Sunday, December 27, 2020


The Hebrew root pakad פקד has many meanings. Some of them seem to be opposites. For example, a mifkad מפקד is a census, where those present are counted. But someone absent is nifkad נפקד (like an AWOL soldier.) What's the story with this root?

Edward Horowitz, in his book How the Hebrew Language Grew, addresses this question (page 56):

Anyone who has studied the Bible in Hebrew or who has even only a fair familiarity with it will remember coming across the word pakad very often. It actually occurs several hundreds of times and in many seemingly unrelated senses. It would be worthwhile to tie them all together.

The root pakad has the large general senses of "to give one's attention to." From this large general meaning there have developed many specialized senses. These simply specify in detail various ways of giving one's attention.

Thus pakad means:

  1. to attend to
  2. to observe
  3. to remember
  4. to seek, and sometimes to seek in vain, i.e. to need, to miss
  5. to visit, and sometimes to visit in an evil sense, i.e. to punish, usually divine punishment
  6. to number
  7. to put someone in charge, to appoint
The nifal [nifkad] picks up three of these senses, and means: 1) was appointed, 2) was visited upon, 3) was sought vainly, i.e. missed. The hifil [hifkid] has the meaning to appoint, and to to entrust or deposit. The hitpael [hitpaked] means "was numbered."

There are a number of nouns that come from this formidable list:

  • pekuda פקודה - visitation, numbering
  • pakid פקיד - overseer, officer
  • pikud פיקוד - a precept, because it means something appointed to be done, a charge
  • pikadon פקדון - something entrusted, a deposit
  • mifkad מפקד - numbering or mustering, appointment
  • tafkid תפקיד - function
A modern language cannot possibly use just one single word in these many important different senses and yet remain sharp, clear and exact. It just because of this very rich development that pakad [in the kal form] is today a beggar word; hardly anyone uses it in ordinary conversation. This word reveals the truth of the rabbinic dictum "If you grasp too much, you grasp nothing."

The hifil though, is frequently used in the sense of "to entrust." Pekuda - command, pakid - officer, and pikadon - a deposit - are also in active use.

Horowitz's book was published in 1960, so some of the meanings of the words he mentioned have changed in more recent Hebrew. For example, pakid now usually means "clerk," pikud means "command" in the military sense (like the Home Front Command - Pikud HaOref  פיקוד העורף), and tafkid usually means "role, position, task." Another military term is mifaked מפקד - "commander."

While providing many of the same meanings, Klein suggests a different etymology. He says the original meaning was probably "to miss." In English the verb "to miss" can mean both "to fail to hit" and "to long for someone." The first sense is reflected in nifkad - "not present," but that same soldier is also being looked for, perhaps longed for, and that provides many of the other meanings, where pakad means "to attend to, to visit, to observe." From there the other meanings of "to appoint," "to number," and "to command" developed.

Sunday, December 20, 2020


A number of years ago, I discussed the root סכן and the relate words misken, sakana and sochen. One of the words I mentioned was מסוכן mesukan:

The familiar word sakana סכנה - "danger" does not appear in the Tanach (it appears frequently in Rabbinic Hebrew). But it does appear as a nifal verb once in Kohelet 10:9  יסכן - "will be harmed". In Rabbinic Hebrew we find the piel form, meaning "to expose to danger". Derivatives include sikun סיכון - "risk" and misukan מסוכן - which in the Talmud meant "in danger" but by Medieval Hebrew meant "dangerous".

Recently, I realized that I never actually explained why the meaning of mesukan would change from "endangered" to "dangerous." 

Not knowing the answer, I looked in my books and my online sources, and couldn't find any real discussion of the topic. So I did something I haven't done for a while - I wrote to the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Anyone can submit a question here (in Hebrew), and they're very generous with their time and provide comprehensive answers.

A few days later, I got an answer, which I will summarize here.

The word mesukan appears in the "passive" form in Talmudic literature. For example we find a בהמה מסוכנת behema mesukenet - a sick animal, in danger of dying, in the mishna (Beitza 3:3). In the Tosefta ( Toharot 6:7) there is mention of a sick person, referred to as mesukan. In this  literature, only people or animals are called mesukan.

