesach in the works of Rashi.

For example, in his book Sefer Hapardes, Rashi begins his explanation of the reason for this title by writing:

People are accustomed to calling the shabbat before Pesach "Shabbat Hagadol", but they do not know what makes this shabbat greater than any other. 

He then continues:

The Children of Israel went out of Egypt on a Thursday, as is recorded in Seder Olam. They prepared the lamb for the Pesach sacrifice on the previous shabbat, on the tenth of Nisan. When they were instructed to do so, they wondered: "If we sacrifice an animal which the Egyptians hold sacred, before their very eyes, they will surely stone us." But God told them: "Now you see the wondrous things which I will do for you." The Children of Israel thereupon each took a lamb and kept it for four days. When the Egyptians saw this, they wanted to rise up and take revenge, but they were stricken with all kinds of horrible afflictions and could do no harm to the Children of Israel. Because of the miracles which God performed on that day, the Shabbat before Pesach, it became known as Shabbat Hagadol.

This is a popular explanation, but it is possible to sense from his introduction that Rashi is giving one answer to a question that many people had asked over the years. And in fact, there are many other explanations given for the origin of the name.

Others say that the reason is found in the Haftara read on that day (according to the Levush only when that shabbat is the day immediately before Pesach), describing Messianic times,  and ends with the verse from Malachi 3:23:

הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם, אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא--לִפְנֵי, בּוֹא יוֹם ה', הַגָּדוֹל, וְהַנּוֹרָא

Behold, I will send you Eliya the prophet before the coming of the great (hagadol) and terrifying day of God.

Just like other special shabbatot are named for their haftara (Shabbat Chazon, Shabbat Nachamu, Shabbat Shuva), according to this approach so is Shabbat Hagadol. Some point out that because it is named for the word, the day is called Shabbat Hagadol instead of Shabbat Gadol.

Others use the verse to answer the question why, if the word shabbat is feminine, why isn't the day called Shabbat Hagedola? However, this isn't such a serious question, as we find shabbat as a masculine noun in Biblical Hebrew - shabbat b'shabbato שבת בשבתו (Bamidbar 28:10, Yeshaya 66:23) and shomer shabbat mechalelo שומר שבת מחללו (Yeshaya 56:2). And later in Rabbinic Hebrew, shabbat appears in the masculine in the Amida prayer of Shaharit on shabbat - veyanuchu bo וינוחו בו, and in the greeting shabbat shalom u'mevorach שבת שלום ומבורך.

However, there are those that reject this explanation, since the other haftarot are all named for the first word read, and Shabbat Hagadol does not fit this pattern. Fishbane, in the JPS Haftarot points out that the connection between Shabbat Hagadol and the "great day" in the haftara is too obvious: certainly Rashi and others would have mentioned it had they read this haftara on that day. According to this article, both the Tur and the Levush claim that the haftara was chosen after the day had already been known as Shabbat Hagadol.

Another possible explanation (mentioned by the Shibolei Haleket) relates to the custom on that shabbat of the rabbi giving a long drasha (sermon) - maybe the longest of the year. This shabbat is compared to Yom Kippur, which is also called a "great fast" צומא רבה (Peah 7:4) because of the long prayers (not because of the length of the fast, which is the same as Tisha B'Av).. There are those that temper the cynicism of this approach by saying that it does refer to the sermon, but the day is called "great" because of the importance of the speech, the congregation or the rabbi, not as a complaint to its length. Others say that the custom of the drasha came after the name had been established, but it was originally called a long shabbat because many additional prayers were added on that day.

Other less familiar reasons given include:

  • Just like a child becomes an adult (gadol) when he accepts the mitzvot (bar mitzva), so too did the Jews when they accepted their first mitzva.
  • In the Torah, the omer offering is brought ממחרת השבת - the day following shabbat. According to Rabbinic tradition (and in opposition to the Sadducees and Karaites) the "shabbat" referred to in the verse is the first day of Pesach. So Shabbat Hagadol refers to the seventh day of the week, as compared to a lesser type of shabbat (in terms of prohibitions) on the first day of the holiday.
  • According to a midrash, during their slavery in Egypt the Jews did not work on shabbat. However, immediately following shabbat they would need to return to work (there's a parallel expression in the Israeli army - "every shabbat has a motzei shabbat", since soldiers can't be punished on shabbat itself). However, on this shabbat, the Jews were no longer slaves, so they didn't need to fear returning to their labors.
  • Some sources, particularly from Medieval Italian Jewry, seem to indicate that perhaps the Shabbat before every holiday was called "Shabbat Hagadol". However, it is possible that the name spread from the Shabbat before Pesach to the other holidays, instead of the other way around.

