Monday, December 26, 2016


I found an old note of mine that said I should write about the word achsania - the Hebrew word for "hostel." Since the note was written in English, I initially assumed that the word was spelt with a chet, and was therefore cognate with the word machsan מחסן - "storeroom", and I could see a connection regarding storing things or people.

But when I started looking in my dictionaries, I discovered that the word is actually spelled with a khaf - אכסניה (or אכסניא). Klein writes that the word originally meant "hospitality", then "lodging", and derives from the Greek xenia, meaning hospitality. Xenia is related to xenos, "stranger, guest", and is the root of the English word "xenophobia", meaning "fear of strangers." Both come from the root xeno-, "strange, foreign", and ultimately may be cognate with the Latin word meaning guest - hostis. If this is the case, it would lead to a connection between achsania and usphizin אושפיזין, as we discussed here.

Achsania earlier had the sense of "inn", which is generally more rural than an urban hotel. Today the word for inn is pundak פונדק, although tzimmer צימר is used for specifically rural guest houses. Hotel is malon מלון, and therefore the less expensive option, hostel in English, found its place in achsania. As far as I know, there's no specific Hebrew word for "motel"...

Sunday, December 18, 2016

date and dekel

Here's a connection between two words that you might not have known. I don't have too much to add, but I found it really interesting.

Klein has the following entry for the word "date" (fruit of the palm tree):

Old French date (French datte), from Old Provençal datil (or from Italian dattero), from Latin dactylus, from Greek dactylos, 'date', which is of Semitic origin. Compare Hebrew deqel, Aramaic diqla, Syriac deqla, Arabic daqal, 'date palm', and Hebrew Diqlah, name of a region in Arabia, rich in date palms (see Genesis 10:27 and I Chronicles 1:21). The form of Greek daktylos, 'date', was influenced by a folk-etymological association with daktylos, 'finger', suggested by the fingerlike shape of the date.

In Biblical Hebrew we don't have dekel דקל for date, but rather tamar תמר. And in Talmudic Hebrew, when dekel was introduced (likely via Aramaic), it was used to refer to the date palm, not the date fruit (as in other Semitic languages). Tamar continued to refer to both the tree and the fruit.

Regarding the Dikla דלקה of Bereshit 10:27, the Daat Mikra writes that Arabic geographers mention a place called Dikla in Yemen.

Regarding the root dkl - Klein in his Hebrew dictionary, following Ben Yehuda, says that the ultimate etymology is unknown.

The homonym for date - "time" is not related at all, but as we saw here, might have a connection to the word in Hebrew for religion - dat דת.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

geves and gypsum

The Hebrew word geves גבס and the English word gypsum are closely related. Let's see how.

In Hebrew today, you'll most likely hear geves used to describe a type of construction - drywall, used to form the interior walls of buildings, and for orthopedic casts of plaster. But both of those uses were adopted because of the mineral primarily used to make them - gypsum.

During Talmudic times there were a number of longer words for gypsum including gipsis גפסיס (Para 5:9, Pesachim 75a), gipsos גיפסוס (Yerushalmi Shabbat 5:1) and gipsim גפסים (some versions of Kelim 10:2). The Ben Yehuda dictionary reports that the current form, geves, was based on these Talmudic forms, and this was the word used by people in Eretz Yisrael in his time. He doesn't mention this, but I wonder if perhaps the switch from the letter "pe" to the letter "bet" was due to influence from contemporary Arabic, who often make that switch, and pronounce their word for gypsum as jabas. (It's possibly that the answer is in page 119 of this book, but unfortunately I don't have access to it and  Google Books only gives me a snippet view.)

The dictionary also points out that the Talmudic forms come from the Greek, and this is where the English word gypsum derives as well. Klein writes in his CEDEL in the entry for "gypsum":

Latin, from Greek gypsos, 'chalk', of Semitic origin. Compare Arabic jibs, Mishnaic Hebrew gebhes, gephes, 'plaster, mortar, gypsum', which probably derive from Akkadian gassu (whence also Aramaic gassa גצא, whence Arabic jass, jiss, juss, qass, qiss), 'gypsum'.

The Aramaic gatza גצא, which according to Sokoloff means "lime", is found in some Talmudic era texts (some versions of Moed Katan 10b) as a parallel to sid סיד - "whitewash".

So as often happened in that region, the word geves was originally Semitic (Akkadian), then borrowed into Greek, then borrowed back into Hebrew and Aramaic. That is how language is built - not with stone walls that never change, but with much more adaptable gypsum...

Saturday, December 03, 2016


Why is the Hebrew word for "president" נשיא nasi? I'm not entirely sure, but I'll share my ideas with you. Let's start out by looking at the history of the word.

The word appears in the bible 129 times (not including four other cases where it means "rain cloud", but that's unrelated). The Even-Shoshan concordance says it means "head of a tribe, head of a congregation, ruler, etc." One thing I noticed from looking at the concordance was that it shows up in some biblical books, but not others.

Milgrom notes this in Excursus 1, "Some Political Institutions of Early Israel", in JPS Numbers. He defines nasi as "chieftan" or "clan leader", and sometimes the leader of the entire tribe. He then writes:

The term nasi' occurs over one hundred times in the Bible in a striking distribution. It clusters in the first four books of the Torah and in Joshua and again in Ezekiel and the postexilic books. It is totally absent from Deuteronomy, Judges Samuel and all the other prophets.

He continues:

The antiquity of the term nasi' is corroborated by its occurrence only among those non-Israelite societies that are nomadic: Ishmaelites (Gen 17:20, 25:16) and Midianites (Num. 25:14)

Sarna, in his comment to Shemot 22:27 in JPS Exodus makes a similar comment:

Hebrew nasi'  is the title given to the chief of a clan or tribe in the period before the monarchy.

And in his commentary on Bereshit 34:2, Sarna notes that Hamor, is called the nasi of the land, and not a king, as the Canaanite leaders usually are, because "the ruler of Shechem has dominion over rural - that is, tribal - territory as well as the urban center ... Such a complex situation does not permit absolute power. Indeed, Hamor does not act like a king."

