Tuesday, September 22, 2020

malakh and angel

The most common English translation for the Hebrew word malach מלאך is "angel." Is that a good translation? 

Well, it depends. If you think the definition of angel is (only) a divine, celestial being, perhaps with wings and a robe, then no. But as we'll see, that's not really what a malakh or an angel originally meant.

In Biblical Hebrew, malakh simply means "messenger." It can either refer to a divine messenger (in 124 cases) or a human messenger (88 times). To indicate that the malakh is sent by God, the word is conjugated with a name of God. If we look at Bereshit 32:2-4, we see examples of both kinds of messengers:

וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים׃

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָם מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים זֶה וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם־הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא מַחֲנָיִם׃ 

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל־עֵשָׂו אָחִיו אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם׃

Jacob went on his way, and angels of God [malakhei Elohim] encountered him. When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim. Jacob sent messengers [malakhim] ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.

While it is possible that Jacob sent the same angels to his brother that he encountered earlier (as Rashi writes), the plain sense of the verse is that these were human messengers (as Ibn Ezra and Radak comment.)  And there are many verses, such as Melachim I 19:2, where there is no question the malakhim are human.

Malakh derives from the root לאך, which has cognates in other Semitic languages, and means "to send." (It is not used as a verb in Hebrew, but it is used as one in Ugaritic and Arabic.) Some, like Stahl, say that לאך is related to the root הלך - "to go, to walk." The root לאך is also the origin of the word melacha מלאכה - "work, labor, craft." There are different opinions as to the connection between melacha and sending a messenger. Klein writes that melacha comes from the root meaning "to send", and therefore literally means "mission" (presumably of the person assigned to do the work.)

Others point to the phrase mishlach yad משלח יד, which literally means "sending of the hand", also means "work" (see for example Devarim 15:10,23:21). So perhaps if in that expression the laborers "send their hands" to do the work, in the parallel melacha (with the roots שלח and לאך being synonyms) maybe the hands are being sent as well.

In post-biblical Hebrew, the use of malakh began to change. It came to only mean the divine messengers, where as shaliach שליח was the term used for earthly ones. 

When the Bible was translated into Greek, a word was needed to render malakh into Greek. The word chosen was angelos, Angelos was used to refer to both human and divine messengers, as Greek didn't have a word specifically for messengers sent by God. Later the Bible was translated into Latin as well. Latin, like Greek, didn't have a word specifically for divine messengers. So those translators used the already existing Latin nuntius for human messengers (related to "nuncio" meaning envoy), and borrowed the Greek angelos for divine ones. The word angelos entered the European languages with this meaning as well. So this is how angel, in English, came to mean specifically a divine, celestial agent. 

But where does the Greek word angelos originally come from? There are a number of theories, but Klein's is particularly interesting. He says it has Semitic roots, and is cognate with familiar Hebrew words. He writes in his CEDEL:

...of Persian, ultimately of Semitic origin. Compare Akkadian agarru, 'hireling, hired laborer,' from agaru, 'to hire', which is related to Aramaic agar, eggar, 'he hired', (whence Arabic ajara, of same meaning), Hebrew iggereth, Aramaic iggera, iggarta, 'letter', properly 'message.' ... The sense development of Greek angelos [...] from a Semitic noun meaning 'hireling,' may be illustrated by the phrases 'hireling, hired messenger, messenger.'

We've actually discussed agar אגר as "to hire" before. But I didn't know then that igeret אגרת - "letter" was related to agar, and I certainly didn't know it could be related to "angel." Klein doesn't discuss the Persian bridge word between Greek and the Semitic languages, but Ben Yehuda does. He says that perhaps igeret comes from the Persian angar - meaning "story, narrative." The "n" in angar could explain the "n" in "angel" as well. From there it gets a little confusing. Perhaps the Persian was borrowed from Semitic, or maybe igeret came straight from the Semitic agar. 

In any case, igeret certainly has Persian associations, as it appears only in the books of Esther and Nechemiah (which take place in the Persian period) and in Divrei HaYamim (whose composition is also from that time.) And just like in English a messenger is one who sends a message, so too in the Semitic-Persian-Greek development of the word, it's not hard to see how igeret and angelos are connected. 

So to return to the original question - is "angel" a good translation for malakh? Well, considering both the fact that it was used specifically to translate malakh, and may even have roots in Semitic languages like Hebrew - I'd venture to say it's the perfect word for it! 


Monday, September 14, 2020

lashon hara, ayin hara, and yetzer hara

 I don't discuss grammar much here, because I don't feel confident in explaining all the intricacies of the various rules of Hebrew grammar. And usually it doesn't reflect much on my focus here - the meaning and origin of Hebrew words and phrases. 

But there are times where issues of grammar affect our understanding of those phrases, and this is one of those occasions.

I'd like to take a look at how the letter heh is used as a definite article. This Wikipedia page gives a pretty good summary:

In traditional grammar, Hebrew common nouns have three “states”: indefinite (corresponding to English “a(n)/some __”), definite (corresponding to English “the __”), and construct (corresponding to English “a(n)/some/the __ of”). Therefore, the definite article was traditionally considered to be an actual part of the definite noun. In modern colloquial use, the definite article is often taken as a clitic, attaching to a noun but not actually part of it. For example, the Hebrew term for school is בֵּית־סֵפֶר(beit séfer, house-of book); so in traditional grammar, “the school” is בֵּית־הַסֵּפֶר (beit-haséfer, house-of-the-book), but in modern colloquial speech, it is often הַבֵּית־סֵפֶר (habeit-séfer, the-house-of-book).

(More details and examples can be found here).

Speakers of a language generally absorb the rules of grammar, even if they can't explicitly explain them. So with an understanding of the rules above, Hebrew speakers usually can figure out what do with two words in one phrase.  If there are two nouns, like bayit and sefer, without the definite article, the phrase is beit sefer, and with the definite article, the phrase is beit hasefer.

If there is a noun and an adjective, however, the heh appears twice. So "a big house" is bayit gadol, but "the big house" is habayit hagadol. Again, these are intuitive rules to anyone accustomed to speaking Hebrew.

But sometimes our familiarity with these rules doesn't work to our favor, and can lead to a phenomenon called hypercorrection, where we apply rules where they don't belong, and actually use the language incorrectly.

This is the case with three familiar Hebrew phrases: lashon hara לשון הרע, ayin hara עין הרע and yetzer hara יצר הרע.

The first source of confusion is the word ra. Meaning "evil" or "bad", it can be either a noun or an adjective. But as we saw above, the only time the heh appears only before the second word in a phrase, is when they're both nouns. So I found frequent cases, where authors said that lashon hara "literally means the tongue of evil" or ayin hara "literally means the eye of evil." This is supported further by the fact that ayin and lashon are assumed to have the feminine gender, so if ra was an adjective, it would be hara'ah הרעה.

While those phrases are still generally translated as "the evil tongue" and "the evil eye" (as well as "the evil inclination" for yetzer hara) - there is a subtle difference between ra being a noun or an adjective in these phrases, especially since they are phrases loaded with religious meaning.

In these cases, ra actually is an adjective, not a noun. As this article by the Hebrew Language Academy points out, while it's not common, there are noun-adjective phrases with heh only preceding the adjective. For example, in Bereshit 1:31, we find the phrase yom hashishi יום השישי - "the sixth day", and not hayom hashishi. In post-biblical Hebrew, we find the phrase כנסת הגדולה knesset hagedola - "the great assembly", and not haknesset hagedola

And while ayin and lashon are generally feminine nouns, there are case where they are male, as in Eicha 4:4, Zecharia 4:14 and Tehilim 11:4. So there is no need to hypercorrect, and we can still translate the phrases as "the evil eye", "the evil tongue", and "the evil inclination."