Although we stated that the name Shabbat Hagadol first appears as the shabbat before Pesach in Rashi's time, there are those (such as Zunz and later Safrai in the Haggadah of the Sages) who believe that it was probably called that going back much earlier. They note that in early Christian sources, such as John 19:31, we find mention of a "great sabbath". Therefore the term must have been used by Jews at the time. However, others reject this approach. For example, Sacha Stern in Calendar and Community: A History of the Jewish Calendar, 2nd Century BCE to 10th Century CE writes that the passage "is not relevant as it refers to the Sabbath following Passover" (along with other objections).

As usual, when we have so many explanations, the chance of any one of them being correct decreases. However, when it comes to Pesach - we have a tradition of asking many questions and studying as much as possible. So perhaps the origin of the name was not made clear so we could continue to learn about it every year...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


In the post on simcha, we saw that there is a connection in Hebrew and other Semitic languages between words meaning light and sprouting, between “glow” and “grow” (these two aren’t related in English). I gave a few more examples in that post. However, recently I found a collection of YouTube videos of Avshalom Kor’s language segment on Israeli television, and he mentioned one I hadn’t seen.

He quoted his teacher Shlomo Morag as explaining the connection between the verb זרח – “to shine” (zarach) and ezrach אזרח, which in Modern Hebrew means “citizen” (and "civilian" as well, compared to a solider.)

Morag, in his 1972 Tarbiz article "ומתערה כאזרח רענן", reviews the various explanations of this  verse (Tehilim 37:35):

רָאִיתִי, רָשָׁע עָרִיץ;    וּמִתְעָרֶה, כְּאֶזְרָח רַעֲנָן.

The New JPS translates it as:

"I saw a wicked man, powerful, well-rooted like a robust native tree".

The Koren English Jerusalem Bible similarly translates:

"I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green tree in its native soil".

The verse is unusual because in the other 16 occurrences of the word ezrach in the Tanach, it means "an indigenous, permanent resident of the land", and is particularly used in contrast with ger גר - "the stranger." Only here does it seem to refer to a plant or tree. The translations above, following many of the medieval commentaries, assume that the connection between ezrach as citizen and ezrach as tree is that both are well-rooted in the soil.

However, Morag believes that Rabbi Saadia Gaon was closest to the truth. He writes that root זרח meant "to sprout, to appear". Prof. Morag, as we have noted, writes the root means both to “rise and shine” (that phrase actually comes from the translation of Yishaya 60:1, קומי אורי). The original meaning of ezrach was "an appearance of shining and light", but that sense was not preserved in the Bible. The usage here in Tehilim was the earlier one, where it meant "sprout, shoot". From there it was borrowed to mean one who rose and grew from the land, i.e. one who was born there. (This is in contrast to Rashi, and others, who seem to reverse the derivation - they say that the ezrach in Tehilim was a tree like a citizen, in that it was well rooted.)

We see in Latin (and later in English) a similar connection between birth and an ethnic group of people, in the words natal and nation, which share a common root (which also meant "to spring forth, to grow)". So perhaps the best translation for the biblical ezrach would be "native" (unlike citizen, which is related to "city").

Interestingly, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in The Living Torah, translates ezrach as a "person born into the nation", but then notes that it literally means "a native born in the land". The tension between these two meanings is felt more strongly regarding the translation of ger as either  "stranger" or  "convert". In any case, as Levine points out in his JPS commentary on Vayikra 19:34,"the term ezrah is never applied to the prior inhabitants of Canaan." (For further discussion see this interesting Hebrew article by Dr. Eliezer Hadad, or this English abstract).

Another derivative of זרח is mizrach מזרח – “east”. We discussed it briefly in this post about the Semitic origins of the word "Asia", but now it is not so clear (to me) whether mizrach means “where the sun rises” or “where the sun begins to shine”.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


We're all familiar with the word simcha שמחה - "joy" (and hopefully with the concept as well!). This noun is based on the verb שמח - in the kal form samach - "was happy" and in the piel form simeach - "made happy" (the hifil השמיח appears once, in Tehilim 89:43, but isn't used in Modern Hebrew). The noun is formed by adding a heh - similar to other feelings such as ahava אהבה - "love", yirah יראה - "fear" and chemda חמדה - "desire". In addition to joy in general, in Talmudic Hebrew it began to refer to a joyous occasion as well. There is also the adjective sameach שמח - "glad", although Avineri (Yad Halashon 601) points out that it is appropriate to say that person is sameach, but to say that an event was sameach is a Yiddishism (better to say there was simcha there).

