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).