Sunday, May 29, 2016


Last week we discussed the root דמם, meaning "to be silent". Today we'll take a look at a synonym - the root חרש, which can also mean "to be silent, be mute, be deaf."  This root gives us the words cheresh חרש - "deaf", charisha חרישה - "silence" and even macharish מחריש which means "shout down" or "drown out", but literally means "deafening", so is related to this root. One other possible related word is chorsha חורשה - "thicket, small forest", since based on Shmuel I 23:19 it was a place for hiding, which has an association with silence. But most sources say the ultimate etymology of chorsha is not clear.

Is there any connection between the root חרש as "to be silent" and another root, with the same spelling, meaning "to cut in, engrave, plow"? We actually discussed this back in 2007, quoting Horowitz as saying the two aren't related, and points out that the shin in each root is actually a different letter. The proof of this is that in other Semitic languages (in this case Syriac) we see that the shin in the root meaning "plow" becomes a tav, but not in the root meaning "silent". And indeed, the root חרת in Hebrew also means "to engrave".

As we've mentioned previously, the question of two letter roots in Hebrew is still very much undecided. But whatever the explanation, there are many roots in Hebrew beginning with the letters חר that have a meaning connected to "engrave" or "cut." Let's take a look at some:

  • חרב - cherev חרב means "sword" and Akkadian harbu is a kind of plow. We've seen before that charuv חרוב - "carob" derives from the sword shape of the fruit.
  • חרז - charuz חרוז is a string of beads, which came from the idea of piercing together. Later, charuz came to mean "rhyme", by analogy (influenced by Arabic) with arranging words like pearls or beads, with the rhyming syllables at the end of the verse
  • חרט - a cheret חרט is a graving tool, stylus
  • חרף - charif חריף means "sharp"
  • חרץ - the root means "to cut, cut in" and may be related to the word charutz חרוץ meaning "gold"
  • חרק - this root can mean "to grind or gnash", "to notch, indent" and "to cut, make incisions." This last meaning gave the Hebrew word for insect - cherek חרק, which is a loan translation from the Latin insectum, literally "(animal) cut into"
  • חרר - to make a hole, bore through. This is the root of the word chor חור - "hole."
One word that has a possible connection to this meaning is cheres חרס - "clay, earthenware". The earlier spelling was cheres חרש (with a sin). Klein does say it is related to the Arabic root h-r-sh, "to scratch, to be rough". If this is the case, we can also add to our list of cognates charoset חרוסת - the food eaten on Pesach which is reminiscent of "clay."

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

domeh and dumah

Is there any connection between the Hebrew homographs domeh - "similar" and dumah - "silence", both spelled דומה?

Let's look at domeh first. The root is דמה, meaning "to be like, resemble, to be equal in value." The verb's meaning progressed from "likened" to "compared" to "considered" to "imagined".  From this root, with the various meanings, we get quite a few common words, including:

  • demut דמות - in Biblical Hebrew it meant "likeness" or "image". In modern  Hebrew it primarily means "personality."
  • dimyon דמיון - It only appears once in Tanach (Tehilim 17:12), with a similar meaning to demut, with the meaning "similarity", which it still has today. In modern Hebrew it also has the meaning "imagination" - perhaps in a similar way that "image" and "imagination" are related in English.
  • tadmit תדמית - This word means "image" or "perception", particularly how one is perceived by others.
  • demai דמאי - This is a halachic term for "produce not certainly tithed".While there are a number of folk etymologies for the word, Klein derives it from our root דמה and says it literally means "seeming, apparent".
  • damim דמים - Klein says this post-biblical word meaning "money, value, price" is probably derived from the root דמה meaning "to be like", in the sense "to be equal". (There are, however, many drashot that connect damim as money to dam דם - "blood").
Dumah,  however, meaning "silence" has a different root - דמם. It appears once in the Tanach (Yechezkel 27:32), and has a cognate synonym in demama דממה. Other related words are domem דומם - "inanimate matter", and דמדם - "to be in a daze, confused", which gives the word dimdum דמדום - "dim light".

This root, דמם, "to be or grow dumb or silent" has cognates in many Semitic languages, such as Ugaritic, Aramaic, Arabic and Ethiopian.

You might have noticed that the English word "dumb", originally meaning "silent" has a similar sound to the Hebrew root. However, they are not related. All research I could find says that the English word "dumb" comes from the Indo-European root *dhumbh, which is (as Klein writes) "a nasalized form of base *dhubh or *dheubh, 'to fill with smoke, to cloud darken; to be dumb, dull, or deaf.". Cognate words in English may include deaf, dove, typhus and stove.

Now, I know that the Hebrew and English words sound similar. And they both have similar meanings - both "mute" and "confused". But while this is a good example of using your dimyon, they don't have the same roots. Remember the helpful Hebrew phrase דומה אך שונה - "similar, yet different."

Monday, May 16, 2016

yakar and makor

A reader asked if there is any connection between yakar יקר - "precious" and makor מקור - "source". As far as I can tell there is no relationship between the two, but that's no reason not to take a quick look at the etymology of each.