Klein writes that the root שמח is related to the Ugaritic shmh - "to be glad, rejoice", the Arabic shamaha - "was high, was proud" and the Akkadian shamahu (samahu) - "to sprout, flourish". It is therefore related to the root tzamach צמח - "to sprout, spring up, grow", and so is similar to the English word "elated" (meaning both "happy" and "lifted up").

This meaning is particularly felt in Mishlei 13:9:

אוֹר-צַדִּיקִים יִשְׂמָח;    וְנֵר רְשָׁעִים יִדְעָךְ.

The Koren Tanach translates this as:

"The light of the righteous rejoices; but the lamp of the wicked shall be put out."

Translating yismach as "rejoices" is common - but it doesn't make much sense. How does can light be happy? And if it meant to say the light will make (others) happy, then it should have been yisameach, not yismach. Kil, in the Daat Mikra commentary, says that yismach here means "will grow" and is therefore close in meaning to יצמח - "will spring up". He quotes Ibn Janach as saying the root שמח means "increase", and the Meiri on this verse as saying "it will increase every day".

Jonas Greenfield in his book Al Kanfei Yonah: Collected Studies of Jonas C. Greenfield on Semitic Philology develops this idea further. He writes that another meaning of שמח can be "to shine" (like the English "to brighten" means "to make happy"), as in the Syriac צמח (Klein also mentions the Mandiac ציהמא). This can explain a number of very familiar verses, such as  יִרְאוּ יְשָׁרִים וְיִשְׂמָחוּ - "the upright will see and be radiant" (Tehilim 107:42) and  אוֹר, זָרֻעַ לַצַּדִּיק;    וּלְיִשְׁרֵי-לֵב שִׂמְחָה. - "Light is sown for the righteous, radiance for the upright" (Tehilim 97:11, New JPS translation, apparently influenced by this approach. They follow this approach in our verse above in Mishlei as well, and translate it as "the light of the righteous is radiant". ).

After discussing the various Semitic languages where the root can mean "to grow" and/or "to glow", he writes:

From the point of view of Hebrew alone one must say that a phonic distinction based on meaning has taken place within the root complex צמח - שמח. Etymologically - considering Arabic shamaha and Akkadian samahu - the ש (sin) is primary. While שמח now bears the meaning "to be high, to glow, to rejoice," צמח has been differentiated and means primarily "to grow.". In Aramaic where שמח has disappeared entirely, צמח has variously assumed both "to grow" and "to glow".

He also points out that the root נצץ can mean both "to blossom" and "to sparkle", and the Hebrew and Aramic זהר means "to shine", but in Aramaic it also means "to grow" and in Arabic "to blossom".

While Greenfield doesn't mention it, I am inclined to assume there's a connection understood between simcha as "joy, happiness" and as "light, radiance" (perhaps even a play on words)  in the verses in Esther (8:15-16) -  וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן, צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה.   לַיְּהוּדִים, הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשֹׂן, וִיקָר - "The city of Shushan rejoiced (tzahala) and was glad (samecha). The Jews enjoyed light (ora) and gladness (simcha), happiness and honor". The root צהל also can mean "to shine" as well as "to rejoice".

Purim Sameach!

Saturday, March 05, 2011


We previously discussed blo בלו, a tax first mentioned in the book of Ezra. Blo is mentioned together with two other taxes that are not used in modern Hebrew: minda מנדה and halach הלך. The three terms are discussed in Bava Batra 8a, and halach is identified as arnona ארנונא. Arnona (as ארנונה) is certainly familiar to Israelis today - it's municipal tax determined by the size of the property. However, in Talmudic times it was an agricultural tax (originally on grain, then extended to land, cattle, and clothing). Then, as now, it was not particularly loved, and this can be sensed in the etymology as well.

