Tuesday, October 19, 2021

marpek and rafiki

The Hebrew word for "elbow" - מרפק marpek is not of biblical origin. It first appears in Rabbinic Hebrew, for example in Mishna Shabbat 10:3. However, the word does derive from a root, רפק, that has one appearance in the Tanakh. Here is Klein's entry for marpek:

From רפק (= to support). cp. Aram. מַרְפְּקָא, Arab. marfiq (= elbow).

And here is what he writes about רפק:

רפק to support, lean.
    — Pi. - רִפֵּק MH 1 he supported, upheld; NH 2 he elbowed.
    — Pu. - רֻפַּק was supported, was upheld.
    — Hith. - הִתְרַפֵּק he leant against, clung to (a hapax legomenon in the Bible, occurring Cant. 8:5). [Arab. rafaqa (= he helped, supported), Ethiop. rafaqa (= he reclined at the table, leaned upon). Base of מַרְפֵּק (= elbow).] 

Let's take a look first at the last form of the verb, התרפק hitrapek, since it is the one that appears in the Bible:

מִי זֹאת עֹלָה מִן־הַמִּדְבָּר מִתְרַפֶּקֶת עַל־דּוֹדָהּ...

"Who is she that comes up from the desert, leaning [mitrapeket] upon her beloved?..." (Shir HaShirim 8:5)

This modern translation (New JPS) relies upon the same scholarship that Klein had, and therefore renders mitrapeket as "leaning." The medieval commentaries, such as Rashi and Ibn Ezra quote the Arabic cognate, but give that as proof that it means "to attach." In light of this Artscroll renders the verse "clinging to her Beloved" and the new Koren Tanakh has "entwined with her beloved." I'm not sure where this interpretation of the Arabic came from - perhaps they knew that rafik in Arabic meant friend, which is chaver חבר in Hebrew, and that recalled the root חבר meaning "to attach."

Jastrow writes that in Talmudic Hebrew the hitpael form of the verb meant "to endear one's self." He quotes Bereshit Rabba 45:4, where we find mention of women who were מִתְרַפְּקוֹת עַל בַּעֲלֵיהֶן בְּנוֹיָן - "endearing themselves [mitrapkot] to their husbands through their beauty." 

In more recent times, the verb has taken on another set of meanings: "to hug, to cling to; to remember fondly." The first - "to hug" - is perhaps influenced by the approach of the  medieval commentators. The latter - "to remember fondly" - I assume was a more creative interpretation of the verse in Shir HaShirim.

Klein also mentions a piel form - ריפק ripek. I've never heard it used today to mean "to support" or "to uphold," but the use "to elbow" does exist, but it's more commonly found today as ממרפק mimarpek. As Avshalom Kor points out here, that's one of the few uses of the root that doesn't have a positive connotation - instead of support, clinging and fond remembrance, to elbow is to rudely push your way into a place.

Returning to the Arabic cognate, we find that rafik provided the name Rafiq, meaning "friend" or "companion." From Arabic, the same word was borrowed into Swahili, where it became rafiki. That name may be familiar from the Disney movie, The Lion King, where it was the name of the mandrill who through magical and spiritual efforts, helped the protagonists. He was their "friend", and as it happened, was always leaning on a walking stick, while bending his elbow.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

cedar, citron and ketoret

If you haven't noticed, my recent posts have frequently referred to Klein's Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (CEDEL). I purchased the two volume set a few years ago, but recently decided that if I want to find the cases where he provides Semitic origins to English words, I'd have to just start reading it from the beginning. And that's what I've been doing for the past few weeks. It will probably take me several months to complete the project.

I can't say that every entry with a connection to Hebrew is entirely convincing, but I can say that Klein does seem to be doing his best with the tools he had, and often provides sources, which makes follow up research much easier.

One interesting aspect of this project has been noticing when the Online Etymology Dictionary (Etymonline), a very popular internet etymology resource (which I quote often), relies on the CEDEL for an etymology, but won't go the final mile and mention the Hebrew cognate that Klein suggests. 

An example of this can be found in the entry for "cedar" and related words. Etymonline has the following entry for cedar:

"type of coniferous tree noted for its slow growth and hard timber," late Old English ceder, blended in Middle English with Old French cedre, both from Latin cedrus, from Greek kedros "cedar, juniper," a word of uncertain origin.

