Sunday, December 29, 2019

zechut and zechuchit

Let's take a look at root that has some unexpected derivatives (at least I didn't expect them).

This interesting root is זכה and the secondary form זכך. They both mean "to be clear, clean, pure." One fairly obvious related word is zakh זך - "pure, clean" as in shemen zayit zakh שמן זית זך - "pure olive oil."

A noun that I didn't realize was related is zekhukhit זכוכית - "glass". It only appears once in the Tanach (Iyov 28:17) - and while the glass back then wasn't transparent like it generally is today, it was certainly more clear than other solids.

From the literal "pure" and "clear" in Biblical Hebrew, the root took on more of a metaphorical sense in Rabbinic Hebrew. Just like we say in English that an innocent person has been "cleared" of charges and has a "clean" record, the verb זכה means "to make someone innocent", and that innocent person is zakai זכאי - "innocent."

An innocent, pure person is considered "worthy" and even "deserving" (of goodness). And so another meaning of the verb זכה is "to deserve, to attain." This leads us to the noun zekhut זכות - which according to Klein has 5 different meanings:

  1. privilege, benefit
  2. legal right, title
  3. favor, advantage
  4. merit, virtue
  5. credit side of an account, asset
In English there is a clear distinction between rights and privileges. In Hebrew there is discussion of the difference between zekhut and chova חובה - "obligation", but I'm not sure how you could contrast rights and privileges without using a foreign word for privilege like פריבילגיה. 

From zekhut comes the word zakaut זכאות - "entitlement." But since zekhut can have different connotations, it doesn't necessarily carry the negative associations that "entitlement" can have in English today. 

There are two other Hebrew roots that are likely related to זכה/זכך. One is זגג - it is the Aramaic equivalent of זכך, and is found in Hebrew as well.  The zag זג is the skin of the grape (Bamidbar 6:4), and Klein says it is probably "allusion to the transparency of the skin of the grape." In Rabbinic Hebrew, a glassmaker is a zagag זגג, and today if you need to get the windows on your car replaced you go to a zagagut זגגות - "glazier(y)."

The other related root, according to Klein, is זקק. This verb means "to purify, to refine." Distilled water is mayim mezukakim מים מזוקקים, and batei zikuk בתי זיקוק are "refineries."  

The other meaning of זקק - "to bind, force, compel" (as in זקוק zakuk - "in need of") is not related to this one, and neither is the root זיק meaning to "to spark, to sparkle" (as in zikukim זקוקים - "fireworks"). But I think we found plenty of words that are related, we are not zakukim for more..

Monday, December 23, 2019

gizbar and geniza

Let's take a look at two Hebrew words: gizbar גזבר and geniza גניזה. They're actually related, and have a similar story.

Geniza is familiar to many of us a place to dispose of sacred books and papers, so they won't be simply tossed in the trash. The most famous was the Cairo Geniza, where hundreds of thousands of Jewish documents were found, some over 1000 years old. But before geniza had that specific meaning, it meant "storage" or "hiding." It derives from the root גנז, which appears a few times in the later books of the Bible (Esther, Yechezkel and Divrei Hayamim), with the meaning "to hide, conceal, store away."  Klein says it ultimately comes from the Persian words ganz(a) and ganj, meaning "treasure."

Gizbar means "treasurer", and comes from the same root. It also appears in a late Biblical book - Ezra. Klein provides this etymology:

Together with JAram. גִּזְבָּרָא, Syr. גֵּזַבְרָא, גִּיזַבֽרָא (= treasurer), Mand. גאנזיברא (= high priest), borrowed from Pers. ganzabara (= treasurer), from ganj̄ (= treasure)

The bara of ganzbara is cognate with the English word "bear" meaning "to carry", so the gizbar is one who carries (= is responsible for) the treasure (or treasury).

The Persian ganz may have made its way into a couple of English words as well.

There are many theories as to the etymology of the word "gazette", meaning a newspaper. One theory says that it comes from the Latin word gaza, which meant "treasury", so that a gazette is a little treasury of news. The Latin gaza derived from the Greek gaza, which in turn came from the Persian root ganza, all meaning "treasure." A different theory says that the cost of the newspaper was a "gazeta" - a half penny, and the coin was a diminutive of the Latin gaza, so it meant "of small value" (literally "a little treasure"). And as we saw, gaza can be traced back to the Persian ganza.

The cold Spanish soup "gazpacho" might also have the same origin. One suggested etymology is:

From Spanish gazpacho, perhaps via Mozarabic *gazpelağo from Latin gazophylacium (“treasure-chest in a church”), alluding to the diversity of its contents.

That's quite a treasure of etymologies!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes

As you might imagine, I have quite a few books about Hebrew.

Dozens of dictionaries, books that discuss the history of Hebrew, books about etymology and linguistics, and more. I've often thought - if I wanted to make a book based on Balashon, what would it look like?

Well, thankfully, I don't have to ponder that question any more. I recently received the book Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes by Dr. Jeremy Benstein. This book does the two things that any book on Hebrew that I'd want to write would need to do: discuss the significance of Hebrew (both throughout history and in today's society), and present many stories of Hebrew roots and words.