Yakar originally meant precious or honored, and over time came to mean "costly" as well. It has cognates in many other Semitic languages. In modern Hebrew, the related term yukra יוקרה - "prestige" was coined.

Makor has a more complicated story. It has biblical origins, and Klein points out that the earliest meaning was "spring, fountain" (as in Yirmiya 2:13), and only later did it gain the more general meanings of "source" and "origin" (and "original"). He writes that the root of the word is קור, meaning "to dig".

A homograph is makor meaning "beak". This was originally a Talmudic word meaning "millstone, chisel", but Ben Yehuda gave it the new meaning of beak, on the basis of the Aramaic makora מקורא. This makor has a different root נקר - "to pick, peck, pierce." (Another difference is that the plural of makor as "source" is mekorot, and the plural of makor as "beak" is makorim.)

However, Klein points out that the root נקר also means "to dig" and is related to the root קור we saw above. From נקר we get many related words such as nikur ניקור - "gouging" and nikra נקרה - "cave, grotto" (as in Rosh Hanikra). This root has Arabic cognates as well, and one of them may be the source of the word "nacre", meaning "mother of pearl", which has the following etymology:

1590s, "type of shellfish that yields mother-of-pearl," from Middle French nacre (14c.), from Italian naccaro (now nacchera), possibly from Arabic naqur "hunting horn" (from nakara "to hollow out"), in reference to the shape of the mollusk shell. Meaning "mother-of-pearl" is from 1718.

The root קור appears only twice in the Bible (Melachim II 19:24 and Yeshaya 37:25) meaning "to dig for water." This leads me to an interesting etymological connection that I'm not entirely sure about.

In his entry for קרר, the root of kar קר meaning "cold", Klein writes that it is possibly related to Arabic qarara, meaning "depth of a well". Would that mean that kar is also related to the words we've discussed meaning "dig"? Any readers out there with more knowledge of Arabic than I have that could help?

Monday, May 09, 2016

lama and madua

A reader asked about the origin of and difference between the two Hebrew words lama למה and madua מדוע, both generally translated into English as "why". Let's take a look.

Madua appears in biblical Hebrew (but is not found in rabbinic Hebrew). Klein provides the following etymology:
Contraction of מה ידוע ma yadua (=what is known? i.e. 'for what reason').

And reflecting that etymology, it refers specifically to the cause (in the past) of a thing, event, etc.

Lama has a wider background and usage than madua, and is used more frequently today (madua is considered much more formal). Lama is also found in biblical Hebrew but appears in rabbinic Hebrew as well. It also can refer to the cause of a thing, but can also ask "what is the purpose, aim". Its etymology shows that flexibility, for it is a contraction  of ל-מה "for what". Lama asks about cause in Bereshit 4:7, 12:18 and about purpose in Shemot 5:22 and Iyov 30:2.

In this way, lama is indeed similar to the English "why", which contains both aspects - past and future. In other languages, there are different words for each meaning. For example, German has warum for "cause" and wozu for "purpose", and the same phenomenon can be found in other European languages.

Creating a dichotomy between lama and madua (even if it's not always faithful to the biblical lama, as we have seen), allows for some powerful interpretations about how we understand the world.

For example, in this fascinating video, Rabbi David Fohrman confronts the question that Moshe asks God after the sin of the golden calf (Shemot 32:11) לָמָה ה' יֶחֱרֶה אַפְּךָ בְּעַמֶּךָ - "Why (lama), God, should you be angry at your people?" Rabbi Fohrman asks:

What is he talking about? Why should you be angry at your people? They are  supposed to be accepting the Torah, and they are dancing around a golden calf, an idol that they have made with their very own hands, and you have the chutzpah to ask God, ‘Why should you be angry with your people?’ What is he talking about?

But then later he answers:

So here you have to understand the crucial distinction between the two Hebrew words for ‘why’, lamah and madua. Why would one language have two words for ‘why’ unless they didn’t mean the same thing? Madua, from the word mada, is the scientific ‘why’. It means what happened in the past to cause the present state of affairs? When Moses looked at the burning bush, madua lo-yivar hasneh, what is it about this bush that causes it not to burn? It is a question about the past that would explain the present. But that is not the only kind of ‘why’ that you can ask. You can ask a different kind of ‘why’. A lamah kind of ‘why’. Lamah is a contraction of ‘le mah’, to what, for what, for what purpose. It is a question about the future.

Yes, I understand what happened to make you angry, God. That’s not my question, we all get that. The question is, where will this anger take you? Let’s read the rest of the words. Lamah yechereh apcha be’amecha. Moshe says, ‘why should you be angry with your people?’ Don’t say it is my people, it is your people. You are attached to them whether you like it or not.
In that case, by using the word lama, Moshe was challenging God - and in the end was successful. A different case, where we need to make sure we ourselves are asking lama and not madua is found in this powerful story:

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I found myself on the uptown campus of Yeshiva University. As it was for the entire country and for much of the world, initial reactions to the attacks on the World Trade Center were little more than shock and disbelief. Particularly for those located so close to the disaster, it was difficult to absorb what transpired that morning.