After mentioning the Middle English, Old English, French, Latin and Greek origins (as also done by Etymonline), Klein continues:

which probably denoted originally 'a tree whose wood was used for burning sacrifices,' and derives from Hebrew qatar, 'it exhaled odor, smoked'; see Heinrich Lewy, Die semitischen Fremdwörter im Griechischen, Berlin, 1895, p. 35. 

We discussed qatar in a post about the etymology of "nectar", and its relationship to ketoret. But I wasn't familiar at the time with the possible connection to "cedar," so I didn't mention it then.

At the end of that entry, Klein recommends also looking at his entry for "citron" (the English name for the etrog tree and fruit.) He connects "citron" to "cedar", and then mentions that "citrus" comes from "citron" as well. Here Etymonline does make direct mention of Klein. Here's their entry for citrus:

any tree of the genus Citrus, or its fruit, 1825, from the Modern Latin genus name, from Latin citrus "citron tree," the name of an African tree with aromatic wood and lemon-like fruit, the first citrus fruit to become available in the West. The name, like the tree, is probably of Asiatic origin [OED] or from a lost non-IE Mediterranean language [de Vaan]. But Klein and others trace it to Greek kedros "cedar," perhaps via Etruscan (a suggested by the change of -dr- to -tr-).

And their entry for citron is connected:

"large, thick-rinded, lemon-like citrus fruit," late 14c., also citrine (early 15c.), from Old French citron "citron, lemon" (14c.), possibly from Old Provençal citron, from Latin citrus "citron-tree," and influenced by lemon; or else from augmentative of Latin citreum (mālum) "citron (apple);" see citrus.

To be clear, I don't object to Etymonline disagreeing with Klein's conclusions. I just think it would be easier for future investigations if they were quoted more inclusively.

One remaining question is what is the connection between the cedar and citron trees? In Italian the same word - cedro -  is used for both, so certainly some association is possible. This book quotes Galen (the Greek physician living in the Roman empire) who provided a few possible theories:

because the green unripe citron resembles the unripe cedar-cone; or because cedar and citron trees have spines around the leaves [...] or more fancifully because the the fruit and leaves had the smell of cedar...

(Regarding the first theory, there are those who claim that when the Bible refers to pri etz hadar פרי עץ הדר, it did not mean the etrog / citron, but rather the cedar cone. Others reject this, because the cedar tree has a common name in the Bible, erez ארז and no connection is made between erez and hadar in any biblical text.)

While all of Galen's theories may be a possible connections between cedar and citron, if we rely upon Klein's etymology for cedar, which goes back to the odor from the tree, then perhaps the citron tree was similarly named for its strong aroma. While the cedar may have got its name from the odor when the wood was burned, certainly anyone who has smelled a citron can attest to its powerful scent as well.  

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

amazon, amitz and imutz

For the past few decades, Amazon has been one of the most recognized brand names worldwide. The founder chose the name because of the exotic nature and great size of the Amazon river. The river got its name from the women fighters of the native tribe who attacked the Spanish explorers, who reminded them of the Greek myth of the Amazons - a group of female warriors.

And where did the Greeks get the name Amazon? The Online Etymology Dictionary has this entry:

late 14c., via Old French (13c.) or Latin, from Greek Amazon (mostly in plural Amazones) "one of a race of female warriors in Scythia," probably from an unknown non-Indo-European word, or possibly from an Iranian compound *ha-maz-an- "(one) fighting together" [Watkins], but in folk etymology long derived from a- "without" + mazos, variant of mastos "breast;" hence the story that the Amazons cut or burned off one breast so they could draw bowstrings more efficiently. 

What was the non-Indo-European word? There are many theories, but I'd like to focus on Klein's suggestion in his CEDEL:

from Greek Amazon, which probably derives from Hebrew ammitz, 'strong'

Amitz אמיץ, derives from the root אמץ, meaning "to be strong." A synonym of the more popular chazak חזק (the verb חזק appears 290 times in the Bible, while אמץ only appears 41 times), it is the source of several words relating to strength:

  • ometz אומץ - "bravery"
  • ma'amatz מאמץ - "effort"
  • hitametz התאמץ - "went to great lengths, endeavored"
But one meaning of the root does not seem to fit with the others: imetz אימץ - "adopted" and imutz אימוץ - "adoption." How did those uses come from a root meaning "be strong"?