So from all this we see that nasi refers to a leader who is not a king, and therefore is absent from many sections of the bible that focus on the monarchy. There are some biblical synonyms for nasi, such as nasich נסיך and nagid נגיד. It might seem, due to their similar sounds that nasi and nasich  are related, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Nasich, while meaning "prince" in current Hebrew, derives from the root נסך, "to pour", and as Klein writes, originally meant "he upon whom the anointing oil was poured". Nagid  (which today is used as "governor", as in "governor of the Bank of Israel") does not share a common root with nasi, but as Klein writes, they share a similar path of development. Here is his entry for the etymology of nasi:

Derived from נשא and literally meaning 'lifted up, exalted'. For sense development, compare nagid (=leader), from נגד, 'to be high'. According to G. Hoffman, nasi literally means 'speaker', and derives from נשא in the sense 'he lifted up (his word)'; compare nagid, which may have also meant originally 'speaker, spokesman'.

Later the term nasi was adopted to mean the head of the Sanhedrin, e.g. Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi. This Encyclopedia Judaica entry describes how it was used even after the end of the Talmudic period:

The title nasi persisted for many centuries and in different lands throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes as the title of a defined head of a Jewish institution, sometimes as an honorific title only, given to important personages and to sons of illustrious families.

But why president? My theory is that there had always been a clear distinction between a king - מלך melech, and nasi. This certainly doesn't mean that the word nasi ever meant a democratically elected ruler before modern times - but in earlier periods, when the role of king had very significant implications (particularly in Jewish law), there needed to be an alternate term for such a leader. And since nasi had been used throughout the generations, it was a natural choice for a translation of "president", when that term began to be used.

Of course, I wouldn't need to resort to conjecture if I could find any source mentioning the coinage of the modern use. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any such source. As I did when I researched artzot habrit, I turned to the archives of the Historical Jewish Press. The earliest mentions of nasi there meaning "president" appear in the 1860s, describing Abraham Lincoln (there's an interesting Hebrew article here about how Lincoln was covered in the European Jewish press at the time). It's unclear to me if this means that the sense was coined then, or if it had been used earlier, but no one happened to be writing about presidents before that point.

This 1858 article in Hamagid, mentions James Buchanan, but calls him the ראש ממשלה Rosh Memshala of America, a term that today means "prime minister" and sar שר, "minister":

By 1861, the newspaper Hacarmel describes Lincoln as nasi, but puts the term "president" in parentheses to help the reader:

The parentheses are gone by this 1862 article in Hacarmel, although they call him ראש נשיא - rosh nasi:

And the earliest mention I found of "president" in Hebrew was from this 1853 book discussing Napoleon III, who had the title of "prince-president".

As mentioned in this Wikepedia entry, the term "president" has a history going back quite a while before being adopted by the founders of the United States. But those usages weren't so well known, so I can see why I wouldn't be able to find any references to them in Hebrew texts. However, certainly there must have been some awareness of US presidents before Lincoln, even if the Jews were not paying so much attention to the goings on in the States at the time (and their press wasn't as fully developed).

If any of you readers know of earlier uses of nasi or other Hebrew synonyms for "president", or any other sources that discuss the coinage of the term, I'd love to hear...

Saturday, November 26, 2016


The Hebrew word for "prophet" - נביא navi has a surprising number of suggested etymologies. Let's take a look at some of them.

Klein gives the following etymology for navi:

Probably derived from the base נבא (= to call, proclaim); accordingly the original meaning of navi probably was 'the man who calls or proclaims'.

He then has this entry for the root נבא:

Akkadian nabu (=to call, announce, proclaim), Arabic naba'a (= he uttered with a low voice, announced), naba' (= announcement, information), nab'ah (=a low sound).

This article by Daniel E. Fleming quotes Albright as saying that navi

is a noun from a passive form of the Semitic root nb', "to call"... The prophet is therefore "one called" by God.

In the end, he prefers this theory:

The Syrian nabu is best understood as one who invokes the gods, and the noun should be an active participle from the verb nabu, "to name." ... the Hebrew nabi is best explained by the same etymology.

The Ben Yehuda dictionary says that the Arabic verb meaning "to announce, inform," had the sense of someone walking from land to land, and perhaps this sense of walking from place to place was the original meaning, since these kinds of travelers would be the ones to inform.

The same source also suggest another theory, which connects it to a different Arabic root meaning to "wake from sleep", in which someone's heart is suddenly awake with the need to speak about something.

Returning to the Akkadian connection, the Akkadian dictionary has the following entry for nabu:

G. to name (+2 acc.) ; to invoke (a god) ; to nominate ; to decree, ordain D. to lament, wail Š. to cause to proclaim N. to be named ; to be appointed, called upon

This last sense, "to be appointed", calls to mind a suggested etymology by my friend Michael Gerver. He wrote:

Although I have not seen this suggested anywhere, it seems possible that Arabic nawaba, “represent,” “substitute,” is related to Hebrew נוב, “speak,” if the Arabic word originally meant “speak for.” Arabic nawaba is the source of Arabic na’ib, “viceroy,” whose plural nuwab is the source, via Hindi or Urdu, of English nabob

Even if nawaba doesn't mean "to speak for", it could still be connected to nabob via the Akkadian "appoint". Here is the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for nabob:

1610s, "deputy governor in Mogul Empire," Anglo-Indian, from Hindi nabab, from Arabic nuwwab, honorific plural of na'ib "viceroy, deputy," from base n-w-b "to take someone's place." Also used of Europeans who came home from India having made a fortune there, hence "very rich man" (1764).

I also have no proof of this (although as always, I welcome help from readers), but I relish the opportunity to discuss nabob (which can mean "important person" in addition to "rich man"), as it was used so masterfully by my inspiration for this blog, William Safire. When Safire was a White House speechwriter in 1970, he wrote a speech for Vice President Spiro Agnew that used the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism." It is one of the most famous quotes associated with both Agnew and Safire.

I've always loved the phrase - but until now, had no idea that nabob could be perhaps related to navi...

Sunday, November 20, 2016


Last week we discussed how mistorin מסתורין is a Talmudic era "blend" of a Hebrew root and a Greek word. A more recent blend is the word gaon גאון. Let's take a look.

In Biblical Hebrew, gaon has a few different meanings - "glory, majesty", "pride, haughtiness" and "rising of the waters, tides." All of these meanings show a connection to the source of gaon - the root גאה, which means "to rise up, be proud", and is also the source of the word for pride - גאוה ga'ava.