And while we're here, let's take a quick look at the origin of each of the phrases:

Lashon hara: This term refers to malicious speech or slander. In Biblical Hebrew, the word for someone speaking this way is rechil רכיל, which provided the noun rechilut רכילות. In Rabbinic Hebrew, the phrase lashon hara  was introduced (based on a related phrase in Tehilim 34:14), and distinctions were made in Jewish law between rechilut and lashon hara. 

Ayin hara: This phrase appears in the mishna, for example Avot 2:11 עַיִן הָרָע, וְיֵצֶר הָרָע, וְשִׂנְאַת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, מוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם - "the evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred for humankind put a person out of the world." According to Safrai (on Avot), this likely refers to jealousy. It has a parallel the phrase ayin ra'ah in an earlier mishna (Avot 2:9), along with the opposite - ayin tova. In that case, the phrases are referring to a generous or stingy person (as explained in Avot 5:13, and based on related phrases in Devarim 15:9; 28:54,56). One who is stingy with his own possessions is likely to be jealous of the possessions of others. Only later, in the Amoraic period (for example Berachot 20a) did ayin hara come to be associated with an external, even magic, curse - "the evil eye."

Yetzer hara: This phrase, the "evil inclination", originates in Bereshit 6:5 and 8:21 - יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע‎, yetzer lev-ha-adam ra - "the inclination of man's heart was evil."  In parallel, rabbinic texts also mention the yetzer hatov - "the good inclination", which motivates people to do good. This is certainly a more optimistic approach than the fatalistic conclusion that we are only inclined to evil. The mishna (Berachot 4:9) rules that we must serve God with both of our inclinations - the good and the evil. 

Sunday, September 06, 2020

segula, segel and mesugal

 Way back in 2006, I mentioned briefly the etymology of segulah:

segula סגולה - "property" is related to the Akkadian word sugullu - herd of cattle

And a few months later, I pointed out that segula is not related to segol סגול - "violet, purple" (for a more in depth discussion see Elon Gilad's article here.)

But segula deserves much more attention. It's a word with a fascinating history, that has led to many different meanings. Let's take a look.

Much of what I'll be discussing here is based on an article (in Hebrew) by M.Z Kaddari, in his book The Medieval Heritage of Modern Hebrew Usage (Dvir, 1970). Here's a section of the English abstract which summarizes his extensive discussion Hebrew about segula:

An instructive instance in the dialects of emotional connotation is the word segula. In Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew, this word was an emotional one ('valued property', 'peculiar treasure'); however, it seems to occur as a pure concept word also ('treasure', 'fortune'). This emotional change happens similarly in the language of the Piyyutim (Liturgical Poetry) and in Medieval Hebrew. Later on in Middle Hebrew, influenced by Arabic, the word designated 'characteristic feature' too, without any emotional overtone (the former emotional overtone had disappeared). But it had been used in special environments (designating objects endowed with the power of recovery); consequently, an emotional secondary meaning had developed in it ('magic quality'), which has survived up to our days in some vernacular usages. However, due to the last generations's alienation from misbeliefs, sometimes this renewed emotional meaning of segula has been suppressed: hence the word is used simply as a term of 'character,' 'quality'. In Modern Hebrew, we find segula in both meanings: the general and literary languages have its notional meaning ('quality'), while the substandard vernacular (influenced by the Musar and Hasidic literature, and by Yiddish) keeps carrying its emotional meaning ('magic quality').

I can't transcribe all 14 pages here of his Hebrew essay, but I'll try to summarize the main developments of the word.

  1. As I mentioned in my original post, segula meant "herd of cattle" in Akkadian, and that probably was the original meaning in Hebrew as well.
  2. From there, the word came to mean "property". As I pointed out in my 2006 post, the development from cattle to property can also be found in the Hebrew words rechesh רכש, kinyan קנין, and neches נכס. It is used with this meaning in Kohelet 2:8 and Divrei HaYamim I 29:3.
  3. In the Torah, Israel is described as God's segula (Shemot 19:5; Devarim 7:6, 14:2, 26:18). While it clearly indicates a close relationship between God and Israel, ultimately it indicates that the nation is His property -  a suzerainty. In the biblical context, segula does not imply any inherent advantages or positive traits. (Shemot 19:5 is noteworthy in this regard, because the nation becoming God's segula is dependent on following the laws.)
  4. In Rabbinic Hebrew, segula continues to mean "property." This is where we first find the verb סיגל sigel - meaning "to acquire property" and mesugal מסוגל - "belonging to."
  5. Once the verb sigel became widely used, segula was understood to be its gerund, so it also took on the meaning "what one acquires for oneself" - i.e. treasure.
  6. This sense of "treasure" was expanded beyond the sense of property, and came to mean something "dear" to someone. So a person could also be a segula to someone else. 
  7. In the piyuttim, a number of these meanings were combined, and so Israel is described as a segula, meaning "dear treasured nation" or "dear possession." The piyyutim literally had "poetic license," and they created new words and grammatical structures. So they created the new word segel סגל, synonymous with segula. As Yaakov Etsion discusses here, one of the phrases found in a Rosh Hashana piyyut is segel chavura סֶגֶל חֲבוּרָה. The phrase literally means that Israel is an "association of segula, a treasured group" The author flipped the semichut (construct form), as Etsion describes. This phrase was used in other contexts as a fancy, poetic expression. But over time, it was assumed to have "normal" semichut, and eventually the chavura was dropped. Today, as a result, segel means "corps, cadre, senior staff" in Modern Hebrew.
  8. In Medieval Hebrew, segula came to mean something of great importance, and particularly something "select, chosen." This is how it is used in the writings of Yehuda Halevi, for example. (Much of these Medieval uses are borrowed from parallel phrases in Arabic, which I won't go into here.) 
  9. This led to a distinction between the masses and special people, who became known as yechidei segula יחידי סגולה.
  10. Following its Arabic parallels, segula also came to mean "characteristic feature." This goes back to its early meaning of "property." The same phenomenon can be found in words in English (deriving from Latin), like "peculiar" which means "belonging exclusively to one person; special, particular", but derived from a word meaning "private property", and even further back - "cattle." The English word "property" also means both "possession, thing owned" and "nature, quality." We find this use of segula in the translations of Rambam's Arabic writings into Hebrew.
  11. Over time, segula didn't just mean "characteristic" but specifically a "positive" characteristic. (Think of how in English, we tell someone to "behave", but we mean "behave well.") It specifically became attributed to the positive attributes plants and other objects had in providing healing and health. 
  12. This association with medicine and the natural world, eventually expanded to the supernatural and the magical. A "segula", in this context, is a kind of charm or ritual, that would bring good fortune or protect from harm. 
  13. As Kaddari mentioned above, as the Jewish world became more secularized, the belief in magical segulot faded, but the word remained. Just as a segula had magical abilities, once stripped of that belief, it just became an ability. And this was particularly found in the verbal. If a person is מסוגל mesugal, he is able or capable (of performing an action). And in the hitpael form, הסתגל, means "to adapt oneself" and histaglut הסתגלות is "adaptation, acclimation."

For me, watching a word develop that way is simply beautiful. That simple root has followed the speakers of Hebrew since antiquity, always adapting to the where the nation was at the time. Truly an am segula!

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

baal habayit and boss

 The English word "boss" is so common, I would never had assumed it had a possible connection to Hebrew. It likely entered into English from Dutch, but its earlier etymology is unclear:

This is the entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

"overseer, one who employs or oversees workers," 1640s, American English, from Dutch baas "a master," Middle Dutch baes, of obscure origin. If original sense was "uncle," perhaps it is related to Old High German basa "aunt," but some sources discount this theory. 

The Wiktionary entry for "boss" suggests a connection to basa, but as the source above mentions (as does Klein in his CEDEL), that theory is debatable.

