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.