Klein lists the meaning "was adopted (said of a child)" but does not explain the development. After going through meanings related to strength, Ben Yehuda adds:

"Some writers would say that someone imetz (adopted) to him a son or daughter." However, he does not indicate when this usage began, or give any examples of its usage.

There is one biblical verse, however, that some point to as an example of אמץ meaning "to adopt." This is Tehillim 80:16 

וְכַנָּה אֲשֶׁר־נָטְעָה יְמִינֶךָ וְעַל־בֵּן אִמַּצְתָּה לָּךְ׃

This is a difficult verse to understand, and there are many translations. The JPS, for example translates this verse (and the preceding one, which I've added for context as):

 "O God of hosts, turn again,
look down from heaven and see;
take note of that vine, the stock planted by Your right hand,
the stem [ben] you have taken [imatzta] as Your own." 

A footnote to their translation, on the word "stem," notes: "literarly 'son.'" So according to this translation, the literal meaning of the phrase would be "the son you have taken as Your own," which could imply something like adoption.

Robert Alter, in his translation, goes for that literal meaning, translating it as "the son You took to Yourself", and adds this note:

If the received text shows an authentic reading here, there is a slightly disconcerting shift from the vehicle of the metaphor (the vine) to its tenor (the people of Israel as God’s son). Some interpreters have understood ben as a poetic term for “branch” or as a scribal error for some other word that means “branch,” but the verb attached to it - ʾimatsta, which suggests adoption of a child—is appropriate for a son, not a plant.

It seems to me that Alter is perhaps putting the cart before the horse. Both verses 15 and 16 are clearly using imagery of plants. If there were other verses where imetz meant "to adopt", then they could be used to justify that translation here. But I haven't found any, and I suspect Alter is influenced by modern usage.

In fact, Ben Yehuda does quote this verse, in his entry for אמץ, under the meaning "to plant." He adds another verse, Yeshaya 44:14 -

לִכְרׇת־לוֹ אֲרָזִים וַיִּקַּח תִּרְזָה וְאַלּוֹן וַיְאַמֶּץ־לוֹ בַּעֲצֵי־יָעַר נָטַע אֹרֶן וְגֶשֶׁם יְגַדֵּל׃

By including it under the subentry, Ben Yehuda is implying that it means "to plant" here as well. What is the connection between "planting" and "strength"? That can be found in a number of translations to these two verses. For example the (old) Koren Jerusalem Bible translates the verse from Yeshaya as:

He hews him down cedars, and takes the pine and the oak, which he strengthens for himself [vay'ametz] among the trees of the forest: he plants a forest tree and the rain nourishes it. 

Part of the planting process, or a result of is, the strengthening of the tree. The new Koren Tanakh, in their translation of the Tehillim verse, uses similar language: "this shoot You nurtured as Your own." Kaddari, quoting these verses (and Tehillim 80:18) says it means גידלת, which can mean "to raise" or "to grow" (which also could imply adoption.)

Others, however, stick to a meaning related to "taking." The JPS translates the Yeshaya phrase as "He sets aside trees of the forest" and Alter suggests "he picks from the trees of the forest." How is choosing or taking related to strength? The BDB offers the meaning "assure, secure for oneself." Secure implies both strength and possession. 

Ultimately, the meaning of the verb אמץ is unclear in these verses (and the Daat Mikra, for example on Yeshaya 44:14, offers both "to strengthen" and "to set aside.") But one thing is clear - these verses weren't followed up with uses of אמץ to mean the adoption of a child in the remainder of Biblical literature, or any of Talmudic literature. In fact, a search of the Historical Dictionary Project of the Academy of the Hebrew Language shows the first clear example of that usage in an 1873 essay (page 143 and page 144) by the writer Peretz Smolenskin. And even following that, it wasn't a very popular usage. For example, see the results of this Google Books Ngram Viewer search. I looked for the word אימוץ, which as a gerund wouldn't be used for much else other than adoption. It only really picks up in the 1950s, growing to a much higher usage in the last twenty years.

