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!

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