Around the beginning of the 12th century, the meaning of mesukan expanded, and began to refer to things that can affect people, and as such took on the meaning of "dangerous." Rashi (Avoda Zara 28a) describes an injury as being mesukan, and Ibn Ezra (on Devarim 21:8) talks about roads that are mesukan

However, this new meaning was not used to refer to people or animals. When applied to them, mesukan still meant "endangered."

At the end of the 18th century, the meaning of mesukan expanded further. It began to be applied to animals, and then eventually to people as well. In modern usage, the sense of "endangered" has almost completely disappeared, and only "dangerous" remains.

This change in meaning can be seen in how it appears in dictionaries. In the Ben Yehuda dictionary (1928-1929), mesukan has both definitions, with "endangered" coming before "dangerous." In later dictionaries, such as Even Shoshan (1951), the order is reversed, reflecting the change in usage.

What was the reason for this semantic shift?

Two suggestions were offered.

One is a natural, internal development in the language, where passive verbs take on an active meaning. Examples given were the word זכור in Tehilim 103:14 (he "remembers" in the active sense), נשוי in Bava Batra 79a (a tree actively bearing fruit), and also the phrase mekubal ani מקובל אני - "I have accepted."

While these occurrences happened earlier, perhaps the change in mesukan followed the same process.

The second suggestion was influence from Arabic, where the similar word makufun can mean both "frightened" and "scary."

So perhaps one, or both, of those two pushed the word mesukan into the modern meaning of "dangerous."

Sunday, December 06, 2020

gambit and ganav

Here's one I wouldn't have ever thought of. 

"Gambit" is a ploy or strategy, used to gain an advantage.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says the origin is in Latin:

"chess opening in which a pawn or piece is risked for advantage later," 1650s, gambett, from Italian gambetto, literally "a tripping up" (as a trick in wrestling), from gamba "leg," from Late Latin gamba (see gambol (n.)). Applied to chess openings in Spanish in 1561 by Ruy Lopez, who traced it to the Italian word, but the form in Spanish generally was gambito, which led to French gambit, which has influenced the English spelling of the word. Broader sense of "opening move meant to gain advantage" in English is recorded from 1855.

However, others suggest a Semitic origin. For example, Klein writes:

French, from Spanish gambito, from Arabic janbi, 'lateral', from janb, 'side' (whence janaba, 'he put aside'), which is relate to Aramaic-Syriac gabh, gabba, 'side', Hebrew ganabh, Aram.-Syr. genabh, 'he stole', literally 'he put aside', Heb. gannabh, 'thief'.

While Klein doesn't mention it here, Kaddari does say that ganav גנב can also mean "to put aside, remove." In fact, he lists this meaning as the first entry in his dictionary, indicating that this is the original meaning, as found in this verse:

יִהְיוּ כְּתֶבֶן לִפְנֵי־רוּחַ וּכְמֹץ גְּנָבַתּוּ סוּפָה׃

Let them become like straw in the wind, like chaff carried off [genavto] by a storm. (Iyov 21:18)

This book goes one step further, and says that the Hebrew word for "back" - גב gav also derives from the same root, because the back is "still a half of the body."  Klein, however, says that gav comes from a different root - גבב, meaning "something curved."


Monday, November 30, 2020

gala and chol

The English word "gala" today means "festival, celebration." But it originally meant "festive dress." Klein suggests an Arabic origin, as mentioned here:

Klein suggests the French word is from Italian gala (as in phrase vestito di gala "robe of state"), perhaps from Arabic khil'a "fine garment given as a presentation."

This garment, khila, was known as a "robe of honor," like those given to Yosef by Pharaoh (Bereshit 41:42) and to Mordechai by Achashverosh (Ester 6:10). 

The word khi'la, in turn, derives from the Arabic khala'a - "to divest [oneself of one's robe]." (It also might mean to put on the robe, and so would be an example of a contronym, a word that also means its opposite, as we discussed here.) Could this verb - "to remove, to take off, to depose" - have a cognate in Hebrew?