We've mentioned before that although the Jews of the Talmudic period (in the Land of Israel) were under Roman rule, almost all the foreign words in Talmudic Hebrew were from Greek. The exceptions are almost always related to the military. Arnona is an adaptation of the Latin annona (the Hebrew equivalent אנונא or אנונה is found in Midrash Rabbah), meaning "yearly produce", from annus, "year" (as in the word "annual"). Steinsaltz comments that troops passing through an area would collect food as part of the arnona tax, and this is perhaps a connection to the Biblical halach ("walking").

A question I've been asked in the past is, "Why is the Jerusalem neighborhood Arnona called that? Why would they name a neighborhood after a tax?" Well, there are two theories about the origin of the name - neither of which is connected to the tax. One is that it is named for the Arnon river in Jordan, which empties into the Dead Sea, which is visible from the neighborhood. The other theory is that it was named for the the daughter of the scholar Ben-Zion Luria, Arnona, who was herself named for the river. The river, Nachal Arnon  נחל ארנון - is mentioned a number of times in the Tanach, and some say gets its name from its noisy nature (the root רנן means to be loud, either in joy or in complaint).

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Lately there has been a lot of news about the proposed increase (and subsequent decrease) in Israel's excise tax on gasoline. Until I looked into it, I did not know what an excise tax was. According to Wikipedia, it differs from custom duties:

An excise tax is one levied on specific goods or commodities produced or sold within a country, or on licenses granted for specific activities. Excises are distinguished from customs duties, which are taxes on importation. Excises are inland taxes, whereas customs duties are border taxes.

and is also different than sales tax:

an excise is distinguished from a sales tax or VAT in three ways: (i) an excise typically applies to a narrower range of products; (ii) an excise is typically heavier, accounting for higher fractions (sometimes half or more) of the retail prices of the targeted products; and (iii) an excise is typically specific (so much per unit of measure; e.g. so many cents per gallon), whereas a sales tax or VAT is ad valorem, i.e. proportional to value (a percentage of the price in the case of a sales tax, or of value added in the case of a VAT).

But what really confused me was the name for excise in Hebrew- blo בלו. I thought it was likely a foreign word - perhaps a mispronunciation of one. So I was certainly surprised to find out that the word is actually biblical! It appears, together with other types of taxes, in the Aramaic section of the Book of Ezra (4:13,20; 7:24).

The Daat Mikra explains b'lo there as a type of food tax. In Bava Batra 8a, the gemara identifies blo as a capitation tax (tax per person). Klein, perhaps influenced by the gemara, says the biblical meaning is "poll tax." How it came to mean "excise" in Modern Hebrew is unclear to me (Ben Yehuda does not have an entry for the word at all.)

As far as the etymology is concerned, Klein writes that it is of unknown origin, and the Daat Mikra says it is perhaps from Persian. However, others say that it derives from the Akkadian biltu - "tribute, gift" (from the verb wabalu, "to bring"), which may be related to the Hebrew root יבל meaning "to bear, carry, conduct". This is would be equivalent to the word masa משא, which can mean both "carrying, burden" as well as "tribute, present", and derives from the root נשא, meaning "to bear, carry" as well.

From יבל, we get the word yevul יבול - "produce, yield" (according to Klein, literally "that which is brought in or gathered in") and hovala הובלה - "transport". Klein also mentions a few more words which perhaps also derive from the root יבל:
  • mabul מבול - "flood". He quotes Gesenius as saying that it derives from יבל meaning "to flow". Others say it comes from נבל, to destroy. 
  • yabelet יבלת - "wart". He writes that perhaps it literally means "a running sore".
  • yovel יובל - "jubilee". As we've previously discussed, before it meant jubilee, it meant "ram". Klein writes that it probably derives from יבל, and originally meant "leader of the flock, bellwether". (This source seems to directly connect the jubilee with the concept of "gift".)
  • tevel תבל - "world". He notes that it is "usually derived from יבל ( = to bear, carry)". But "it is more probably that it derives from Akkadian tabalu (= continent)."

Sunday, February 06, 2011


We previously discussed the Hebrew word for fruit - p'ri פרי. Now lets look at a particular fruit - eshkolit אשכולית - "grapefruit".

At first glance this seemed strange to me. Both grapefruit and eshkolit were connected to "grapes"; eshkol אשכול means "cluster", as in a cluster of grapes (and is related to sagol סגול - "violet"). But I had a hard time with the suffix ית "-it". I assumed it was a diminutive - a kapit כפית is a smaller spoon than a kaf כף, and a sakit שקית is a smaller bag than a sak שק.