The word is used in Nachum 2:3 (as well as Tehilim 47:5) in the positive sense of "pride":

כִּ֣י שָׁ֤ב ה' אֶת־גְּא֣וֹן יַעֲקֹ֔ב כִּגְא֖וֹן יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
"For the LORD has restored the Pride of Jacob, as well as the Pride of Israel"

Gaon Yaakov - "Pride of Jacob" was adopted as the name of a post Talmudic Babylonian yeshiva, and the head of that yeshiva, whose official title was Rosh Yeshivat Gaon Yaakov, was abbreviated to "Gaon". During this period the most important rabbinical leaders were known as geonim, some of the famous including Amram Gaon and Saadia Gaon.

The period of the Geonim ended around 1000 CE, but the title of gaon was continued to be used to describe individuals who had mastered the Torah. Such usage can be found in the poetry of Ibn Ezra and others, and perhaps most famously it was used to describe the 18th century rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna - the Vilna Gaon.

The blend I mentioned above occurred later. Gaon sounds similar to the word "genius" in many foreign languages. In addition to English, we find the German and French genie, Russian гений (geniy), and Yiddish zheni. So in Modern Hebrew gaon came to refer to a genius - indicating inherent intellectual ability, and not just proficiency in the study of Torah.

Within Modern Hebrew the adjective geoni גאוני - "ingenious" developed as well. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether or not this post fits that description!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

seter and setira

The words seter סתר -"hideaway; secret" and setira  סתירה - "contradiction", seem to have the same root - סתר. However, they are not related.

The verb סתר meaning "to hide, conceal", most commonly found in the hifil form - histir הסתיר - "he hid", is found in Biblical Hebrew and has cognates in other Semitic languages such as Ugaritic, Aramaic and Arabic.

Setira, however, derives from a homographic root סתר, which originally meant "to pull down, destroy", and that sense was expanded to mean "contradict, refute." Both these uses are found in Rabbinic Hebrew, but not in Biblical Hebrew. What we do find in Biblical Hebrew, in one verse, is the form שתר (Shmuel I 5:9). where it means something like "break out, burst."

We can see from the Arabic cognates that these are two different roots - the root meaning "hide" is cognate with the Arabic satara, whereas the root meaning "tear down" has a cognate in the Arabic shatara.

While one might assume a connection between seter and the English word "mystery", the latter has an unrelated etymology:

from Anglo-French *misterie, Old French mistere "secret, mystery, hidden meaning" (Modern French mystère), from Latin mysterium "secret rite, secret worship; a secret thing," from Greek mysterion (usually in plural mysteria) "secret rite or doctrine," from mystes "one who has been initiated," from myein "to close, shut" (see mute (adj.)); perhaps referring to the lips (in secrecy) or to the eyes (only initiates were allowed to see the sacred rites).

That said, Klein does write that the Hebrew word mistorin מסתורין - "mystery", is a "blend" of מסתור mistor (a biblical word meaning "hiding place, shelter") and Greek mysterion. What's interesting about this blend is that it is found already in Rabbinic Hebrew  (where it is also spelled מסטורין, showing more Greek influence). I was more familiar with these blends in Modern Hebrew, such as עלית elit - blending the Hebrew עלי ili- "upper" and the French "elite."

So while I might have torn down any ideas you had connecting the roots, at least it is a hidden mystery no more...

Sunday, September 25, 2016


A reader wrote and asked how did keren קרן come to mean both "horn, ray" and "fund"?

Both Even-Shoshan and Klein say there are two possible answers. We'll look at each, but first let's take a look at the two meanings.

The first dictionary entry for keren, is found throughout Biblical Hebrew and has a number of meanings:

  • horn (as in the horn of an animal)
  • a shofar (made from a horn)
  • strength, power (figuratively related to the strength of the horn)
  • ray, beam (a ray protrudes from its source like a horn. A misreading of the Biblical verse describing the rays radiating from Moshe caused many Christians to believe that Moshe, and in fact all Jews, had horns).
  • corner, point (again, related to the idea of "protrusion")
  • container (a horn was used to hold things, like oil, food, etc)
Keren meaning "fund, capital, principal" is a financial term, and is found in post-biblical Hebrew. It always has a distinct dictionary entry.

While as I said, both Klein and Even-Shoshan say that this later meaning of keren might have developed from the earlier one, neither explain how. Horowitz, however, does write (page 63):

Since keren, the horn, was used to store oil it gradually came to mean a receptacle in general, or a place where things are stored. From this usage developed the meaning "a fund".

He doesn't quote any verses, but the usage in Shmuel I 16:13 - keren  hashemen קרן השמן - "the keren of oil" (used for anointing kings) is one example of this usage. So keren went from a horn used to store oil and became a fund used to "store" money.

An alternate explanation says that the two meanings of keren have different roots. For the meaning "fund", Klein provides this etymology, unrelated to "horn":
borrowed from Akkadian qerenu (=heap, pile, stack; threshing floor), qaranu (=he heaped, piled)

This would mean that this sense of keren is cognate to the Hebrew goren גורן - "threshing floor", as both have the same Akkadian root.

Keren as horn, however, has a very ancient etymology, and many sources, such as this one, find cognates in Indo-European languages (and I briefly touched on it in this post).

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

ketev and kotev

In the Bible, we find the word ketev קטב meaning "destruction, plague". It appears in this form in Devarim 32:24, Tehilim 91:6, and Yeshaya 28:2. In Hoshea 13:14 there is a different vocalization - it appears as kotev. In Talmudic Hebrew and later, ketev is also the name of a demon.

A homonym is kotev meaning "axis, pole". This usage began in the Middle Ages. For example, Ibn Tibbon uses it in his Hebrew translation of the Arabic Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides.

Is there any connection between the two words?

Regarding ketev, Klein follows the Ben Yehuda dictionary and provides the following etymology:

Related to Aramaic קטב (=he cut), Arabic qataba (= he cut off), qutbah (=arrow).

And as is mentioned in the Ben Yehuda dictionary, a connection between arrows and ketev as destruction can be found in the chapter of Tehilim (91:5-6) where ketev is mentioned:

You need not fear the terror by night, or the arrow that flies by day, the plague that stalks in the darkness, or the scourge (ketev) that ravages at noon.

