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!


Sunday, April 12, 2020

tzedek and tzedaka

In modern Hebrew, tzedek צדק and tzedakah צדקה have very different meanings. Tzedek is "justice, which is obligatory and compels all. Tzedaka is "charity", which is praiseworthy, but voluntary. (In Jewish law, giving charity in general is obligatory, but the amount given and the intended recipient is left to the donor's discretion.)

Both words are found in biblical Hebrew. Tzedek is found 119 times in the Bible, and tzedaka appears 157 times. In the Bible, they are essentially synonyms. They both refer to righteousness and justness. Nissan Netzer, in his book on Bereshit (p. 47), points out that there are synonym pairs in Biblical Hebrew where one word ends with the letter heh and the other doesn't. He brings the examples of otzem עוצם and otzma עצמה - which both mean "force, might", and shir שיר and shira שירה - which both mean "song."

This article by the Academy of the Hebrew Language points out that there is a slight difference between the two words in biblical Hebrew. Tzedek more often refers to the concept or value of justice, whereas tzedaka is more frequently found referring to the act (or acts) of performing justice. Evidence to this difference can be found by the fact that tzedek is only found in the singular, but tzedaka can have a plural (tzedakot צדקות).

Hebrew seems to have a hard time hanging on to synonyms. These differences in nuance, through a process known as "semantic shift", led the two words to diverge fully. Starting in Rabbinic Hebrew, they ended up as "justice" and "charity to the poor" (as an expression of justice). (The same phenomenon can be found with shir and shira. Today shir still means song, but shira refers to poetry.)

From the same root we get other Hebrew words. A tzadik  צדיק is a righteous person. And it also provides the verbs tzodek צודק -  "to be correct" and matzdik מצדיק - "to justify." These words seems to have echoes in other Semitic languages, as seen in the etymology Klein provides for the root:

Aram. צְדֵק (= he was righteous), Syr. זָדֵק (= it is right; for the change of צ to ז see the introductory article to letter ז), Ugar. ṣdq (= reliability, virtue), Arab. ṣadaqa (= he spoke the truth), Ethiop. ṣadaqa (= he was just, was righteous)

The connection between "correct" and "justice" can be found in English as well, in the related words "right" (correct) and "righteous."

Monday, April 06, 2020


The Haggadah opens up with a song, to help the participants remember, via rhyme, the various actions they need to perform throughout the seder. The last section, however, is not an instruction per se - but more of a description of this final stage. This is the Nirtza נרצה section, which is followed by various songs after the seder is completed.

What does nirtza mean? I've seen it translated as "(all is) accepted" or "acceptance." The source appears to be this verse in Kohelet, which in a number of older haggadot opens the Nirtza section:

כִּי כְבָר רָצָה הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת־מַעֲשֶׂיךָ׃...
...  for your action was long ago approved by God. (Kohelet 9:7)
And so Nirtza is a time where after all of the Pesach service is completed, we can enjoy the fact that God approved our actions.

This understanding reflects the fact that in Biblical Hebrew, the verb ratzah רצה meant "to be pleased with, to be favorable to."  That is the most common meaning. There are also verses where it means "to like" or "to appease." Similarly, the derivative noun ratzon רצון means "goodwill, favor."

However, Fox, in his JPS Commentary on Kohelet writes that this is not the best translation for that verse. He says the phrase should be instead translated as "for your action was long ago desired by God." This sense of ratzah is the one commonly used today - "to want." This sense is very common in Rabbinic Hebrew, but is rarely found in Biblical Hebrew. If Fox is correct, this is probably due to Kohelet frequently using Hebrew that reflects later usage. 

Despite ratzah meaning "to want" being one of the first words learned in Hebrew (either by young children or new speakers), strangely neither Ben Yehuda nor Klein mention it in their dictionaries, rather providing only the biblical meanings.

Ratzon also changed meanings. While as we said, in Biblical Hebrew it meant "favor", in later Rabbinic writings it came to mean "will" (this is also likely the meaning in later books of the Bible, such as Esther 9:5)  In the Medieval period, much ink was spilled by rabbis who debated the nature of God's will. The rationalists, like Maimonides, much preferred to speak of God's will than His favor.

Inspired by ratzon meaning "will" (as in persistence), Eliezer Ben Yehuda took the Arabic word razin ("grave, serious") and coined the word retzini - רציני - "serious."

The sense of ratzah meaning "to be pleased" still has footing in Modern Hebrew. The related word merutzeh מרוצה means "satisfied." 

The Hebrew words for "lecture" - הרצאה hartza'ah and "lecturer" - מרצה martzeh also share the root רצה, and are related to the words we discussed above. Klein says that secondary meaning of the root meant originally "to count, enumerate, pay off" and later "to recount, narrate, deliver a lecture." He provides this etymology:

For the sense development of הִרְצָה cp. סָפַר (= he counted), סִפֵּר (= he recounted, told, narrated); Arab. manā, manā(y) (= he counted), mānā(y) (= he paid); Gk. arithmein (= to count; to pay); Eng. to tell, which means both ‘to count’ and ‘to recount’, Eng. re-count and recount; Fren. compter (= to count), and conter (= to tell, recount, narrate), which both derive from L. computāre (= to count), and It. contare, Sp. contar, which are of the same origin, and mean both ‘to count’, and ‘to tell, relate’. JAram. אַרֽצִי (= he counted, enumerated). According to several lexicographers רצה ᴵᴵ properly represents a special sense development of רצה ᴵ and orig. meant ‘to satisfy the creditor’. 

 So now perhaps this can give us another feeling when we arrive at Nirtza. We've counted (so many plagues!) and recounted the story of the Exodus. The "creditor" is indeed satisfied!