Very possibly. The connection may be found through a cognate: halal - "permitted" meat according to Islamic law. Just as in Hebrew, the word for permitted, mutar מותר, literally means "untied, loose," so too does the Arabic halal. (This is the opposite of haram - "prohibited, sacred," as we showed when discussing the Hebrew cognate cherem.)

Halal is allowed for use, and so could be defined as "profane" (i.e. not religiously forbidden.) In this way it is cognate with the Hebrew root חלל chalal, and the noun chol חול - both meaning "profane" (and today "secular.") Klein provides the following etymology for that root:

Aram. חֲלַל, Syr. אַחֵל (= he profaned), Arab. ḥalla (= he united, undid), ḥall (= the profane, allowed for use).

I think that there is a likely typo in Klein here, and halla should be defined as "he untied", not "he united."

Stahl provides a similar development, saying both the Hebrew and Arabic roots mean "released" - which applies to robes of honor, meat from ritual prohibition, and all things from their sacred status. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

metal and metzolah

When I was a kid, I realized that while I clearly knew what "metal" was, it was difficult to define. 

Metal is hard? Well, so is wood. Shiny? So is glass. Hard and shiny? Well, diamonds aren't metal. Can be bent? Well, I can't bend a penny, but I can bend plastic. Metals can have different colors (gold, silver, etc.), so that can't be it. But if you put two forks in front of me, one metal and one from another material, I could easily tell them apart.

I later learned that there are scientific definitions that identify what a metal is. Certain physical characteristics weren't evident to me at that age - like how well they conduct electricity or the high melting point. And at the most basic level, metals are certain elements in the periodic table, specifically those that lose electrons easily and can therefore form metallic bonds. 

Even reading about the meaning of metal in chemistry and physics today, I'm not sure how much I really understand. But my early exploration into the meaning of the word then has taught me a lesson that I certainly do carry with me now - the significance of semantics. While sometimes semantics is used to indicate pettiness, it's actually rather important. It's the branch of linguistics concerned with "meaning." In some ways, it's as much associated with philosophy as the study of language. We tend to think that words equal their meaning. And this can actually lead to intense debates, when one person thinks a word means one thing, and someone else thinks it means another. (Consider the debate about whether a hot dog is a sandwich.)

But not only are words generally not that precise, in many cases, they can't be. This is demonstrated by the paradox of the heap, in which it's not possible to define how many grains of sand are in a heap (does one less make it no longer a heap?)

So while many people find themselves arguing over the meaning or usage of a word, I don't find myself pulled into those debates - even though, as an amateur linguist, I'm frequently asked to adjudicate them. I certainly fall into the "descriptivist" camp, as I'm sure many readers of this site can tell. Words constantly change meaning, and so I'd much rather view the way words interact like an observer of a National Geographic nature video than someone concerned about the way things are "supposed to be."

And maybe that understanding started back when I thought about "metal," and how our understanding of that material was based much more on our perceptions than any precise definition. 

Now while that might make a nice introduction into the psychology of my linguistic approach, it's not really a Balashon post. So I was rather surprised, when I took a more recent look into the meaning of "metal", that it may have a Hebrew origin!

The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following entry:

an undecomposable elementary substance having certain recognizable qualities (opacity, conductivity, plasticity, high specific gravity, etc.), mid-13c., from Old French metal "metal; material, substance, stuff" (12c.), from Latin metallum "metal, mineral; mine, quarry," from Greek metallon "metal, ore" (senses found only in post-classical texts, via the notion of "what is got by mining"); originally "mine, quarry-pit," probably a back-formation from metalleuein "to mine, to quarry," a word of unknown origin. 

Klein (in his CEDEL) picks up the "unknown origin" and gives his explanation:

It [metallon (= mine, quarry)] is perhaps a loan word from Hebrew metzolah מצולה, "depth"... Hebrew metzolah is related to tzula צולה, "ocean deep," and to Hebrew tzalal צלל, "he sank." 

The root tzalal - "to sink, plunge; to settle" also took on the sense of "to clear, clarify." (I assume from the sediment sinking to the bottom of the liquid.) That gives us the word tzalul - "clear, lucid."