So what happened here? I think this is an example of a phenomenon we've discussed many times before on Balashon. I don't know the technical name of the linguistic phenomenon (but I have a feeling a reader will enlighten me in the comments), but what happens frequently in Hebrew when there are two synonyms is that one will become the popular one for common usage and the other will take on a different meaning. This new meaning will generally fill in a semantic gap, becoming the word for a concept previously without a good word as a fit. (This is part of the process called semantic change, but I don't think it's exactly semantic narrowing, since the new meaning isn't necessarily less general than the earlier meaning - just different.) We saw it with etz and ilan, with atar and makom, with tzedek and tzedaka, and now with chizek and imetz. Hebrew today doesn't really need two words for "strengthen." So when a writer like Smolenskin borrows from a verse in Tehillim and turns imetz into adopt (a child), then the speakers will, well, adopt the usage with open arms. (Yes, the meaning of imetz has since expanded to mean adopting of any practice or idea.)

Perhaps the lesson here is just as Amazon the company takes over marketplaces, and the waters of the Amazon river flow through the land of South America, so too will words like imutz fill in the linguistic gaps if only given a chance.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

meged, almond and armageddon

We've previously discussed the Hebrew word שקד shaked, meaning "almond." But what about the etymology of the word "almond" itself?

The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following origin:

kernel of the fruit of the almond tree, c. 1300, from Old French almande, amande, earlier alemondle "almond," from Vulgar Latin *amendla, *amandula, from Latin amygdala (plural), from Greek amygdalos "an almond tree," a word of unknown origin, perhaps from Semitic. Late Old English had amygdales "almonds." 

This makes it cognate with the part of the brain responsible for emotions known as the amygdala. Here's the Online Etymology entry for amygdala:

part of the brain, from Latin amygdalum "almond" (which the brain parts resemble), from Greek amygdale "almond" (see almond). English also had amygdales "the tonsils" (early 15c.), from a secondary sense of the Latin word in Medieval Latin, a translation of Arabic al-lauzatani "the two tonsils," literally "the two almonds," so called by Arabic physicians for fancied resemblance.

The connection between almonds and tonsils exists in Hebrew as well - shaked can refer to both.

However, I'd like to return to the mention above that the Greek amygdalos may be "perhaps from Semitic." In Klein's CEDEL, he expands on this idea. In his entry for "almond" he writes:

…according to H. Lewy, Die semitischen Fremdwörter im Griechischen, pp. 25-26, [amygdalos] is borrowed from Hebrew meghedh El, 'divine fruit'.

The Hebrew word referred to here, meged מגד, is not a very common one in the Bible, only appearing eight times. However, those familiar with the Torah reading for Simchat Torah will certainly recognize it, as it repeats five times during Moshe's blessing of the tribes of Yosef (Devarim 33:13-16) . The word is variously translated as "sweetness," "best", or "bounty." Some say it means "blessing", particularly when comparing the parallel blessing Yaakov gave Yosef in Bereshit 49:25

Klein's etymology for meged is not much more precise:

מֶֽגֶד m.n. choice of things, excellence. [Related to Aram. מִגְדָּא (= fruit, something precious), Syr. מַגְדָּא (= fruit), Arab. majd (= glory, honor).] 

In any case, based on all the biblical appearances of the word, it always refers to good crops or fruits, and so the possibility that it eventually was borrowed by the Greeks for their word for the fruit of the prized almond tree should not be dismissed.

Klein mentioned the Arabic cognate, majd. That Arabic word is found in a number of names of people and places, One such place, familiar to Israelis, is the Arab town of Majd al-Krum in the Galilee. While the English Wikipedia page says that the name translates to "watch-house of the vineyard" (perhaps cognate with the Hebrew migdal מגדל - "tower"), the Hebrew entry translates the name as "glory of the vineyards", which makes it cognate with meged.

Yet there is another town in northern Israel, even more well known, which may derive from meged as well. This is the Biblical city of Megiddo מגידו. Megiddo appears 12 times in the Bible, once (Zecharia 12:11) as Megidon. While its etymology is debated, the Encyclopedia Mikrait suggests that it may come from meged due to the produce grown there.

The mountain of Megiddo was known in Hebrew as har Megido הר מגידו (or perhaps har Megidon), and this led to another familiar word in English - Armageddon:

"cataclysmic final conflict," 1811, figurative use of the place-name in Revelation xvi.16, site of the great and final conflict, from Hebrew Har Megiddon "Mount of Megiddo"

Today many are concerned about the environmental impact of almond growing. Let's hope that instead of leading to an armageddon, they continue to be the divine fruit of blessing that we've enjoyed for millennia. 

Sunday, September 19, 2021


In an earlier post, we discussed the Semitic etymologies of two towns in upstate New York: Utica and Ithaca. Both are named for cities in the Mediterranean, and are claimed to ultimately have Phoenician origins. Well, if you drive from Utica to Ithaca, you will pass through another city with a similar story: Syracuse.