To answer this question, we first need to understand the etymology of the English word "grapefruit". It actually isn't directly related to grapes, but to the clusters they grow in. As The Word Detective writes:

Grapefruit is called grapefruit not because it is in any way related to grapes, which it is not, but because it grows in bunches, as grapes grow. "Grapefruit" first appeared in English around 1814. The Oxford English Dictionary sums up grapefruit thusly: "The globular fruit of Citrus paradisi, having a yellow skin and pale yello (occas. pink), juicy, acid pulp."

When the pre-State Israeli farmers (in the 1920s) wanted to give a name to the new fruit they had brought from America, they wanted a Hebrew version of "grapefruit". They considered *eshkolia אשכוליה (like agvania עגבנייה for tomato) but rejected it because it sounded like a diminutive! So they chose eshkolit, which basically means a fruit "related to eshkol, cluster"1.

My initial impression that the suffix "-it" meant primarily a diminutive was incorrect. It is used to form abstract nouns, or just other nouns connected to the root, going all the way back to Biblical Hebrew, and continuing strongly into Modern Hebrew and Hebrew slang. 

In fact, there are so many different usages of the suffix, that I doubt I can list them all here (both due to space and my memory...) Here are some examples of a few other usages:
  • In Biblical Hebrew we have rosh ראש - "head" and reshit ראשית - "beginning" (in the first word in the Torah!) and shear שאר and shearit שארית - both meaning "remnant". Already here we can see that it is not easy to define how the suffix "-it" changes the original word.
  • In Rabbinic Hebrew shahar שחר - "dawn" and erev ערב - "evening" become shaharit שחרית and arvit ערבית.
  • Feminine forms of nouns also are created using "-it", particularly with professions, like sachkan שחקן (actor) and sachkanit (actress), and meltzar מלצר (waiter) and meltzarit מלצרית (waitress).
  • Languages take the names of nations and add "-it": Sefard (Spain) ספרד becomes Sefaradit ספרדית, Tzarfat (France) צרפת becomes Tzarfatit צרפתית. (Using -it and not -ah allows us to distinguish between a French woman, a Tzarfatiya צרפתיה, and the French language, Tzarfatit).
  • The suffix is used to create adverbs, such as shenit שנית (a second time) from sheni שני (second) and yachasit יחסית - "relatively" from yachas יחס - "relation". (Avineri in Yad Halashon p. 332 criticized the use of miyadit מיידית - "immediately" when miyad מיד was already a perfectly good adverb.)
  • It can be used to create a tool or device - such as with masa משא - "burden" becoming masa'it משאית - "truck", and cheshbon חשבון - "account" becoming cheshbonit חשבונית - "receipt".
Many more examples, particularly in recent Hebrew usage (such as in brand names, children's names, place names) and general slang can be found in Dr. Malka Muchnik's interesting article "סופית קטנה שהגדילה לעשות" in Helkat Lashon 23, 1997.
Incidentally, many years ago I learned one of my first lessons about how words are borrowed from one language to another, particularly words for foods (one of my favorite topics), from eshkolit.

I grew up in San Francisco, and in my school there were a lot of immigrants from Russia. One of them was in my Hebrew class, and when we learned the word "eshkolit", he said, "That's the same word in Russian!" This isn't true, but he ended up believing this because his family lived in Israel for a couple of years in the 1970s after they left Russia. They hadn't seen grapefruits in Russia, so when they came to Israel they adopted the Hebrew word, and continued using it in the US (where they spoke Russian to their kids.)

I can't count how many times we've seen similar transformations while tracing the history of words. But it was fascinating to see it happening in real time!


1. In an article in the newspaper Yediot Achronot, October 16, 1981, there is some disagreement about who can claim the coinage of eshkolit  -Yisrael Weinberg or Pinchas Riklis. Both lived at the same period, which makes it hard now to determine who is right.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


In honor of Tu B'Shvat, the Academy of the Hebrew Language posted a page about the Hebrew word for fruit: פרי - p'ri ( I prefer this spelling over pri, since it emphasizes the vocalized shva.  We also find a few instances of peri - with a segol - in Biblical Hebrew.)

They point out that in the Tanach, p'ri only appears as a collective noun (שם קיבוצי). This means that while it is in the singular form, it can refer to a group of more than one of the object. (See this page from Safa Ivrit, which gives many other examples of Biblical collective nouns. The question of whether a particular noun is a singular or a collective noun causes much debate among the commentators.) So the Biblical p'ri can either refer to an individual fruit or "fruit, produce" as a whole.