It's nice to think that I can associate the Hebrew word for clarity with the English word metal, considering its meaning was anything but clear to me when I was young...

Sunday, November 15, 2020

bareket and emerald

On the breastplate of the High Priest, were affixed twelve gemstones (Shemot 28:17-20). There is almost no mention of most of them anywhere else in the Bible, aside from the parallel passage in Shemot 39:10-13. (A portion are mentioned in Yechezkel 28:13).

Because of the infrequent occurrences in the Tanach, along with the gap between current scientific precision and biblical nomenclature, it is difficult to identify with certainty the gems that appear in these verses. That said, let's take a look at one of them, the third stone - the bareket ברקת (mentioned in Shemot 28:17).

I have found many different translations for this stone, including:

agate, beryl, carbuncle, citrine, emerald, hyacinth, malachite, peridot, pyrite, rock-crystal, smaragd, topaz

And then some take either the easy way out or the more precise method (depending on your point of view), and translate it as "bareketh."

The etymology of bareket isn't much help. It likely derives from the word barak ברק - "lightning", and so means "flashing" or "sparkling" stone.  Since gems are almost by definition shiny, all of the stones mentioned above could fit that description.

The attempts to identify the bareket with a gemstone that we know today is based on seeing its translation in ancient translations, as well as explanations offered by midrashim and later commentaries. I won't go into all of the analysis here (to see a good summary of traditional Jewish sources, see the Living Torah commentary on the verse here).

I'd like to take a look at how the word bareket ended up in European languages, and perhaps that will help us identify the stone. 

Now, this is different from some words that entered European languages because they were borrowed as part of the Bible itself entering Europe (as I recently wrote about the words myrrh, aloe and cassia on the 929 site.) Rather, the name of the stone itself migrated into other languages.

From Hebrew (or some other cognate Semitic language, like the Akkadian barraqtu), bareket entered into Greek as smaragdos, which Latin borrowed as smaragdus, eventually becoming esmaraldus in Medieval Latin, esmeraude in French, and then "emerald" in English.  

This might seem like a strange journey, particularly from bareket  to smaragdos. But as this Philologos column explains (along with many other interesting linguistic details about the words we've discussed here and more) it's reasonable when you look at how certain letters are exchanged in phonetic shifts.

Philologos actually promotes a different theory than what I've presented here. He says that the Hebrew baraket may have its origin in a Sanskrit word - marakata:

Bareket strikes one at first glance as being an original Hebrew word that derives, quite appropriately for a gemstone, from the verb barak, to shine or sparkle. In Akkadian, the Semitic language of ancient Babylonia, we have the cognate noun barraktu, also meaning an emerald, and a similar verb. Perhaps indeed it was the influence of this verb that helped change an initial “m” into a “b” (a common shift in language, “m” being in essence a nasalized “b”), because scholars have known for a long time that the Akkadian word was borrowed from the Sanskrit marakata, an “emerald” or gem of green corundum. To this day, the marakata is one of the seven sacred stones of Hinduism, associated with the planet Mercury and the day Tuesday, on which it is traditionally worn.

Marakata is not only the ultimate source of Hebrew bareket. It is also that of Greek smaragdos, with which, except for the Greek’s initial “s,” it shares the same root consonants. (“Like “m” and “b,” “k” and hard “g,” and “t” and “d,” are similar sounds that frequently replace each other in speech.) 

Most of the sources I looked at, including Klein and the Online Etymology Dictionary say the Sanskrit word was borrowed from a Semitic source. (For further discussion see this page). Whichever direction the word ultimately traveled (the Ben Yehuda dictionary mentions both theories, although sides with a Semitic origin), the b/m, k/g and t/d replacements still work here. As far as the prosthetic "s" at the beginning of smaragdos - I'm not sure. But since all explanations have Greek borrowing from a foreign language, for some reason the Greeks found a reason to add the "s".

So we do seem to have a linguistic connection drawn between bareket and "emerald." I don't think that's proof that the emerald as we define it today was on the High Priest's breastplate, but it's certainly possible that the ancient Greek smaragdos was similar to the stone mentioned in the Torah.