One possibility is that Dutch borrowed "boss" from the Yiddish balebos, which is derived from the Hebrew ba'al habayit בעל הבית. Baal habayit is found a few times in the Tanach (Shemot 22:7, Shoftim 19:22, and Melachim I 17:17), and then extensively in Rabbinic Hebrew. It has a number of meanings in that literature, including the literal "master of the house" or "owner of the house", and can also be understood as "landowner" or "property owner." Ben Yehuda points out that it is often used in distinction to someone else - i.e. not a guest, a poor person, a worker, etc. (For an extensive discussion of the meaning in Tannaitic literature, see "The Independent Farmer (Ba'al Habayit)" in Social Stratification of the Jewish Population of Roman Palestine in the Period of the Mishnah, 70–250 CE, Ben Zion Rosenfeld, Haim Perlmutter.)

In later times, baal habayit, and the adjective baalbati בעלבתי, came to mean "bourgeois, provincial." That was one of the senses adopted into Yiddish - a balebos is an "important man" (and the woman of the house is the balabuste.) This could be the sense borrowed by the Dutch which later became "boss." (On the other hand, a balebos, as compared to a rabbi, is just a layman or congregant. It seems that it's always a relative term, understood best by what it's compared to.)

I haven't seen conclusive proof to the Yiddish origin theory. It is mentioned in The Taste of Yiddish by Lillian Feinsilver, and discussed in the "Mendele: Yiddish literature and language" discussion group here and here. (An alternate theory, that "boss" entered from Yiddish directly into American English, isn't convincing, since as mentioned above, the word is found in English already in the 17th century.)

But it certainly shouldn't be discounted too quickly. Plenty of Dutch words are borrowed from Yiddish, as discussed here, and many examples are found here. Could baas/boss be one of them? I suppose you'll need to ask a professional linguist. I'm just a balebos...

Sunday, August 23, 2020

ba'ar, bi'er and be'ir

 A reader asked about the origin of the biblical word be'ir בעיר, meaning "cattle" or "domesticated animals." Let's take a look.

It appears only six times in the Tanach: Bereshit 45:17; Shemot 22:4; Bamidbar 20:4,8,11, and Tehilim 78:48. In each case it refers to animals owned by humans. One verse in particular (Shemot 22:4) can perhaps shed light on where the word comes from:

כִּי יַבְעֶר־אִישׁ שָׂדֶה אוֹ־כֶרֶם וְשִׁלַּח אֶת־בעירה [בְּעִירוֹ] וּבִעֵר בִּשְׂדֵה אַחֵר מֵיטַב שָׂדֵהוּ וּמֵיטַב כַּרְמוֹ יְשַׁלֵּם׃ 

When a man lets his livestock loose to graze in another’s land, and so allows a field or a vineyard to be grazed bare, he must make restitution for the impairment of that field or vineyard. 

Be'ir is translated here as "livestock." But in addition to be'ir we also have the verb בער bi'er, rendered here as "graze." In and of itself, that's not so surprising - animals do graze, and verbs and nouns are often related. The question is did the noun be'ir come from the verb בער, or did the verb provide us with the noun?  I haven't found a conclusive answer to that question. Some sources say that the noun is the source (like Klein), others say the verb is the source (like Gesenius), and a surprising number aren't really sure (BDB, Ben Yehuda, Kaddari.)

One thing that is clear is that the verb בער has more than one meaning. In fact, another meaning is found in the very next verse!

כִּי־תֵצֵא אֵשׁ וּמָצְאָה קֹצִים וְנֶאֱכַל גָּדִישׁ אוֹ הַקָּמָה אוֹ הַשָּׂדֶה שַׁלֵּם יְשַׁלֵּם הַמַּבְעִר אֶת־הַבְּעֵרָה׃ 

When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is consumed, he who started the fire must make restitution. (Shemot 22:5)

In this verse, בער means "to start a fire," and we also find the noun b'erah בערה - "burning, fire." The verbs in each verse have very different meanings (aside from some ancient Aramaic translations suggest that 22:4 is also talking about fire, not grazing). And as Cassuto put it in his commentary on Shemot, "there is clearly noticeable here a word-play in the use of the verb בער ba'ar in two different senses ['graze' and 'burn'] and in its proximity to the substantive בעיר be'ir ['cattle', 'beast']."

We've discussed the the possibility of biblical word play before, most famously in my post about ish and isha. But while that theory is subject to some controversy, these two verses make it very clear that the Torah is willing to use two words in proximity, with similar spellings but different meanings, even though it might lead to some confusion. 

The verb בער has a number of meanings aside from "burn" (or "kindle, light") and "graze." It can also mean "to remove, eliminate, destroy." Which meaning is used in the phrase bi'ur chametz ביעור חמץ? Is it the removal of chametz from the home before Pesach, or the burning of that chametz? At first glance it would seem that this is the source of the debate in the mishna:

 רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר, אֵין בִּעוּר חָמֵץ אֶלָּא שְׂרֵפָה. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים, אַף מְפָרֵר וְזוֹרֶה לָרוּחַ אוֹ מַטִּיל לַיָּם:

  Rabbi Judah says: there is no removal of chametz except by burning; But the sages say: he may also crumble it and throw it to the wind or cast it into the sea. (Pesachim 2:1)

However, the halacha is that the chametz can be removed by any method, and the commentaries say that the disagreement between Rabbi Judah and the Sages is only about the ideal method to destroy the chametz. And while the Torah doesn't mention bi'ur in connection with chametz, it does mention removing the consecrated ma'aser food by using the verb בער (Devarim 26:13-14). In that case, it clearly means "removal", not "burning."

As I mentioned above, the linguists aren't certain about the origins and connections between the various meanings of בער. One possible line that runs between all of them is the sense of "consume," which could apply to both the grazing of animals and the burning of fire, and then be extended metaphorically to all removal or destruction.

One other meaning of בער is "to be brutish or foolish." This is actually related to the words we just discussed. It comes from be'ir, and so would literally mean "to act like an animal." The adjective ba'ar בַּֽעַר means "foolish, ignorant." As Philologos points out here, ba'ar is unrelated to both the Hebrew bur בור - "ignoramus" (connected to bar בר, which we discussed here) and the English "boor" (which also aren't related to each other.)


Monday, August 17, 2020

kash and kashish

 A reader asked if there was a connection between the verb קשש - "to gather", and kashish קשיש - "elderly."  I didn't think it was likely, but according to Klein's etymologies, they are related.

Klein writes that the root קשש means "to gather, assemble (especially straw or stubble.)" We find this root in the story of the מקושש עצים mekoshesh etzim - "the stick gatherer" (Bamidbar 15:32-36), as well as the description of the Israelite slaves "gathering stubble [kash] for straw [teven]"   לְקֹשֵׁשׁ קַשׁ לַתֶּבֶן (Shemot 5:12).

Klein provides this etymology:

Related to Syriac קַשׁ, Arab. qashsha (= he collected, gathered). The original meaning probably was ‘to become dry’. Compare. Arab. qashsha in the sense ‘became dry, dried up, shriveled up, withered’.

He writes that this is the root of kash קש - "straw."  In modern Hebrew, as in English, kash refers to both straw as "dried stalks of grain" and "a thin, hollow tube for drinking." The latter (the drinking straw), however, is often called a kashit קשית.

Klein then goes on to say that the root קשש can also mean "to grow old", and comes from the earlier sense "to become dry, wither, fade." This gives us the word kashish - "old, elderly." 

Ben-Yehuda, however, says that perhaps kashish comes from the root קשה kasheh - "hard." So instead of an elderly person being like someone who has withered and faded, this kashish has been hardened, and strengthened, by the challenges of life. This is also the approach of Jastrow, who brings support from Shabbat 53a, where it says that animals can go out into the public domain on Shabbat with "splints" keshishin. These splints were meant to straighten the fracture, to make it stiff (kasheh).

But kashish itself doesn't actually mean "elderly" in its first appearances in Rabbinic Hebrew, just "older." So an older brother is referred to as kashish (Targum to Melachim I 2:22) even though he wasn't older. 

