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.