Monday, November 09, 2020

kabarnit and cyber

 A phrase often used in eulogies (too frequently heard these days) is taken from this passage Bava Batra 91a-b:

And Rav Ḥanan bar Rava says that Rav says: On that day when our forefather Abraham left the world, the leaders of the nations of the world stood in a line, in the manner of mourners, and said: "Woe to the world that has lost its leader, and woe to the ship that has lost its captain."

ואמר רב חנן בר רבא אמר רב אותו היום שנפטר אברהם אבינו מן העולם עמדו כל גדולי אומות העולם בשורה ואמרו אוי לו לעולם שאבד מנהיגו ואוי לה לספינה שאבד קברינטא

The word translated here as "captain" is קברניט kabarnit. It's a post-biblical word, parallel to the biblical rav chovel  רב חובל - "chief sailor" (as found in Yonah 1:6). Kabarnit is borrowed from the Greek kybernetes (steersman), which derives from the verb kybernan (to steer, guide, govern).

From Greek, this same root entered Latin, where it eventually gave us the word "govern":

late 13c., "to rule with authority," from Old French governer "steer, be at the helm of; govern, rule, command, direct" (11c., Modern French gouverner), from Latin gubernare "to direct, rule, guide, govern" (source also of Spanish gobernar, Italian governare), originally "to steer, to pilot," a nautical borrowing from Greek kybernan "to steer or pilot a ship, direct as a pilot," figuratively "to guide, govern"

A much more recent use of the Greek root was by the Jewish American mathematician, Norbert Wiener. He used it to coin the term "cybernetics":

"theory or study of communication and control," coined 1948 by U.S. mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), with -ics + Latinized form of Greek kybernetes "steersman" (metaphorically "guide, governor"), from kybernan "to steer or pilot a ship, direct as a pilot"

In the 1990s, when use of the internet began spreading rapidly, the first half of cybernetics was taken as a prefix: "cyber." At the time, it was used it was used to describe anything internet related, and the internet as a whole was known as "cyberspace." 

The broad use has declined since then, and today it is primarily used in the term "cybersecurity". In fact, in Israel, the use of just "cyber" סייבר alone refers to the field of internet and data security.


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

khnun and chanan

What is the origin of the Hebrew word for "nerd" - חנון khnun

At first glance, it might seem that chnun is related to the Hebrew word for a gifted student - מחונן mechonan. That word derives from the root chanan חנן. Chanan in turn, derives from chen חן - "grace." Chanan can mean to act graciously or mercifully, as in the verse: 

  וְחַנֹּתִי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר אָחֹן וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם׃

"...I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy." (Shemot 33:19)

That meaning gives us such words as chanun חנון - "merciful, gracious" (as in the above verse); chanina חנינה - "favor" in Biblical Hebrew (Yirmiyahu 16:13) and "amnesty" in modern Hebrew; and the words techina תחינה and tachanun תחנון, both meaning "supplication for favor."

By extension, chanan can also mean "to grant" in general (in a gracious sense). This is how it used in Bereshit 33:5 -

הַיְלָדִים אֲשֶׁר־חָנַן אֱלֹהִים אֶת־עַבְדֶּךָ

"...they are the children who God kindly granted your servant"

It is also found in the fourth blessing of the weekday Amidah prayer:

אַתָּה חוֹנֵן לְאָדָם דַּעַת 

"You grant man knowledge"

From here we get the word chinam חינם - "gratuitously, for nothing, free", since something chinam was given for nothing. And it is also where the word mechonan - "gifted" comes from, since someone "gifted" was "granted" or "endowed" with a talent or knowledge.

But this is actually not the origin of khnun. Rather, it derives from a slang term, borrowed from Moroccan Arabic, sometimes spelled xnuna (or hnuna), meaning "nasal mucus" (snot). A snot-nosed kid was considered, as in English, a brat, or weak and teased for his condition, and from there it came to mean "nerd" as well. Perhaps that later meaning was influenced from an association with mechonan, but it wasn't the original derivation.

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...