Other Hebrew roots beginning with the letters קט that mean "cut" include קטם,  קטע, קטם, קטף, as well as the related words beginning with קצ (as we discussed here).

Kotev meaning "axis, pole", derives directly from the Arabic qutb, of the same meaning. Klein does not connect qutb - "axis" and qutbah - "arrow", and Ben Yehuda's comment suggests a possible connection but does not elaborate. I could imagine that the straightness of an arrow could lead to a connection with poles or a straight line like an axis. However, I haven't found confirmation of that. Perhaps one of you readers has a source that can help?

Saturday, September 10, 2016


What is the origin of the Hebrew slang word chupar צ'ופר meaning "bonus" or "perk"? Ruvik Rosenthal in his Hebrew slang dictionary offers two suggestions.

The first is that it derives from the Spanish word chupar, meaning "to suck", either via Ladino or perhaps directly from Spanish. He suggest that if this is the case, it might be found in a phrase like "para chuparse los dedos", which is Spanish for  "finger-licking good" (and in fact was used as the slogan for KFC). Chupar, which is of imitative origin (a sucking sound), is also found in the legendary monster, the chupacabra, which literally means "goat sucker."

The other suggestion is that is the Hebrew chupar comes from an altered version of the adjective meshupar משופר - improved. This supposedly began in the Israeli army before the Six Day War, where the soldiers were served manot krav meshuparot מנות קרב משופרות - "improved battle rations", which the soldiers shortened to mechuparot מצ'ופרות, and from that adjective the noun chupar arose.

Another related slang word that came out of the Israeli army is shaptzer שפצר. This root is a combination of שפר - "to improve" and שפץ - "to repair". Together, shaptzer means to repair and improve - i.e. "to renovate."

Sunday, August 07, 2016


The Hebrew word for waiter is meltzar  מלצר  (feminine meltzarit מלצרית). But Klein has the following definition and etymology:
guardian [Probably from Akkadian massaru (=guardian).]

The Akkadian massaru is probably cognate with the Hebrew root נצר, also meaning "to guard" (which we discussed here).

How did meltzar get from guardian to waiter?

The word only appears twice in Biblical Hebrew, both in the first chapter of the Book of Daniel. The book begins with the king of Babylon calling for some Israelites (including Daniel) for training, to eventually enter the king's service.

The king allotted daily rations to them from the king’s food and from the wine he drank. They were to be educated for three years, at the end of which they were to enter the king’s service. (verse 5)

Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the king’s food or the wine he drank, so he sought permission of the chief officer not to defile himself, and God disposed the chief officer to be kind and compassionate toward Daniel. The chief officer said to Daniel, “I fear that my lord the king, who allotted food and drink to you, will notice that you look out of sorts, unlike the other youths of your age—and you will put my life in jeopardy with the king.”    (verses 8-10)
We here (verse 11) see the first appearance of the word meltzar:
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר דָּנִיֵּ֖אל אֶל־הַמֶּלְצַ֑ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר מִנָּה֙ שַׂ֣ר הַסָּֽרִיסִ֔ים עַל־דָּנִיֵּ֣אל חֲנַנְיָ֔ה מִֽישָׁאֵ֖ל וַעֲזַרְיָֽה׃
Daniel replied to the guard [meltzar] whom the chief officer had put in charge of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah

And then we see the word once again in verse 16:

“Please test your servants for ten days, giving us legumes to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the youths who eat of the king’s food, and do with your servants as you see fit.” He agreed to this plan of theirs, and tested them for ten days. When the ten days were over, they looked better and healthier than all the youths who were eating of the king’s food. So the guard [meltzar] kept on removing their food, and the wine they were supposed to drink, and gave them legumes. (verses 12-16)

So since this guard was occupied with bringing and removing the food from Daniel and his friends, it's easy to understand how one might assume he was a waiter, not a guard. Rashi on verse 11 says that a meltzar is someone who organizes the portions of food and the dishes. He translates with a French word of which there are various versions. The scholar Moshe Katan says that Rashi most likely wrote מיישטר"א, which would make it a form of the Old French maistre - "master". That would make it related to the term maître d', which is an abbreviation of maître d'hôtel, meaning "the head of the house."

It is difficult to say if Rashi reflected this understanding of the word, or because of his influence made that the common meaning. Ben Yehuda defines the word as "steward", a person in charge of the affairs of the house, etc. This meaning contains both concepts presented in Rashi - someone who organizes the food (think of a steward or stewardess on an airplane), as well as master of the house.

However, as Elon Gilad writes here, Ben Yehuda did not want the word meltzar used for "waiter" in Modern Hebrew. He preferred dayal דייל (feminine dayelet דיילת). He coined dayal on the basis of the Talmudic Aramaic word dayala דיילא - "attendant", which in turn derives from the Greek word for slave or servant - doulos. Doulos is also the root of the English word doula, which literally means "female slave".

However, as happened on more than one occasion, Ben Yehuda's plans did not win out, and people continued referring to waiters as meltzarim. But his word dayal was eventually redeemed - when El Al airlines was founded in 1948, they needed a specialized word for someone attending to passengers - and so a few years later, dayal became the Hebrew word for steward. Quite the journey for these words!

Monday, August 01, 2016

nachash, nichush and nechoshet

Is there any connection between the Hebrew words nachash נחש - "snake", nichush ניחוש - "guess" and nechoshet נחושת - "copper"? They all appear to have the same root. However, it doesn't appear very likely that they are connected with each other. Let's take a closer look.

Nachash is the biblical word for snake, and Klein doesn't say much about its etymology other than that it is likely related to the Arabic word for serpent - "hanash". This is clearly an example of metathesis, but he doesn't say which form is likely the original form of the word. Horowitz, in How the Hebrew Language Grew, provides the following anecdote:

The little children were playing at the edge of the clearing in front of their house. Suddenly their mother, horror struck, saw a snake near them, with lifted head, poised to strike. She hissed out to them sharply the warning sound חש (chash) imitating the very hiss of the snake. The children heard. They understood and ran to safety.

From this warning syllable chash arose the Hebrew word for snake nachash.

