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...