In Rabbinic Hebrew we first find the plural perot פירות. They quote the Mishna (Berachot 6:1) as showing the mix of the two forms:

על פֵּרות האילן הוא אומר: בורא פרי העץ.
On fruits (perot) of the tree (ilan), he blesses "borei p'ri ha'etz"

Although the rabbis spoke post-Biblical Hebrew, they generally used the Biblical forms of the word for the blessings. So here we have p'ri as the plural, as well as etz instead of ilan for "tree".

The Academy also writes that p'ri is related to the verb פרה, meaning "to be fruitful". This is better than Klein who writes that p'ri comes from פרה. For as Tur Sinai writes in his footnote to פרה, the verb actually derives from the noun, since the noun has many cognates in Semitic languages, where the verb does not.

Reader Shaul wrote to me:

What is the etymology of peri? Is it at all related to English "fruit," which ultimately derives from Latin "fructus" and Proto-Indo-European before that? 

The two words do not seem to be related. As the Online Etymology Dictionary (and others) point out, the Proto-Indo-European root is *bhrug, meaning "to enjoy", which is distant from p'ri meaning "fruit".

However, there are other possible candidates for related English words. For example, in the comments on our post about tapuach תפוח, we discuss the possibility of the Latin pirum (the origin of the English word "pear"), being related to p'ri (it is also discussed in this old book). Other English words possibly connected (although with plenty of theories to the contrary) include "berry", "bear" (as in bear fruit), and "fertile" (both from the PIE root *bher, which we've shown may be related to the Hebrew words apiryon אפריון and parnasa פרנסה.) See also this article, which tries to explain how many of these roots are connected, and also adds in the Hebrew יבול yevul, meaning "produce". But this is all just speculation. And as it's Tu B'Shvat - let's focus on the fruits of the Land of Israel!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Khartoum and hartumim

Reader Zvi writes:

With the impending partition of Sudan in the news lately, it would be interesting if you could address the multiple uses of the Hebrew word


In Exodus 7:11 and 7:22, it's the word used for the Egyptian magicians.

In modern Hebrew, it's used for the prow of a ship, an elephant's trunk, and a rocket nose cone

And it's also the name of the capital city of Sudan.

What, if anything, is the relationship between these?

Good question - I've been meaning to write about this for a while.

First of all, chartom חרטום meaning "beak, nose, trunk", as well as the borrowed meanings you mentioned, is, as Klein writes, "enlarged" from the Hebrew chotam חוטם, meaning "nose, snout".  (I discussed earlier the background to the more popular word for nose, af אף.)

The name of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, is certainly related, as described in Placenames of the World:

Founded in 1821 as an Egyptian army camp, the city has an Arabic name, from al-khurtum, a short form of ras al-khurtum, "end of an elephant's trunk," from ra's, "head," "end," al, "the," and khurtum, "trunk." The reference is to the narrow stretch of land here between the White Nile and Blue Nile.
But what about the hartumim חרטמים of Egypt? There are a number of theories. Ben Yehuda, in the footnote to his dictionary entry, writes that the etymology is unclear. He says that some derive from the root חרט, to engrave. Those that follow this theory claim it refers to their ability to write the hieroglyphics. He then quotes a theory that the word is related to chotam, "nose", because it was the practice of these sorcerers to speak through their nose. In the end, however, he says it is likely a word borrowed from Egyptian, even though no such word has been found yet. (Interestingly, Ibn Ezra in his commentary on Bereshit 41:8, says perhaps the word is from Aramaic or Egyptian. However, I'm not sure what form of Egyptian Ibn Ezra is referring to.)

I'm not sure when this footnote was written (although I believe most of the footnotes were written by Tur-Sinai, not Ben-Yehuda, so it could have been well after the latter's death in 1922). Driver makes the same comment in his 1900 commentary on the Book of Daniel - perhaps that influenced the dictionary footnote.

In any case, at some point since that was written, there have been such Egyptian inscriptions discovered, for we now find quotes such as in On the Reliability of the Old Testament:

The term for Pharoah's scholars or sages is hartummim, which goes back to the Egyptian term hery-tep, best translated "expert" and often found in the combination  kheri-hab hery-tep, which means "lector-priest and expert" and not simply "chief lector-priest" as was formerly thought
(A challenge to this theory is discussed in footnote 25 in this book.)