It's a bit fanciful, but I think it's reasonable to claim that nachash might have onomatopoeic origins. Other words ending in -chash also relate to sounds, like lachash לחש - "whisper"and rachash רחש - "rustle".

Nichush (and the verb נחש) did not originally mean "guess". In biblical Hebrew it meant "divination" and was associated with magical practices. Only in modern Hebrew was it "secularized" to mean "guess." Klein points out that it is cognate with the Arabic nahisa and nahusa   - "was unlucky". The Arabic form entered Hebrew slang as nachs נחס - "unlucky" or "bad".

Regarding the etymology, Horowitz does connect nichush to nachash, saying that the divination was apparently done with snakes. However, Stahl, Klein and Kaddari all say that nichush is more likely related to lachash, since the diviners would whisper when reciting their incantations.  The BDB mentions a theory that nichush derives from nachash, but rejects it because Aramaic has nichush, but does not have nachash meaning snake.

Our last term is nechoshet which Klein translates as brass or copper (BDB adds bronze), and while he provides cognates in a number of other Semitic languages, he doesn't connect it to either nachash or nichush. One derivative of that word is nachush נחוש, which meant "brazen" in Biblical Hebrew, in the same way that the English word brazen derives from brass:

Old English bræsen "of brass," from bræs "brass" + -en. The figurative sense of "hardened in effrontery" is 1570s (in brazen-face), perhaps suggesting a face unable to show shame.

In modern Hebrew the word nachush does not always have the negative connotation, and instead can also mean "decisive, firm, steadfast."

If you're wondering about the phrase נחש נחושת - nachash nechoshet found in Bamidbar 21:9, referring to a "copper snake", please take a look at my post from a few years ago about ish and isha. What we have here is a play on words, a pun - not any proof of an etymological connection.

Sunday, July 24, 2016


What is the origin of the rabbinic word for "inn" - פונדק pundak?

Klein provides the following etymology:

From Greek pandakion, from pandokos (= innkeeper, host; literally 'all-receiving'), which is compounded of pan (= every), which is of uncertain origin, and dokos, which stands in gradational relationship to dekesthai ( = to receive), from IE base *dek-, *dok- (= to take, receive, accept; acceptable, becoming, good).

More common Greek transliterations are pandocheion and pandokeion.

Kutscher points out that the word entered into Arabic as well as fundaq, and in an interesting turn of events, Crusaders from Europe borrowed the word from Arabic back into European languages as either an inn or a storehouse. So this led to the Romanian fundac, the Italian fondaco, the Portuguese alfandega, and the Spanish fonda.

While it would have been an interesting connection, it does not appear that the surname Fonda is related to the Spanish word for tavern.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

kir, choma, kotel

There are three words in Hebrew for wall - kir קיר, choma חומה, and kotel כותל. What is the difference between them?

All three are biblical, although kotel appears only once (Shir Hashirim 2:9). Let's look at each.

Kir - this is the most common word for "wall" in Modern Hebrew. Ben Yehuda and Even-Shoshan say it might be related to kora קורה  - "beam". Klein says that it is perhaps related to the Akkadian qiru and Arabic qir, both meaning asphalt, and so the original meaning may have been "something paved or painted with asphalt."

Choma is generally used to describe the protective wall around a city. Klein's etymology reflects this sense, as he derives it from the root חמה, "to see, protect". That root is common in Aramaic, and is used in the declaration made when disowning any chametz before Pesach - כל חמירא .. דחמיתה ודלא חמיתה kol chamira ... d'chamitey u'dlo chamitey - "any chametz ... that I saw or did not see".

One interesting verse that uses both kir and choma is Yehoshua 2:15

וַתּוֹרִדֵ֥ם בַּחֶ֖בֶל בְּעַ֣ד הַֽחַלּ֑וֹן כִּ֤י בֵיתָהּ֙ בְּקִ֣יר הַֽחוֹמָ֔ה וּבַֽחוֹמָ֖ה הִ֥יא יוֹשָֽׁבֶת׃

This is the New JPS translation:
She let them down by a rope through the window—for her dwelling was at the outer side of the city wall (b'kir hachoma) and she lived in the actual wall (bachoma). 

That translation has kir meaning "side" and choma meaning "wall."  The JPS commentary on Bamidbar 35:4 expands on this idea and writes:

Hebrew kir, a rare word for a town wall. (The term elsewhere is homah.) It probably refers to the outside surface of the town wall (see kir ha-homah in Josh. 2:15).

Artscroll adjusts the phrasing slightly - "for her house was in a wall of the fortification, and she lived in the fortification." So in this case kir means wall, and choma means fortification. This fits the explanation of Daat Mikra on Yehoshua  2:15, who writes that in order to save on construction material it was common to include houses inside the city wall, and sometimes these houses would share their walls with the city walls.

Kotel likely has Aramaic origins, and Klein points out that the Aramaic cognate כתלא kutla is probably a loan word from the Akkadian kutallu - "back side". It was used frequently in rabbinic Hebrew, but in modern Hebrew it's generally reserved to describe the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount - the kotel hamaaravi הכותל המערבי.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

masorah and musar

Until recently, I would have assumed the words masorah מסורה / masoret מסורת - "tradition" and musar מוסר - "ethics" all derived from the root מסר - "to hand over, deliver." However, a quick look at Klein's dictionary showed me that I was mistaken.

Here is his entry for masorah:

'Masorah' - the system of notes on the external form of the scriptural text of the Bible. [A secondary form of masoret. The word masoret is probably contracted from ma'asoret מאסרת and is formed with instrumental suffix ma_ from אסר (=to bind). Later, however, the word masorah was explained as the summary of traditions concerning the correct writing and reading of the Bible and, accordingly, was regarded as a derivative of the verb מסר (= to hand down, hand over).]

From the root אסר - "bind, tie, imprison", we also get the words asur אסור - "prohibited", asir אסיר - "prisoner" and isru chag אסרו חג.

Musar, however, has a different source. Klein writes that it originally meant "chastisement, discipline, correction" and derives from the root יסר - "to chasten". This is the root of yisurim יסורים - "suffering, affliction" (only found in the plural). He adds that it is probably related to the root אסר (perhaps prisoners were likely to be disciplined, or those disciplined were likely to be bound).