But in today's Hebrew it doesn't have that meaning, and "older than" is usually mevugar מבוגר. And kashish is specifically someone elderly. (This is similar to the English word "senior," which first meant "older" and then "elderly.") But even though kashish means elderly today, each of us, as we get older, can decide whether that will mean "withering away" or "becoming strengthened."

Monday, August 10, 2020

chasmal and amber

The Hebrew word for "electricity" is chashmal חשמל. That is originally a biblical word, only appearing three times (all in the book of Yechezkel). Certainly at that time it didn't mean electricity. So how did the modern meaning come about?

These are the three verses:

וָאֵרֶא וְהִנֵּה רוּחַ סְעָרָה בָּאָה מִן־הַצָּפוֹן עָנָן גָּדוֹל וְאֵשׁ מִתְלַקַּחַת וְנֹגַהּ לוֹ סָבִיב וּמִתּוֹכָהּ כְּעֵין הַחַשְׁמַל מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ׃

I looked, and lo, a stormy wind came sweeping out of the north—a huge cloud and flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance; and in the center of it, in the center of the fire, a gleam as of amber. (1:4)

וָאֵרֶא כְּעֵין חַשְׁמַל כְּמַרְאֵה־אֵשׁ בֵּית־לָהּ סָבִיב מִמַּרְאֵה מָתְנָיו וּלְמָעְלָה וּמִמַּרְאֵה מָתְנָיו וּלְמַטָּה רָאִיתִי כְּמַרְאֵה־אֵשׁ וְנֹגַהּ לוֹ סָבִיב׃

From what appeared as his loins up, I saw a gleam as of amber—what looked like a fire encased in a frame; and from what appeared as his loins down, I saw what looked like fire. There was a radiance all about him. (1:27)

וָאֶרְאֶה וְהִנֵּה דְמוּת כְּמַרְאֵה־אֵשׁ מִמַּרְאֵה מָתְנָיו וּלְמַטָּה אֵשׁ וּמִמָּתְנָיו וּלְמַעְלָה כְּמַרְאֵה־זֹהַר כְּעֵין הַחַשְׁמַלָה׃

As I looked, there was a figure that had the appearance of fire: from what appeared as his loins down, [he was] fire; and from his loins up, his appearance was resplendent and had the color of amber. (8:2)

In all three of these verses the word hashmal is translated as "amber." This is based on the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, which used the Greek word elektron, meaning "amber." This tradition is in contrast to one found in the Talmud (Hagiga 13a-b), which says that chashmal is a kind of angel. In any case, since the visions are described as being "like" chashmal or having the color of chashmal, we can't conclusively say what it was from these verses, although it was likely something particularly radiant. The Akkadian cognate, elmesu, according to Tawil, refers to a "precious stone with the characteristic sparkle and brilliancy of fire."

Elektron (electrum in Latin) referred to an alloy of gold and silver. The same word was also used to refer to amber (the tree resin), because of the similar color. Rubbing amber gives an electrical charge, and so when the phenomenon of electricity was defined, the scientists turned to the Greek and Latin terms for amber to coin the word "electric."

The Hebrew poet Judah Leib Gordon followed the same logic around 1880, when he suggested to use chashmal to refer to electricity as well. 

Due to the rabbinic association of chashmal with angels, and the esoteric nature of Yechezkel's prophecy, there were many who opposed this secular use of chashmal.  (An alternate suggestion at the time was bazak -בזק "lightning.") But as we've discovered many times over the years, language has a power of its own, and chashmal is universally used in Hebrew today to refer to electricity.

And if you're curious, modern Hebrew has a different word to refer to "amber" - ענבר inbar. This word is borrowed from the Arabic anbar, as is the English word "amber." (However, as discussed here, it first entered Hebrew via European languages, and was spelled אמברא or אמבער, and only later began to be spelled ענבר to match the original Arabic.)  The etymology of anbar is unclear. Some say that the Arabic word comes from Persian, and others say that the similar Persian word comes from Arabic. Inbar is primarily heard today as a girl's name. It was in the top 50 girls names in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so as of this writing, you're most likely to find it used by women around 30 years old. 

Sunday, August 02, 2020

almanac and menucha

There are a lot of theories as to the origin of the word "almanac." Here's what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say:

late 14c., "book of permanent tables of astronomical data," attested in Anglo-Latin from mid-13c., via Old French almanach or directly from Medieval Latin almanachus, a word of uncertain origin and the subject of much speculation. The Latin word is often said to be ultimately from Arabic somehow, but an exact phonological and semantic fit is wanting: OED connects it to a supposed Spanish-Arabic al-manakh "calendar, almanac," which is possibly ultimately from Late Greek almenichiakon "calendar," which itself is said to be of Coptic origin. But the author of English words of Arabic Ancestry makes a detailed case  "that the word almanac was pseudo-Arabic and was generated within the circle of astronomers in Paris in the mid 13th century."

Those are all interesting suggestions, but one not mentioned in that entry allows for a connection to a Hebrew word. Stahl mentions a theory that does in his Bilingual Etymological Dictionary of Spoken Israeli Arabic and Hebrew, and it also appears in other sources, such as this and this. He points out that in Arabic manakh means "weather, climate" and derives from a word meaning "where the camels kneel and rest." That place was a camp, and for nomadic tribes, it took on the sense of a permanent settlement. This sense of permanence, became associated with other constant or expected things - in this case, the weather. And so an almanac was a book which included certain astronomical predictions (like the times of sunrise and sunset), dates for holidays, and meteorological forecasts.

This Arabic root - either via nakha, "kneel" or manakh, "camp" - is cognate with the Hebrew word root נוח meaning "to rest." That root gives us the word menucha מנוחה. In Modern Hebrew menucha means the condition of "rest, respite" or "calm, serenity." But in the Bible, it generally (perhaps always) means a resting place. In many verses it is synonymous with nachala נחלה - "inheritance", as in Devarim 12:9 where both refer to the Land of Israel:

כִּי לֹא־בָּאתֶם עַד־עָתָּה אֶל־הַמְּנוּחָה וְאֶל־הַנַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר־ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

Now you have not yet come to the resting place [menukha] and hereditary land that God your Lord is giving you.

Another verse with the same meaning is Bereshit 49:15, which compares menucha  to aretz (land):

...וַיַּרְא מְנֻחָה כִּי טוֹב וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ כִּי נָעֵמָה

But he sees that the resting place [menucha] is good, and that the land is pleasant...

In this way, menucha is similar to the word meluna מלונה - "lodge" (and related to the word malon מלון - "inn"), which derives from the root לון - "to lodge, to pass the night." Meluna is clearly a place, and so too menucha means a resting place.

Of course, it's easy to conflate a resting place and a state of rest, and so there are some verses where it's not clear which meaning is intended. In the end, just as the Arabian nomads appreciated the chance to let their camels kneel and rest, so to did the nomadic tribes of Israel appreciate the chance to stop wandering and settle in their homeland. The resting place caused a state of rest.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

beged and begidah

A number of readers have written to ask about a connection between beged בגד - "garment" and begida בגידה - "betrayal."  Begida derives from the root בגד - "to betray," which is spelled the same as beged. 

Klein provides a connection in his entry for the root בגד:

Probably denominated from בֶּגֶד (= clothing, garment) and literally meaning ‘to cover with, or as with, a garment’, ‘to conceal’. For sense development compare מעל (= to act unfaithfully, to behave treacherously), which probably derives from מְעִיל (= upper garment, coat); compare also Arab. labisa (= he put on a dress, clothed, dressed), and labasa (= he disguised, he confused), labbasa (= tangle, confusion).

In addition to Klein's mention of meil מעיל - "coat" and me'ilah מעילה - "treachery, embezzlement", I would also add bad בד- "linen" and badah בדה - "to lie, concoct." In fact, English also has that same pairing in fabric and fabricate, and the two meanings of "cloak" (a kind of garment and "to hide, conceal.")

And previously, we've discussed one more: the root חלף - "to change" gives us chalifa חליפה - "change of clothes, suit of clothes", and that verb is also associated with deception (see Bereshit 31:7).