Dr. Benstein, like me, is a immigrant from the United States, who was (according to the acknowledgements in the book), like me, influenced by Edward Horowitz's How the Hebrew Language Grew. Unlike me, he has BA in linguistics from Harvard, as well as advanced degrees in Judaic studies and cultural anthropology. (He's also the managing editor of 929 English, a very important project where a chapter of the Bible is studied daily, and I'm thrilled to have recently begun contributing). His expertise in these fields really shows, as he seamlessly navigates between Biblical texts, Jewish life throughout the millennia, and the heart and soul of Modern Israeli culture (amongst all the various populations and sub-cultures.)

He has chapters that talk about such topics as "Hebrew and Other Languages", "Ben Yehuda's Crusade for Spoken Hebrew", "God: Name, Names and 'The Name'", and "Hebrew Time: Sacred and Otherwise." Throughout these chapters, are interspersed what he calls "Wordshops" - a deep dive into a Hebrew root, from the beginning of its usage until today, with examples of the various verbs, nouns and other words that derive from that root. He explains how the development and meanings of those roots and words reflect the concepts and trends that have followed Hebrew and the Jews over the ages.

The book was a real pleasure to read. It somehow managed to enthrall a Hebrew word-nerd like me, and yet I could recommend it to anyone, even those with little or no background in Hebrew. And it was often laugh-out-loud funny, which is not what I usually get from my books about the history of Hebrew.

So if you like Balashon, get this book - you'll really enjoy it. And to Jeremy - thanks for all the hard work that must have gone into a project like this, and I sincerely thank you for writing it. Now I don't need to wonder and worry what my book on Hebrew will be. It really is a relief! (However, my books on Kohelet, and why Avraham was chosen, still need my attention...)

Sunday, December 08, 2019


Let's take a look at gir גיר - the Hebrew word for "chalk."

While today that is the primary meaning, it had other meanings in the past. It appears only once in the Bible, in Yeshaya 27:9:

כְּאַבְנֵי־גִר מְנֻפָּצוֹת

The New JPS translates it as "like shattered blocks of chalk," but other translations have "lime" or "limestone."

The Aramaic equivalent, gira גירא, appears in Daniel 5:5, where it is translated as "plaster." And the Arabic cognate, jir, means "gypsum" or "quicklime". All of these words - chalk, lime, gypsum - are calcium based minerals (and plaster is made from them), and so it is understandable how one word (in different languages) could come to refer to all of them.

This is the direction Klein follows in his etymology:

Related to BAram. גִּירָא (= plaster), JAram. גִּירָא (= lime), Syr. גִּירָא (= birdlime), OSArab. גירא (= lime), Tigre gerger (= chalkstone). All these words are ultimately borrowed from Akka. kīru (= chalkstone), which itself is a loan word from Sumerian gir (of s.m.). Arab. jayyār, jīr (= lime), are Aram. loan words.

The Akkadian and Sumerian words also refer to the kilns and ovens used to make lime. From Akkadian the word entered Hebrew again, this time in the form of kor כור - "furnace." For that word Klein writes:

כּוּר m.n. melting pot, furnace (for melting metals). [Related to Aram.-Syr. כּוּרָא, Arab. kūr, Ethiop. kawer, Akka. kūru, kīru (= furnace), and to כִּירַיִם.]

Most people don't use a furnace in their daily lives, but kirayim כיריים - "stove, stove-top" is found in every home.

And one more kitchen feature might have also have the same origin. While Klein provides a different etymology, Elon Gilad in this article says that kiyor כיור - "sink," might have originated as the basin that collected the hot metal from the furnace.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

nebech and navoch

A reader asked if there was any connection between the Yiddish word nebech, meaning "an unfortunate person" (also used as an interjection expressing pity - "oy, nebech") and the similar sounding Hebrew word נבוך navoch, meaning "confused, bewildered, perplexed."

Bottom line - no. But let's look at the etymology of each.

The Yiddish nebech (which later morphed into the English "nebbish"), derives from the Czech word nebohý meaning "unhappy." That word can be broken down into two parts. The first part, ne, is ultimately cognate with the English words "no" and "not."

The second part comes from an earlier Slavic root *bogu, meaning "fortunate." It is said to go back to an Indo-European root, *bhag, meaning "to share out, apportion." The development seems to be that someone who "received a share" is fortunate and happy (but not the nebech). It has some interesting cognates in English, like the words baksheesh (a bribe, also used in Hebrew) and pagoda.

So while some Yiddish words have Hebrew origins, this isn't one of them.

Now let's discuss navoch. It is a biblical word (for example Pharaoh said the Israelites were confused - nevuchim נבוכים - at the sea in Shemot 14:3). And the Hebrew title of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed is Moreh Nevuchim מורה נבוכים.

Navoch's initial letter of nun isn't radical, and so Klein says it derives from the root בוך - meaning to be confused or perplexed. The hifil form of that root is מביך, and so a matzav mevich מצב מביך is an embarrassing situation.

Klein adds that roots that may be related to בוך are אבך (to rise or roll up, like with smoke or dust) and הפך - "to turn, turn over."

So as we've seen these are two unrelated roots. If you look online, you'll see that some people do insist that nebech does derive from navoch. I think one reason for that confusion is how nebech is spelled in Modern Hebrew. In Yiddish it was spelled נעבעך which doesn't look too similar to navoch. But when the word entered Hebrew slang, it was streamlined to נבך which does look a lot like navoch.  I can see how such an unfortunate word can lead to confusion...