None of the above are related to the word for the cutting tool "saw"  - מסור masor. That derives from the root נסר - "to saw." Both masor and nasar appear in their Biblical form with a sin, not a samech - so in Yeshaya 10:15 we have masor as משור.

Sunday, June 26, 2016


A reader asked me if there was any connection between two meanings of the root גור - "to dwell" and "to fear". As you might imagine, it depends who you ask.

Klein does not connect the various meanings. He provides a number of roots - each with their own etymology:

  • גור meaning "to sojourn, dwell". From here we get the words ger גר (biblically a stranger, in rabbinic and later Hebrew a convert), and migurim מגורים - "residence." He finds cognates in the Arabic jawara (=was the neighbor of) and giwar (= neighborhood). He writes that "the original meaning of this base probably was 'to turn off, leave the way', whence 'to be a stranger, to sojourn.'".
  • גור meaning "to fear". Klein writes that this is a secondary form of the root יגר, which is cognate to the Arabic wajira (=he feared). Derivatives of this root include magor מגור and migora מגורה - both meaning "fear, terror".
  • גור meaning "to attack." Klein finds another Arabic cognate - jara'al (=he acted wrongfully against) and says it is possible related to the base גרה meaning "to excite, provoke, irritate, tease, incite, stir up.". This is the origin of the word גרוי gerui - "irritation".
  • גור - gur: this last meaning is a noun - "cub, whelp". It has cognates in a number of Semitic languages, including Arabic jarw, jirw and Akkadian gerru - both meaning "whelp."
So it seems that Klein does not find any connections. Gesenius, on the other hand, does find ways to connect them.

Like Klein, he says that the original meaning of גור was "to turn aside from the way."  But he manages to see that root in many of the meanings. He writes that גור is cognate to זור - which  Klein also defines as "turn aside, be a stranger" (and is the origin of zar זר - "stranger" and muzar מוזר - "strange".) However, Klein doesn't connect גור and זור, but rather writes that זור is connected to סור - which also means "to turn aside."

In any case, back to Gesenius. The sense "to sojourn, dwell" originally meant "to tarry anywhere, as a sojourner and a stranger." Regarding "fear", he writes "this signification is taken from that of turning aside, since one who is timid and fearful of another, goes out of the way and turns aside from him.". And he provides two theories as to gur meaning "whelp". One is from a separate root meaning "a suckling", but a second theory says it is "so called as still sojourning under the care of its mother." (He does not connect the sense "to attack" to this common root).

Who is right? My gut instinct tells me to follow Klein, since he lived about 100 years later than Gesenius and so had the benefit of hindsight and perspective. But there is still something persuasive in the argument of Gesenius. I'll leave it to you readers to see who convinced you more. You can turn away from the theory you find less convincing, but if you have doubts, don't dwell in fear...

Monday, June 13, 2016

am, goy, leom and uma

There are four different biblical words that all can mean "nation". Since they originate at the same time period, it will be difficult for me to say that they had precise differences back then. However, since that time, the meanings have evolved. Let's take a look:

Am עם: This is by far the most common biblical word. In his concordance, Even-Shoshan lists 1850 uses! Most of them mean "nation", while a fraction mean "crowd or group", humanity, or a group of animals. Aside from this last definition, they can all be included in the general definition of "people".

It's interesting to note that Even-Shoshan has a second, independent entry for am meaning "relative".  This is found in phrases where a person is described as being buried with his am, being punished by being cut off from his am, or the relatives for whom a kohen can become ritually impure to bury. Stahl points out (in his Arabic dictionary) that the Arabic cognate 'amm means "father's brother" and that in Hebrew the original meaning was "father", which later expanded to "family, clan" and eventually "nation". He writes that this explains how the two children of Lot were given parallel names - Moav מואב - "from father" and  Ben-Ami בן-עמי - "the son of my father".

Klein writes that both the meaning "people" and "kinsman" derive from the root עמם - "to join, connect", from where we also get the word im עם meaning "with".

In Modern Hebrew, am has more of an ethnic, and less of a political sense. Am Yisrael, the nation or people of Israel, is not limited to citizens of a particular nation-state.

Goy גוי: In the Tanach, goy also appears frequently (556 times) meaning "nation" (like am it has a couple of appearances meaning a pack of animals). Klein says that it is of uncertain etymology, and is possibly related to gev גו - "body" so originally denoted an ethnic "body". In these occasions goy is often used to refer to Israel (either individually, or as a member of the greater set of world nations). Only in post-biblical Hebrew did goy take on the meaning of "non-Jew" or "Gentile." Radak writes that the reason goy became the term for a non-Jew was because in Talmudic times it was unclear which Biblical nation non-Jewish individuals originated from, so the generic goy, nation, was used.

During the exile, and particularly in Yiddish, the word goy took on a derogatory note, and so today there are more polite alternatives to refer to a non-Jew. In English there is "gentile" (although somewhat archaic) and in Hebrew a better word is nochri נכרי.

Leom לאום: Leom appears far less frequently in the Tanach than the previous two terms - it is found 35 times (and is spelled there without the vav - לאם). Klein doesn't offer an etymology, but finds cognates in the Akkadian li'mu, limu - "thousand", Ugaritic l'm - "people, crowd" and Arabic la'ama - "he gathered together, assembled". Since it did not have the frequency and weight of am or goy, it  was available in modern Hebrew for the new terms related to the modern nation-state and nationalism. Perhaps this usage was influenced by the Talmudic passage in Avoda Zara 2b where a midrash states that אין  לאום אלא מלכות  - leom always means a kingdom.

In Modern Hebrew we find the word used most frequently in the adjectival form - leumi לאומי - "national": Bank Leumi, Sherut  Leumi (national service), Bituach Leumi (national insurance), etc. The noun has migrated to the meaning "nationality", as can be found on identity cards.

Uma אומה:  This is the most infrequent of the four terms in biblical Hebrew. It only appears three times, always in the plural - umot אומות in Bereshit 25:16 and Bamidbar 25:15, and umim אומים  in Tehilim 117:1. The singular is therefore unattested in the Biblical text, but the assumption is that the male and female forms are om אום and uma אומה. Klein isn't sure about the etymology, saying that it is cognate with similar words in other Semitic languages, like the Arabic 'ummah (which actually is more of a religious group, and so the religious leader is the related imam).