In response to the events of the morning, student leaders at Yeshiva quickly organized an outdoor Mincha and Tehillim rally. The main speaker at this rally was Rabbi Norman Lamm … There is one thought that he stressed that I have not forgotten. David Hamelech exclaims in Tehillim "keili keili lama azavtani?".  [“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”]  Rabbi Shimshon Rephael Hirsh explains that in Hebrew, one can ask "why" with the use of the word madua or of the word lama.  The word madua means why in its purest sense, wanting to know the reason behind something, what caused it to happen. On the other hand, lama comes from the words "le ma," literally "to what," trying to figure out not what caused something to happen, but rather what is the purpose that is meant to come out of the occurrence. And so when David Hamelech feels deserted by Hashem, he does not ask madua. It is not his place to question the causes of the actions of Hashem. Rather he asks lama. What is meant to come out of the actions of Hashem? What responsibilities do they place upon me? 
This must be our response to tragedy as well, explained Rabbi Lamm to the hundreds of students and faculty assembled on the lawn outside of Rubin Hall. It is futile to try to understand the reasons or causes for such a horrible occurrence. What we can do, however, is to try our best to figure out the ends to which events such as the attacks of September 11th are meant to bring about in our lives.

In general on this site, I focus on the "madua" - why words came to take the meanings they have. But it is important not to forget the "lama" - what purpose words can have. In the week between Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Israeli soldiers and victims of terror), this is indeed a very appropriate message.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016


The Hebrew root עבר is extremely common, and in general means "to pass" or "to pass over". (Despite the similarity to the English word  "over", there is no etymological connection). There are a number of related terms that derive from this meaning:

  • עבר can also mean to impregnate (from the sense of "to pass the seed"). From here we get the word עובר ubar - "fetus" and a leap year is known as a שנה מעוברת - shana meuberet.
  • עברה evra means "anger", and Klein says it's related to עבר in the sense of "carried away by anger". He also provides two alternative etymologies- from  Arabic gharb (passion, violence) or Arabic ghabira (=he bore ill will).
  • עברי Ivri  and עברית Ivrit mean "Hebrew". While there are many theories as to the etymology of Ivri (and because it's a proper noun it's more difficult to track), one of them derives it from the related ever עבר - "side", and therefore literally means "one from beyond (the Euphrates)". Perhaps I'll do a more extensive post on this some day.
The root can have a positive connotation, such as over mivchan עובר מבחן - "pass a test". But today I want to focus on the negative sense - "to transgress". It appears 18 times in the Tanach (a small fraction of the over 500 appearances of the verb alone), and generally refers to a transgression against God. Even-Shoshan in his concordance says it is related to the meaning "pass" in the sense of "avoid, evade", and frequently means "did not fulfill or keep" (the covenant or God's command). The BDB has the passing in a different direction, and says it meant "overstep". This would give a similar sense to the English word "trespass", and in fact the word "transgression" itself has a similar etymology:

late 14c., from Old French transgression "transgression," particularly that relating to Adam and the Fall (12c.), from Late Latin transgressionem (nominative transgressio) "a transgression of the law," in classical Latin, "a going over, a going across," noun of action from transgressus, past participle of transgredi "step across, step over; climb over, pass, go beyond," from trans- "across" + gradi (past participle gressus) "to walk, go"

In Biblical Hebrew, we don't find this root in a noun form. There are other words for sin, such as chet חטא, pesha פשע and avon עון. However, in Talmudic Hebrew, we are introduced to a new noun - aveira עבירה. Avera can also mean "sin", but has a more general sense of "transgression or offence" as in averot between a person and his fellow עבירות בין אדם לחברו. In modern Hebrew it can mean "crime or violation", as in a traffic violation עבירת תנועה - aveirat tenua.

I recently read a fascinating book by Ruth Gruber - Ahead of Time, My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent. Ruth, the Jewish daughter of European immigrants in New York, describes her travels to Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. These were captivating accounts, but one particular passage in her home in Brooklyn in the 1930s caught my eye. She describes the loft, over the garage, that her father suggested she move in to. It had been previously occupied by her brother Harry (a  doctor). She writes:

You entered the loft by climbing a ladder inside the garage and pushing up a latch-door. Once hay had been hoisted up through the big front hatchway for the horses quartered below. Harry had turned part of the loft into his operating lab, the rest was the avayra room

When I first read this, I stopped midsentence (as I'm quoting it to you here). What exactly took place in an "avayra room"? What sins? What crimes?

But then she continues:

for things that were an avayra, a shame to throw out—family portraits, diplomas, clothes to be sent to the relatives in Europe.

After taking a breath of relief, I suddenly realized that I knew this particular sense of aveira already. My great-aunt Mollie, who was born just a few years before Ruth (also to European immigrants, but to Boston instead of New York), used to talk about "aveira fat". This meant the fat you gained by eating things that were a shame (an aveira) to throw out. I'm certainly familiar with this type of weight gain, but I always thought that was a strange turn of phrase (particularly considering that I rarely heard Mollie use any Hebrew or Yiddish words). But now it seems that this was a particular sense of the word aveira, perhaps even specifically used by immigrants to the United States. I'm going to continue using the phrase "aveira fat". It would be a shame to let it go to waste!