The common thread to all of these is that clothing covers us up, and that cover up can be a source of deception and falsehood. Another theory says that like the "change" of clothes, deceit is considered temporary and unreliable (certainly to the victim), whereas truth is permanent and faithful. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

baba ghanoush

Over the past few months, I've been primarily using questions I received by email as inspiration for my posts here. While the volume of mail I get prevents me from responding to everyone, I do appreciate the messages you send. They often send me on quests that I wouldn't have thought to investigate on my own, so they are a benefit to all of us.

Today I got to the earliest post in my inbox. I'm a little embarrassed to say that it is actually from 2008. Here's the question, from the inimitable Benji Lovitt:

Question:  this one I'm dying to figure out.  Only a few years ago did I realize that "babaganush" was not Hebrew or even an Israeli name.  Americans think it's Israeli, Israelis have no idea what we're talking about.  What in the hell is this word and where did it come from?

Any ideas?  : )


It's important to note that none of the other questions in the queue were anywhere near that old. I think I must have kept it there because I didn't have an answer then that had a connection to Hebrew etymology. 

Well, now I do.

To answer the first question, it's true that baba ghanoush isn't a Hebrew word (or technically a Hebrew phrase). It comes from Arabic, and it refers to an eggplant salad that is similar, but not identical with the common eggplant salad found in Israel. Here's how the baba ghanoush Wikipedia entry describes the two:

Baba ghanoush, also spelled baba ganoush or baba ghanouj,is a Levantine appetizer of mashed cooked eggplant mixed with tahini (made from sesame seeds), olive oil, possibly lemon juice, and various seasonings. [...] The traditional preparation method is for the eggplant to be baked or broiled over an open flame before peeling [...] In Israel, it is also known as salat ḥatzilim. Unlike baba ghanoush [however], it is made with fried or grilled eggplants mixed with mayonnaise, salt, lemon and chopped fried onions.

So Americans - likely ones who've visited Israel - conflate the baba ghanoush they find in their supermarkets with the salat chatzilim סלט חצילים they tasted here. That is the source of the confusion (and the fact that the Israeli brand Sabra calls their eggplant spread in English "babaganoush" doesn't help either.)

Now what about the second question - where does the word come from?

There are a number of theories out there. Most agree that the word baba means "father" and ghanoush means something like "pampered" or "flirtatious." This leads to the following suggested etymologies:

  • This site quotes the Oxford English Dictionary as saying that it was named “perhaps with reference to its supposed invention by a member of a royal harem" - the sultan being the "pampered daddy." Although since we're talking about a harem, it could be referring to a "flirtatious papa" or "father of coquetry" as these sites suggest.
  • The Etymology Nerd gives two possibilities:
    • One is similar to the previous idea, saying that it was "invented by a concubine in one of the historical sultans' harems for her master."
    • Another idea references "the old folk tale about a toothless father who had to be fed premasticated food, something that no doubt looked like eggplant puree." This site has a similar theory, saying the dish was from a loving daughter to her pampered father (although she said the eggplants were mashed, not "premasticated.")
  • The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food says that perhaps the "father" wasn't a person, but the eggplant itself, "which is considered the most important (big daddy) of vegetables."
So now we've discussed the origin of the phrase, but as I mentioned earlier, I waited 12 years until I found a connection to a Hebrew word. The cognate word is oneg עונג - "exquisite delight, pleasure" (as well as the practically synonymous ta'anug תענוג). Klein, discussing the root of oneg, ענג, writes that it is cognate with "Arab. ‘anija (= he was coquettish, was amorous)."  The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament concurs, writing that the cognate Arabic verb means "adorn oneself, flirt" and occasionally also "pamper, be ingratiating." So to be a little closer to that Arabic origin, the spelling baba ghanouj is a little better (and it helps to remember that Arabic has a hard ayin that sounds like a "g", giving us Gaza for עזה Aza. So an accurate Hebrew spelling would be באבא ע'נוג'.)

The association of eggplants with culinary delight began in earnest during the "austerity" period at the founding of the State of Israel. Eggplants became a common meat substitute, and remained very popular even when meat became available again. 

However, some prefer a vegetarian lifestyle for ideological, not economic, reasons. One of those, was Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who served as the chief rabbi of the IDF and later chief rabbi of Israel. In the 1980s, he visited Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, which is a major processed meat manufacturer and also breeds fish. I spent time on Tirat Tzvi in the early 1990s, and have the book Dmut V'Koma, by resident Efraim Yair, who describes Rabbi Goren's visit:

The truth is, that the Shabbat meal on Tirat Tzvi is quite full, with meat and fish, and other delights [as mentioned in the shabbat song, Mah Yedidut], l'hit'aneg b'ta'anugim, barburim u'slav v'dagimלְהִתְעַנֵּג בְּתַעֲנוּגִים בַּרְבּוּרִים וּשְׂלָו וְדָגִים "to savor the delights of fowl, quail and fish" ... [But in the family of Rabbi Goren] they instead sang l'hitaneg b'ta'anugim, chatzilim v'kishuim להתענג בתענוגים חצילים וקישואים "to savor the delights of eggplant and zucchini"...

So we can see that the connection between ta'anug and baba ghanouj runs deep. 

Hope this answers your question, Benji!

Monday, June 15, 2020


I've written about many of the words for directions in Hebrew, but I realized I never wrote about darom דרום - "south."

Darom appears in the bible 17 times. That's less than its synonyms negev / negba נגב / נגבה, which appear around 50 times and תימן teiman (24 times), but more than ימין yamin, which although appears 139 times, but only 8 of those mean "south" (the rest mean "right").

We discussed yamin / teiman here, and the origin of negev is fairly straightforward. Klein writes that it comes from the root נגב meaning "to be dry", so it literally means "the dry land" (which makes sense looking at the Negev desert in the south of Israel. But regarding darom, Klein says that it is "of uncertain origin." Are there any theories we can discuss?

The one serious suggestion I found for the origin of darom is by Gesenius. He suggests that it comes from a root, דרר, "unused as a verb." This root, as explained in the BDB, means "to stream, flow abundantly." This meaning is found also in the Arabic cognate darra - "it ran swiftly." This gives us the word dror דרור, which has three meanings: "sparrow" (since the bird flies quickly), flowing (found in the phrase מר-דרור - "fine flowing myrrh"), and "freedom, liberty" (which the BDB says is like "free run.")

Another related word is דהר dahar - "to gallop". It originally referred specifically to horses, but is also now used metaphorically to describe anyone hurrying or going fast.

And as I mentioned, it also is suggested as the origin of darom. From "flow" it also is said to have the meaning "to give light, shine", presumably from the way light flows. Dar דר  (Esther 1:6) means "pearl" - a shiny stone. So too darom, according to Gesenius, means "the bright region", which makes sense, since in the Northern Hemisphere the southern exposure gets more sunlight, due to the tilt of the earth's axis

This also fits our explanation of tzafon צפון - "north" as the "hidden or dark region."

The English word "south" has a similar etymology:

Old English suð "southward, to the south, southern, in the south," from Proto-Germanic *sunthaz, perhaps literally "sun-side" (source also of Old Saxon, Old Frisian suth "southward, in the south," Middle Dutch suut, Dutch zuid, German Süden), and related to base of *sunnon "sun" (from PIE root *sawel- "the sun").
I would not be surprised if this was the case in other languages as well, but probably only those in the Northern Hemisphere.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

shechinah and scene

The Hebrew word for the Divine Presence is shechinah שכינה.  It derives from the root שכן, meaning "to dwell, settle down," so the shekinah is literally "the dwelling place (of God)." That same root gives us the words shachen שכן - "neighbor", shechuna שכונה - "neighborhood", mishkan משכן - "tabernacle, sanctuary", and maskhanta משכנתא - "mortgage" (from mishkon משכון - "pledge", since a pledge or deposit was "set down.")