In Modern Hebrew it is used for "nation" in cases where neither medina מדינה - "state" nor am are appropriate (and again, leom is generally reserved for adjectives). So an address to the nation will be a נאום לאומה neum leuma and the United Nations are אומות מאוחדות umot meuchadot (generally abbreviated to או"ם um).

Sunday, June 05, 2016

zera and tzaraat

Is there a connection between the word zera זרע - "seed" and the skin affliction tzaraat צרעת - (frequently, although perhaps inaccurately, translated as "leprosy")?

The noun zera derives from the root זרע. In the kal form (zara), it means "to sow" or "to scatter seeds". In the hifil form, hizria הזריע it takes on the meaning "to inseminate." The word z'roa זרוע - "arm", or metaphorically "strength, might" looks like it comes from the same root. However, based on the Arabic cognates,  we can see that they are not related. Zera is cognate with Arabic zara'a, whereas z'roa is cognate with dhira in Arabic.

Klein writes that tzaraat comes from the root צרע - "to become leprous." He says that it is cognate with the Arabic sara'a - "he threw to the ground, threw down" and sar' - "epilepsy". He adds that the biblical word tzir'a צרעה - "wasp, hornet", may also be related to the root meaning "he threw to the ground." He doesn't explain how either tzaraat or tzir'a are related to throwing down, but the BDB elaborates and says that tzir'a may have an original sense of "wounding, prostrating". In the notes in Ben Yehuda's dictionary, a theory is suggested that tzaarat is so named because it cause the person to literally "fall" ill.

Since sowing seeds involves throwing them on the ground, I thought perhaps the two roots might be related. However, I could not find any reliable sources that could prove such a connection, so I won't make such a claim. Another thing I noticed is that a number of Hebrew roots beginning with the letters זר have an association with throwing. Most obvious would be זרק - "to throw", and זרה - "to scatter, winnow". Perhaps one could also include זרם and זרף - both meaning "to flow."  Again, I didn't find any master theory connecting these roots.

What do I do with a theory like this? Throw it away, or scatter the seeds to future readers, hoping that someday I'll be able to reap what I sow?

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!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

rahut and rahit

Two Hebrew words that seem to have similar roots, but very different meanings are rahut רהוט - "fluent" and rahit רהיט - "furniture" (as in a piece of furniture, the general term for furniture is rihut ריהוט).

Let's look at rahut first. This derives from the Aramaic root רהט, meaning "to run", and it's cognate with the Hebrew equivalent - רוץ. (The letters tzade and tet can switch between Hebrew and Aramaic, as can also be seen in the words tzel צל - "shade" and טלל - "to overshadow", the root of talit טלית). From the meaning "to run", we also get "to flow". This meaning appears in the word rahat רהט meaning "watering trough" in Bereshit 30:38,41 and Shemot 2:16, as well as the word rahut, which is first found in Medieval Hebrew (fluent and flow are related in English as well).

The story of rahit is less clear. It only appears once in the Tanach, in Shir HaShirim 1:17

קֹרוֹת בָּתֵּינוּ אֲרָזִים רַהִיטֵנוּ בְּרוֹתִים

"Cedars are the beams of our house, our rafters (rahiteinu) are cypresses"

Rahit as "rafter" appears in Talmudic Hebrew as well, but only in modern times did the meaning change to "furniture." Why?

In this article (and here in Hebrew), Elon Gilad writes that the synonym used in the verse, kora קורה - "beam" had become much more popular, and so rahit was in danger of being forgotten. So Eliezer Ben-Yehuda rescued the word for the concept of  "furniture", which was no longer an item just for the rich. He was influenced by the Arabic word rihat, which had a similar meaning. Stahl adds that in the Talmud we find the phrase רהיטי ביתו - rihitei beito, which then meant "the rafters of his house", but the early writers of modern Hebrew would find that an appropriate phrase for various articles used in the house.

The only question that remains is, are the two terms related? Klein doesn't say so, but there are some sources that hint to a possibility. The Daat Mikra on Bereshit 30:38 points out that the troughs were made of korot (beams), but doesn't actually say that this indicates a connection between rahat and rahit.  Steinberg, in Milon HaTanach, does say they derive from the same root, but doesn't explain how. Similarly, in this more recent book a connection is made, but I don't quite understand (other than an Aramaic connection).

The best citation I could find that does connect the terms is the BDB, which defines rafters as "strips running between beams." We find that usage in English as well, for a "runner" can also mean something spanning some distance, as in the runners of a sled or a carpet spanning a hallway.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Not long ago, on Purim, we read Megilat Esther, and in the megila appears the word pitgam פתגם. The word also appears in other late biblical books such as Kohelet, Ezra and Daniel. In Biblical Hebrew the word means "edict" or "decree", but in modern Hebrew the sense is less strict, and means "idiom" or "proverb".

What is the etymology of the word? Klein mentions Aramaic and Syriac cognates pitgama פתגמא meaning "word, command", and writes that they are all

borrowed from Persian. Compare Old Persian pratigama, Persian *patgam, which properly mean 'that which has come to, that which has arrived'

Since Persian is an Indo-European language, I was curious if there were any cognates in English. This site and this book suggest that patgam is cognate with the Greek pthegma which means "(spoken) word", and is found in the English word apophthegm, which more commonly appears in American English as apothegm - meaning "pithy saying" - nearly an identical meaning to the modern sense of pitgam in Hebrew. (I don't have evidence that the Greek sense influenced the modern meaning, but on the other hand, I don't know why there was a change from the Biblical - and Rabbinic - meanings to the modern one).

The Online Etymology Dictionary has this etymology for apothegm:

from Greek apophthegma "terse, pointed saying," literally "something clearly spoken," from apophthengesthai "to speak one's opinion plainly," from apo- "from" + phthengesthai "to utter."

Another word on that site with a common origin is diphthong:

late 15c., from Middle French diphthongue, from Late Latin diphthongus, from Greek diphthongos "having two sounds," from di- "double"  + phthongos "sound, voice," related to phthengesthai "utter, speak loudly."

