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!