Klein writes that the root is the Shaph'el form of the root כון - "to be, set up, be established." In this post we discussed that earlier root, and we also discussed here a possible connection between שכן and the word sochen סוכן - "steward, agent."

But I realized that there was one additional connection that I did not discuss. Nicholas Oster, in his book Empires of the Word - A Language History of the World (which I've recommended before) quotes the scholar C. F. D. Moule, who writes here that the Greek skēnḗ - "tent" may have been influenced by the Hebrew root שכן meaning "dwelling." 

Now that doesn't mean that this is a direct etymology. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides a different derivation:

related to skia "shadow, shade," via notion of "something that gives shade" 

But that doesn't contradict Moule's theory. He writes of "Greek words whose use, or at least frequency, may have been suggested by a certain (perhaps fortuitous) similarity of sound or spelling to certain Semitic words." That certainly could be the case here, and we've discussed many times how this has worked in the other direction - some modern Hebrew words were adopted because of the similarity of sound to foreign words (even if they have ancient Hebrew roots - take maksim מקסים meaning "great" and influenced by "maximum" as just one example.)

As the same OED entry quoted above mentions, the Greek skene gave us the English word "scene":

"subdivision of an act of a play," also "stage-setting," from Middle French scène (14c.), from Latin scaena, scena "scene, stage of a theater," from Greek skene "wooden stage for actors," also "that which is represented on stage," originally "tent or booth"

Scene has expanded its meaning beyond just the acts of play, and can now mean "a place or representation of an incident" or "a specified area of activity or interest." Those meanings aren't actually so far away from our understanding of shechina...

Sunday, May 24, 2020

shevet and matteh

There are two Hebrew words that are very similar: shevet שבט and matteh  מטה. 

They both have the same two non-synonymous meanings: stick (or staff) and tribe. And they both appear in parallel in Biblical Hebrew. How is that so?

Let's first take a look at the etymologies. The origins of shevet and matteh are actually very different, which contributes to the mystery.

Shevet comes from a root meaning "to strike."  It has cognates in other Semitic languages, including the Akkadian shabatu (= to beat, kill, destroy). That, according to Klein, is the root of the Hebrew month of Shevat - literally the "month of destroying rain."

Matteh comes from the root נטה meaning "to stretch out" or "to bend down." That root also gives us such words as mita מיטה - "bed" and mata מטה - "down" (as we discussed here.) Perhaps this is either how a stick or branch stretches out (or comes down) from a tree, or because a stick or a staff is brought down on the ground when walking or pointing.

As I mentioned, both appear in Biblical Hebrew. While they each appear more frequently in some books than others, they do appear in the same books, and sometimes even in the same verse, such as this one:

וְגַם אֶת־אַחֶיךָ מַטֵּה לֵוִי שֵׁבֶט אָבִיךָ הַקְרֵב אִתָּךְ וְיִלָּווּ עָלֶיךָ וִישָׁרְתוּךָ וְאַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל הָעֵדֻת׃

You [Aharon] shall also associate with yourself your kinsmen the tribe [matteh] of Levi, your ancestral [literally father's] tribe [shevet], to be attached to you and to minister to you, while you and your sons under your charge are before the Tent of the Pact. (Bamidbar 18:2)

In his JPS commentary here, Milgrom writes that "synonyms are used to avoid monotonous repetition." But he adds, referring to this more detailed article of his, that matteh is more precise (referring specifically to one of the 12 tribes), whereas shevet can be also a smaller group (like in this verse, Aharon's father's family) or to the entire nation of Israel (like in Tehilim 74:2). 

How did these two words with distinct origins come to mean both stick and tribe? And why did "stick" develop into "tribe" (twice)?

There are a number of theories:

  • Some say that between "stick" and "tribe" the term meant "scepter." (The Hebrew word for scepter - sharvit שרביט - may have derived from shevet  as well.) That symbol of leadership became associated with the leader of the tribe itself, and then to the tribe he led. This intermediate stage is found in Bereshit 49:10, for example. Based on how he presents the order of the definitions of shevet, I think this is Kaddari's approach. Since he presents that development for shevet, and not for matteh, perhaps he holds that matteh was influenced by shevet in that regard. (For more detail about how the meanings of the words developed, see this Hebrew article by Athalya Brenner. She finds the "missing link" of shevet referring to the actual leader, but that link is not found with matteh.)
  • Stahl has a similar approach, and points out that the the shevet as a scepter signified the leader's power to beat and punish, which connects back to the etymology of the root.
  • Ben Yehuda says that shevet (as stick) became "tribe" in the way a branch splits off from the main part of a tree. In the same way multiple tribes would be divisions of a single nation.
  • Radak takes a different approach. He says that the "original" word was matteh. He writes that one leans (relies) on a matteh (as implied by the root of the word), and both shevet and matteh as "tribe" refer to something you can rely upon. Perhaps he means that in tribal group everyone helps one another.
  • Gesenius combines some of the above approaches, saying that shevet came to be tribe from the authority of the scepter, and matteh represents the branching out (as Ben Yehuda wrote about shevet). I suppose he viewed the developments of shevet and matteh as parallel, but independent.
Before researching this, I thought that there was a parallel development in English, with the word "staff" meaning both "stick" and "group (of people employed by an organization.) But that was a very late entry into English, first appearing only in 1702. It originally had a specifically military sense, as it came "from the notion of the 'baton' that is a badge of office or authority." 

The early Zionist leader and Hebrew linguist Nahum Sokolow adopted this meaning of staff as a group of military officers, and adopted the word matteh for that purpose. So today, the commander in chief of the Israeli army is the rosh hamatteh haklali ראש המטה הכללי - "the Chief of the General Staff" (frequently abbreviated to רמטכ"ל Ramatkal.)

And while in Modern Hebrew matteh has a primarily military connotation, shevet has much more of a civilian tone, used either for groups in youth movements, or to represent an ethnic or large family group (sometimes in a derogatorily way, similar to the English "tribal.") 

As I've said before, Hebrew just can't handle synonyms...

Sunday, May 17, 2020

yom huledet

The Hebrew phrase for "birthday" is יום הולדת yom huledet. While it's certainly a familiar phrase, it's actually kind of a strange construct. Huledet is the hufal (passive and causative) form. Why not use the simpler יום הלידה yom haleida - "day of birth"?

The phrase yom huledet appears three times in the Bible. The first is in Bereshit 40:20 after Yosef deciphered the dreams of his servants (the other two are in Yechezkel 16:4,5). Here is how the phrase appears in Bereshit:

וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי יוֹם הֻלֶּדֶת אֶת־פַּרְעֹה וַיַּעַשׂ מִשְׁתֶּה לְכָל־עֲבָדָיו וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ שַׂר הַמַּשְׁקִים וְאֶת־רֹאשׁ שַׂר הָאֹפִים בְּתוֹךְ עֲבָדָיו׃

On the third day—his birthday [yom huledet]—Pharaoh made a banquet for all his officials, and he singled out his chief cupbearer and his chief baker from among his officials. 

On this verse, Rashi asks our question above, and mentions the other occurrences of  yom huledet:

יום הלדת את פרעה. יוֹם לֵידָתוֹ, וְקוֹרִין לוֹ יוֹם גֵּינוּסְיָא. וּלְשׁוֹן הֻלֶּדֶת, לְפִי שֶׁאֵין הַוָּלָד נוֹצָר אֶלָּא עַל יְדֵי אֲחֵרִים, שֶׁהַחַיָּה מְיַלֶּדֶת אֶת הָאִשָּׁה, וְעַל כֵּן הַחַיָּה נִקְרֵאת מְיַלֶּדֶת, וְכֵן וּמוֹלְדוֹתַיִךְ בְּיוֹם הוּלֶּדֶת אוֹתָךְ (יחזקאל ט"ז) וְכֵן אַחֲרֵי הֻכַּבֵּס אֶת הַנֶּגַע (ויקרא י"ג), שֶׁכִּבּוּסוֹ עַל יְדֵי אֲחֵרִים:

יום הלדת את פרעה HIS (PHARAOH’S) BIRTHDAY. It is called (Avodah Zarah 10a) “The birthday festival”. The causative passive form (הלדת) is used because the infant is born only by the assistance of others, for the midwife delivers the woman. On this account a midwife is called מילדת a Piel form “one who brings to birth”. This passive form occurs similarly (Ezekiel 16:4) “And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born (הולדת אתך)”. A similar passive form is used in (Leviticus 13:55) “after the plague (הכבס) is washed away”, because the washing is done by others). 