We've seen the concept of diphthong on Balashon before, even though I didn't use the official term, when we discussed the origins of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The letter "bet" derives from the word bayit בית (house). Some locations in ancient Israel pronounced words with a diphthong - bayit, yayin, zayit and others without - bet, yen, zet. The versions without the diphthong are preserved such cases as the letter "bet" and in the semichut form.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

sipuk and safek

Is there a connection between the words sipuk סיפוק - "satisfaction" and safek ספק - "doubt"? They both appear to have the same root, but no obvious connection springs to mind. Let's take a closer look.

If we look in the Tanach, we notice two things. First of all, the root appears also with the letter sin - שפק. (By Rabbinic Hebrew, however, we only see it with a samech.) Secondly, there is a third meaning - "to strike" or "to clap (hands)". In fact, this meaning is the most common one found (even though it is almost never used in modern Hebrew). According to Even-Shoshan's concordance, it accounts for all seven times the root ספק appears in the Tanach.

Even-Shoshan claims that the root שפק means "to satisfy" three times - twice as a verb (Melachim I 20:10, Yeshaya 2:6) and once as a noun (Iyov 20:22). In modern Hebrew we find many uses of ספק meaning "to be sufficient, to suffice". The piel form - sipek סיפק can mean both "to satisfy" and "to supply". The hifil form hispik הספיק can also mean "to supply", but also can mean "to be sufficient, adequate, enough" and " to enable, to succeed". So if I write הספקתי לכתוב hispakti l'khtov - that means "I succeeded in writing" (usually within a desired period of time). The hitpael form הסתפק histapek means "to be satisfied, content". And of course the exclamation מספיק maspik - means "enough!".

What about safek meaning doubt? It appears frequently from Rabbinic Hebrew onwards, but it's not clear if it is found in Biblical Hebrew as well. The one verse that might have that usage is Iyov 36:18. The verse says כִּי-חֵמָה פֶּן-יְסִיתְךָ בְסָפֶק (this is the form in the Aleppo and Leningrad codices, but many printed variants have בשפק). The Koren Tanach translates the word v'safek using the sense of clapping hands:

"But beware of wrath, lest he take thee away with his clenched fist"

The New JPS translation connects the word to the meaning "to satisfy":

"Let anger at his affluence not mislead you"

A third possibility, that it means "doubt" is mentioned by a number of scholars - Even Shoshan in his concordance (although he does follow this up with a question mark), Klein in his dictionary (quoting "some scholars") and in the notes to Ben Yehuda's dictionary which mentions translators and commentators that explain the word as "doubt or hesitation". Aside from the Malbim (who I doubt they were referring to), I was unable to find which translations give this explanation for safek.

Now back to my original question - do these roots have any connection? Klein does not connect them at all, and even Steinberg in his Milon HaTanach, who frequently makes clever, if not convincing, connections between similar roots, doesn't connect the meanings "satisfy" and "doubt". (He does, however, say that the sense "to strike" and "satisfy, abundance" both derive from a sense meaning "to make a lot of noise" - applying to the sound of the striking, as well as the noise from a home with much wealth.)

I was surprised, however, to find that Even-Shoshan in his dictionary did make a connection. Regarding safek meaning "doubt", he says that perhaps it comes from an earlier sense meaning "bound" - in other words, a thing in doubt is "bound up" until it is solved. This sense of "bound" is found in Talmudic Hebrew, for example in the Mishna (Para 12:1 - although Kehati there says the word has the sense of "adequate"). Even-Shoshan then writes the meaning "to join, attach" is related to the meaning "to suffice" (as does Klein). They don't explain why  - but perhaps when you supply something to a person, or they have a sufficient amount, it is as if that thing is attached to them.

Are you satisfied that the words are related? I'm in doubt...

Sunday, March 27, 2016


The word "frank" (or its cognates) is an interesting one. All over the world, it refers to Westerners (as viewed by locals), but in Israeli slang, it's a derogatory term for Sephardic / Mizrahi Jews (as used by Ashkenazim). How did this happen?

According to this Philologos post, and this Language Hat post, the French were the ones leading the initial Crusades, and so they became known as the standard European foreigner. Philologos mentions the following cognates in many languages - all over the world:

Greek frangos, “Westerner”; Turkish frenk, “European” (frengi in Turkish means syphilis, for which the Turks had Europe to thank); Syriac frang, “European”; Persian ferang, ditto; Amharic frenj, “White Man”; southern Indian farangi or pirangi, “European” or “White Man”; Thai farang, ditto; Cambodian barang, ditto; Vietnamese pha-lang-xa, ditto; Malaysian ferringi, ditto; Indonesian barang, goods sold by a foreign trader; Samoan papalangi, “foreigner.” (Other derivations for papalangi, however, also have been given.)

In fact, the name might even extend beyond our planet. He mentions the Ferengi of Star Trek, whose name might have the same source. (We've seen Star Trek here before).

In Hebrew slang, the term franji פרנג'י means "to dress fancily, in a European style". But this phrase  is not in common use today (in fact, I'm not sure if I've ever heard it myself). However, the pejorative frank (actually better spelled frenk), which sometimes in Hebrew is still spelled in the Yiddish style פרענק instead of the Hebrew פרנק, is still heard (if not in polite company).

Why in this case are the Ashkenazi westerners calling the "local" Sephardim by this term? Ruvik Rosenthal writes here that the usage derives from the Spanish word "Francos", which had the same meaning we've seen before - Western Europeans as viewed by people in the East. In this case it referred to Sephardic Jews who migrated to the land of Israel from Spain and the Balkans. The local Jews referred to them as Europeans, and when the Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to Israel, they referred to all Sephardim as "frenks" - and the sense became much more insulting.

A different form of the root פרנק, which is much more positive, but unrelated to the modern use is found in the midrash. For example in Midrash Tanaim on Devarim 32:2 it says that the words of Torah are מעדנים  and מפרנקים - "refreshing" and "pampering". However this root is simply an expansion of the root פנק - also meaning "to spoil, pamper", and the Midrash Sifrei on the same verse uses מפנקים instead of מפרנקים. The root פנק appears once in the Bible, in Mishlei 29:21 - מְפַנֵּק מִנֹּעַר עַבְדּוֹ  - "a slave pampered from youth". In Modern Hebrew we see the word pinuk פינוק with both the positive connotation of "pampering" and the negative connotation of "spoiling". Like with the previous meaning, what can be fancy and pleasant to some, can be overindulgent and arrogant to others...