So while the hartumim and Khartoum both have Egyptian origins, it appears they are not connected. Now we need to see whether Sudan itself will stay connected...

Monday, January 10, 2011

segen and samal

In our post discussing sochen סוכן - "agent" - I wrote that it "is connected to segan סגן - in Biblical Hebrew a government prefect, and later in Rabbinic Hebrew a deputy." While segan as "deputy" (or "vice", as in "Vice President" - סגן נשיא) is still used in Modern Hebrew, it was adapted for army use as segen meaning "lieutenant." This is an appropriate translation, as lieutenant originally meant "one who takes the place of another."

Klausner (Ivrit Hachadasha U'Bayoteha, p. 191) thought that segen was the original pronunciation, not segan. Avineri (Yad Halashon, pgs. 403, 480) disagrees, writing that segen only appeared in piyutim, but segan was the prominent usage. He says that segen was adopted in the army either a) due to similarity to seren (see below), or b) to show that this was not specifically the position of a deputy, which segan indicated.

Another word created for the Israeli army was samal סמל - "sergeant".  However, the word was originally an acronym (including segen), as Klein writes:

Originally spelled סמ"ל and formed from the initials of the words סגן מחוץ למניין, corresponding to N.C.O. (= Non-Commissioned Officer); later the word סמל samal was regarded as a derivative of סמל semel.
The word semel here refers to the Biblical word (Devarim 4:16, Yechezkel 8:3,5, Divrei HaYamim II 33:7,15) meaning "image, likeness", and in modern Hebrew "symbol". Kutscher writes that this mistaken derivation was due to an assumption that samal was inspired by the rank "ensign", which derives from a French word meaning "symbol". However, Kutscher finds that the earliest usage was indeed the acronym, and points out that if we have such a hard time figuring out the etymology of words that were coined in our generation, we should be cautious about guessing the etymology of words that were first used thousands of years ago.

From semel we get the adjective simli סמלי - "symbolic" and the verb סמל - "to symbolize". However, neither the English words symbol nor similar are related to semel (they both have Indo-European origins, whereas semel is purely Semitic). However, it does appear to me that "symbol" has influenced the usage of semel in modern Hebrew.

Likewise, the word signon סגנון isn't related to segan. It was borrowed from the Greek signum meaning "sign", and originally meant "sign, ensign, banner", and later came to mean "style, form, way".

But just in case you think that no Hebrew army terms actually are related to Greek words - take a look at our old post on the word seren סרן - "captain". We see at least one theory that it is related to the Greek tyrannos...

Sunday, January 02, 2011


We previously discussed a number of words with the root סכן. One word that might seem missing in that discussion is sakin סכין - "knife". However, while this is how it is spelled in Rabbinic Hebrew, and the Aramaic cognate is סכינא, in Biblical Hebrew the word is spelled with a sin, not a samech - שכין. It appears only once, in Mishlei 23:2.

Klein points out that שכין derives from the base שכך, which he defines as "to be pointed, to transfix" (and is not related to the homographic root שכך meaning "to cover, lay over"). Two other unique Biblical words come from this root: sech שך - "thorn" (appears only in the plural, sikim שכים in Bamidbar 33:55), and suka שכה - "barb" (in Iyov 40:31). Also related is the post-Biblical sika סיכה - "pin, peg, brooch".

Chaim Rabin, in his article מילים זרות ("Foreign Words") in the Encyclopedia Mikrait, writes that sakin belongs to a group of words that entered Hebrew from Asian languages that were neither Semitic or Indo-European. He doesn't say where sakin came from, but points out that in the Lexicon of Hesychius, we find the Greek word συκινη meaning "sword". However, without any further information, and in light of the convincing etymology that Klein (and others) provide, I'm not so inclined to accept this theory.

Although the older dictionaries point out that sakin is a feminine noun, both Avineri (Yad Halashon, 420) and Sivan (Better Hebrew Usage, 232) point out that in Talmudic Hebrew we find that it appears both as masculine and feminine (and Avineri writes that Rashi and the Rambam use it in the masculine). Since the word "sounds" masculine, there is no reason to insist on it being feminine. However, Google still supports the dictionaries: 14,800 hits for "sakin gedola" סכין גדולה vs only 2,040 results for "sakin gadol" סכין גדול.