In other words, a better translation for yom huledet would be "the day [he] was delivered" instead of "birthday," even though both phrases refer to the same date. (An alternate suggestion, by Radak and Rabbeinu Bachye, is that this was the day a son was born to Pharaoh.) This can also help us understand why the phrase is yom huledet et paro, where Pharaoh is the object of the phrase, instead of yom huledet paro, which is how we would say it today. Pharaoh was the object - he was delivered on that day. According to this article, the verse describes the historical record of  "a ceremony at which the Pharaoh was born again as far as Egyptian protocol was concerned." 

So this usage could explain why yom huledet is the phrase we use for "birthday." However, there are other phrases used to describe birthdays in the Bible:

  כְּיוֹם הִוָּלְדָהּ k'yom hivalda - "as on the day she was born" (Hoshea 2:5)

 מִיּוֹם הִוָּלְדוֹ - m'yom hivaldo - "than the day of his birth" (Kohelet 7:1)

And in the mishna (Avoda Zara 1:3), we find yom haleida יום הלידה. 

So why didn't any of the above become the standard term for "birthday"?

I couldn't find an proven answer to this question. However, it seems that birthdays weren't a big deal in Judaism until recently. And so there wasn't need for a standard Hebrew phrase for the concept. I didn't find yom huledet mentioned in Rabbinic sources that weren't discussing the verses in Bereshit or Yechezkel until relatively recently.

We can see the trends even better, by looking at this chart of appearances of the phrase yom huledet (with both spellings) in Hebrew books over the last few centuries:


The usage (of the full spelling) really starts spiking around the 1960s. I assume that most of the earlier occurrences were discussing the biblical examples.

But as we saw, there were other choices - yom hivaldo or yom haleida. Why not them? My guess is that people were very familiar with the yom huledet of Pharaoh, due to the weekly Torah reading. And although Rashi gives it a slightly different explanation than "day of birth," that wasn't enough to prevent it from becoming the popular phrase.

Monday, May 11, 2020

po and kan

 Is there any difference between the two Hebrew words for "here" - po פה and kan כאן?

They originate in different strata of Hebrew. Po is of biblical origin, and kan starts appearing in Rabbinic Hebrew. (It derives from a Biblical word, ko כה, which means "so, thus" and can also mean "here.")  They each are part of words meaning "where" - the biblical eifo איפה and the rabbinic heikhan היכן.

What about the meanings? They both mean "here" and are often viewed as complete synonyms, even being the most popular example of two Hebrew words with the same meaning, and define each other in dictionaries. While in English having two synonymous words might not be remarkable, as we pointed out recently, "Hebrew has a hard time hanging on to synonyms."

And yet, a closer look does show differences in uses, even though the translation to the English "here" remains in place. This book does a good job of capturing those differences:

There is, however, a very basic semantic distinction between po and kan which — in my experience — most people take for granted but immediately recognize when it is pointed out to them. The word po is limited to the realm of space on the spatio-temporal-existential cline. It always refers to a specific and concrete place in the immediate or proximate vicinity. The word kan, on the other hand, has gone beyond the realm of space in the universal spatio-temporal-existential cline and may also be used for temporal and existential messages as well. The word kan may refer to specific places and immediate or proximate vicinities (like po), to the present time (the here-and-now), and to general relevant issues and situations (leadken - 'to bring up to date') (lit. 'to-until-here-now'). 

In other words, po is almost always talking about a physical place. Kan, on the other hand, can be about place - but can also be about time (like how far along you are in process), or even purely abstractly (like your understanding of an issue). "Here" captures all of those in English, but the difference in nuance in the Hebrew words are real. If you would say (without context), kan chashavti lehitpater כאן חשבתי להתטפר - "here I thought of resigning", it could mean "in this place" or "at this point in my life." But if you used po instead of kan, it would likely mean "in this physical place."

All that said, this article seems to show a trend in the opposite direction. Collecting examples of spoken Hebrew in the 1980s and 1990s, it found that po was used in the vast majority of cases. And while it recognizes the trend we mentioned above in "classical" Hebrew, it says that in the usages they studied, po actually was used in more varied circumstances than kan. This is how the English abstract describes the study:

The paper traces the fine distinction between two adverbs of location — פה and כאן — frequently regarded as an example of exact synonyms. Data based on a recorded corpus of native speakers are analyzed quantitatively and qualitatively, namely, using semantic and functional methods of sign-oriented linguistics. The findings show פה to be the dominant, unmarked term of the pair, found in 97 percent of the cases. Unlike in their classical use, פה may designate not only location but also temporal concepts, whereas כאן is restricted to locational concepts. Although their denotation is the same, the marginal field of their meaning differs. In certain lexical phrases, כאן carries a submeaning of 'border' or 'end', whereas פה has a submeaning of 'now', and functions as a half-empty prosodic or emotive filler, mainly in the existence (יש) sentence pattern.
While I don't challenge the scholarship of the study, the results have not been my experience. When it comes to a word describing the "physical" here, I haven't noticed a preference for po or kan. And I haven't seen po being used to designate "temporal concepts." It could be that my ear isn't that sensitive, or I'm not in the same social groups as the study, or that things have changed in the past 30 years. I'm happy to hear your experiences as well.

One word I didn't mention was hinei הנה which can also mean "here," but isn't interchangeable with kan and po. As this book puts it: 

It might be translated as "here," but unlike the Hebrew synonyms for "here," "kan" and "po," it cannot occur in a mere descriptive proposition. "Hine" is used only presentationally; that is, I can say "hine hameil," here is the coat, when I point to the coat (hence the translation: "Behold the coat!"), but I cannot say, "Etmol hameil haya hine" (Yesterday the coat was hine) to mean "Yesterday the coat was here"; I have to say "Etmol hameil haya po" or "Etmol hameil haya kan." Thus hine performs the speech-act of calling attention to, or presenting, not describing. 

So now I can state: hinei, the post about the Hebrew words for "here" is kan. (Or should I say po?)

Sunday, May 03, 2020


I've discussed a few times in the past that the root חרט means "to engrave", as in the word charita חריטה - "engraving, chiseling." But I didn't answer the question: is that root related to the words charata חרטה - "regret, remorse" and hitcharet התחרט - "to regret"?

This meaning isn't found in the Bible, but first appears in Rabbinic Hebrew. Jastrow makes the fanciful suggestion that "to regret, feel sorry" is to "scratch one's self."  Ben Yehuda says that the etymology of charata (and the related verb) is unknown and no cognates are found in Semitic languages.

However, Klein does provide an etymology. He has two distinct entries for חרט. After the entry for חרט - "to chisel, engrave", he has חרט as "to repent", and says that it comes from  the Arabic inḫaraṭa  - "he did ignorantly."

This would make it cognate with a common word in Israeli slang - kharta חרטה. It means "nonsense, rubbish", and I actually thought it was a rude word with scatological origins. But no, it just comes from the same Arabic root meaning "lies, nonsense." Related slang words are kharta barta חרטה ברטה - "nonsense, make-believe, baloney" and the verb khirtet חרטט - "to make up nonsense."

Going back to the original question, I expected some linguistic proof that the two forms of חרט are unrelated. This happens not infrequently with words including the Hebrew letter chet. While Hebrew has only one chet, the cognates in Arabic have two different letters - like a hard chet and a soft chet. So sometimes two words in Hebrew will seem to be homonyms, but when compared with Arabic, they will be shown to be unrelated. This was the case, for example, with the words for fat and milk - chalav and chelev. They are spelled the same in Hebrew - חלב - but are unrelated.

But both meanings of חרט have Arabic cognates, and both are spelled with the hard chet. So that can't prove they aren't related.

And in fact, while I don't have direct proof, I think that perhaps they are connected. Let's look another Hebrew root with similar meanings - פסל.

One meaning is "to hew, hew out, carve." From here we get such words as pesel פסל - "carved image, idol" and pesolet פסולת - "chips, stone dust."

The other meaning is "to disqualify, declare unfit." This meaning gives us pasul פסול - "disqualified, defective, unfit." For this sense, Klein provides this etymology:

Aram. פְּסַל (= he disqualified, declared unfit), Arab. fasala (= was ignoble, was valueless). According to several scholars פסל ᴵᴵ represents a special sense development of פסל ᴵ (as if פסל ᴵᴵ would have meant orig. ‘was cut away’, whence arose the meaning ‘was considered useless’). They refer to the sense development of פּֽסֹלֶת (= chips, stone dust), whence ‘worthless matter’. However, according to others פסל ᴵ and פסל ᴵᴵ are two different bases.

So according to the first explanation, which seems reasonable, there was a development from "carving" to "worthless matter." Could the same have happened from charita - "engraving" to kharta - "nonsense" to charata - "regret"?  Doesn't look like kharta barta to me...

Saturday, April 25, 2020


I recently wrote an essay for the journal Tradition entitled "Words of Ailing, Words of Healing" where I discussed the origins of Hebrew words relating to illness and health, in the light of the current pandemic.

One of the words I mentioned was dever דבר - "plague." After discussing the word for pandemic, magefa מגפה, I continued:

A more common Biblical word for plague is dever. This word does not appear to be related to the very common word devar meaning “word, speech.” More surprisingly, it is not cognate with the word hadbara – “extermination.” That word comes from a third Hebrew root, which meant “to follow behind” or “to push forward.” This meaning led to the word midbar – “desert,” which was a place where cattle were pushed forward to graze. In the more intense hifil form of the verb, hidbir, “pushing forward” became “subdue, overwhelm,” and from there came the meaning “to eliminate, exterminate.” (“Yadber sonenu,” we recite in the Prayer for the I.D.F., asking God to “subdue our enemies.”) 

I wrote that midbar מדבר in English is "desert". But another common translation is "wilderness." Which is correct?

Well, in some ways, this is more a question about English semantics than Hebrew. Let's look at what the two English words mean.

Today most people would say that desert is a barren land, likely arid, and probably hot and full of sand. A wilderness, on the other hand, is full of wild vegetation, but not settled by humans.

However, these were not the original meanings of the words. "Desert" was an abandoned place (think of the verb "to desert" = "to abandon".)  Only in the 20th century did desert become associated with aridity. Before that there are many examples of desert being used in places that were clearly not arid (think of "desert island", which was the original phrase, not "deserted island", despite the increase in use of the latter recently.)

Wilderness also meant something similar - an uninhabited or uncultivated place. So while there may have been differences in nuance between desert and wilderness, until relatively recently, they were pretty much synonyms.

So if both words are used to translate midbar, that shouldn't concern us too much. But that said, what was the nature of the biblical word midbar?

The answer is found in what I wrote above, that midbar originally meant "a place where cattle were pushed forward to graze." This meaning is evident in Shemot 3:1 -

וּמֹשֶׁה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת־צֹאן יִתְרוֹ חֹתְנוֹ כֹּהֵן מִדְיָן וַיִּנְהַג אֶת־הַצֹּאן אַחַר הַמִּדְבָּר וַיָּבֹא אֶל־הַר הָאֱלֹהִים חֹרֵבָה׃
Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the midbar, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 

If Moses drove his flocks there, the land was not entirely barren (but not settled). As Sarna in the JPS commentary writes, midbar is "a region of uninhabited and unirrigated pastureland." Cassuto, following Onkelos (who interprets it as "choice pasture") , goes so far as to translate the word as "grassland." This may seem strange, but verses like this one show that a midbar did not have to be arid at all:

Fear not, O beasts of the field, for the pastures in the midbar are clothed with grass. The trees have borne their fruit; fig tree and vine have yielded their strength. (Yoel 2:22) 

The Sinai midbar that sustained the Israelites for 40 years also fits the definition - it was uninhabited, but could support the nomadic tribes (with some help from above.) The focus on "uninhabited" is captured in the midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) which writes:

Anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the midbar cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah. Therefore it says, "the midbar of Sinai."

There are however, other words to describe a particularly barren land in biblical Hebrew - arava ערבה and yeshimon ישימון.  Those words are offered as synonyms for a midbar that is particularly desolate, in Devarim 32:10 and Yirmiyahu 50:12.

So a midbar can be a desert - even according to the contemporary meaning. It can also be a wilderness - although a midbar in the Middle East is not likely to look like a wilderness in other parts of the world. As often happens, there is not a perfect translation. Just one more reason to try to read the Bible (or any book) when possible in the original language... 

Sunday, April 19, 2020


One of the most popular words in Israel slang is stam סתם. It means "just kidding." How did it come to mean that?

In Biblical Hebrew, the verb satam סתם means two things: a) to literally stop up or close up (wells) and b) to hide, conceal (to close up in a metaphorical sense).

Today the first meaning still exists. A blocked pipe is satum סתום, and a rude way of telling someone to shut up is stom et hapeh סתום את הפה - literally, "close your mouth." A valve is a shastom שסתום. It is a blend of the similarly words with opposite meanings - satam (to close) and shatam שתם (to open).

The metaphorical sense developed further. Under Aramaic influence, the word stam came to mean "a vague or indefinite expression", "an anonymous opinion" or "in general." Klein writes that these senses developed from "something stopped up", "something closed", "something unknown." In Medieval Hebrew the adjective stami סתמי came to mean "vague, indefinite, uncertain." In Modern Hebrew, stami means "neutral", and has been used in attempts to replace the Yiddish pareve, but without much success.

The Aramaic form of stam, סתמא stama, also meant "anonymous opinion," but also meant the related "without qualification." A form of that word in Talmudic literature is mistama מסתמא - "of a general nature." In Yiddish this became mistome and in Modern Hebrew - min hastam מן הסתם. The more recent sense is "likely, probably, predictably" - since as this book puts it, "what is generally applicable is most probably applicable in a more specific case."

The meaning "without qualification" brings us closest to the current meaning in modern Hebrew slang. Another way to say "without qualification" is "just is, merely." It had that sense in Yiddish, and entered Israeli slang with the same connotation.

So stam could mean "nothing fancy." How was the meal? "Stam, nothing special." Or, "that was no stam vacation, it was amazing."

But it can also mean "for no particular reason." Why aren't you coming to the party? "Stam, I don't feel like it." Or, "I just stam called to say hi." And while that sense of stam sounds rather apathetic, the just kidding version has a very different tone. As Shoshana Kordova wrote here:

Let’s say your Israeli colleague wants to pull your leg. When you get into the office your coworker, ever a kidder, announces that the computer system is down and no one will be able to do any work until the tech people fix it. He watches as you get excited (“Yes! I get to play hooky without having to take a sick day!”) or upset (“Now I’ll have to stay longer to finish the project I need to get done today!”), and then breaks in to let you know it was all a joke. The word he reaches for could well be “stam,” but in this context the “a” sound is usually drawn out, sounding something like “Staaaaaaaaaahm!”

Or a different example here:
-That dress looks terrible on you.
-Stam! It looks great on you.

Even more samples of its use can be found here.

I think this is an interesting example of a word that meant "closed up" and "concealed" and ended up meaning "probably" and "for no reason at all." And the most fascinating bit of trivia? The English word stem - as in "to stem the tide" - actually derives directly from the Hebrew satam!