Having grown up in nearby Rochester, all of these cities were familiar to me. On a recent visit to Rochester, my brother and sister-in-law prepared Syracuse salt potatoes - a delicious dish that I hadn't tried before. Only later did I learn that Syracuse is nicknamed "The Salt City", due to the salty springs in the area, that led to it becoming a center of salt production. So I guess in a city like that, you can afford to cook potatoes in 1.5 cups of salt.

Those same sources of salt also led to the name of the city. In the 19th century, officials chose to name the city "Syracuse" after an ancient town of the same name in the Mediterranean island of Sicily. That older Syracuse also was known for producing salt, and had marshes like the one in upstate New York. It was a good fit.

According to some, those marshes provided the original name of the city. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives this origin:

city in Sicily, founded as a Corinthian colony, and with a name traceable to 8c. B.C.E., from a pre-Hellenic word, perhaps Phoenician serah "to feel ill," in reference to its location near a swamp. The city in New York, U.S., was named 1825 for the classical city.

The word serah mentioned here is a cognate with the Hebrew סרח, meaning "to stink". Klein has this etymology:

Aram. סְרַח (= it decayed, putrefied), Syr. סְרַח (= he sinned, was corrupt), Aram. סוּרְחָנָא (= corruptness).

It only appears in the Bible in one verse, Yirmiyahu 49:7, describing the nation of Edom. The prophet asks:

נִסְרְחָ֖ה חׇכְמָתָֽם

Has their wisdom gone stale?

But the verb became much more common in Rabbinic Hebrew. Jastrow offers the following meanings: "to evaporate, be decomposed; to decay; to smell badly." Today, the most common form of the verb is the hifil - הסריח "it stank."

(There is another root with the same letters - סרח, meaning "to stretch, spread out, extend", but it is unrelated to the meaning "to stink.")

This is not the only suggested etymology of Syracuse. The French diplomat Victor Bérard proposed that it originally derived from the Phoenician Sour-ha-Koussim, translated as "stone of the seagulls." This would be cognate with the Hebrew צור הכוסים. Tzur certainly means "rock", but kos, a bird mentioned in Vayikra 11:17 and Devarim 14:16 is usually translated as "owl" - a bird found in the desert, not at sea. However, Gesenius does write that kos should be identified as the "pelican" (whose pouch perhaps recalls the other meaning of kos - "cup, vessel.") Those are much more likely to be found around Sicily than desert owls.

Monday, August 30, 2021

REVIEW: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, History & Liturgy

Mitchell First is a scholar of Jewish history who, like me, has a fascination with the origin of Hebrew words and phrases.

He has published two books (Roots & Rituals: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, and History, and Links to Our Legacy: Insights into Hebrew, History, and Liturgy) which have collected his columns on the subject, as well as other columns related to the history of the Jewish calendar, the prayers, and other topics of Jewish history.

I've reviewed the books on the Tradition website, and you can read my review here:


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Seville and Cordoba

When I was a young kid, I visited Spain. It was my first overseas trip, and I really enjoyed it. We drove all over the southern part of the country, visiting half a dozen cities in just a couple of weeks. I haven't returned since, but I still have strong memories from that trip.

One thing that I know know, but didn't know then, was how significant the Phoenician settlement was in that area. I've written about Semitic origins of the name Spain, and the city of Malaga. But I only recently discovered that two of the cities I visited on my trip also may have Phoenician origins as well.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the name of the city of Seville has a Semitic etymology:

inland port city in Spain, Spanish Sevilla, ultimately from Phoenician, from sefela "plain, valley."

That makes it cognate with the Hebrew root שפל - "to become or be low." The Hebrew word shefela שפלה is similar to the Phoenician sefela. It means "lowland." And if the theory we discussed here is true, then it is cognate with the English word "asphalt" as well, since it may have been named for a source of asphalt - the Dead Sea, which was possibly known as Yam Shafelet ים שפלת - "the low sea."

Another city I visited was Cordoba. There are a few theories as to the etymology, most of which offer a Semitic origin. Those include:

  • It comes from the Phoenician-Punic qart ṭūbah meaning "good town", which would be cognate with the Hebrew קריה טובה kirya tova. The city of Carthage, as we mentioned here, has a similar origin: Qart-Hadasht, related to the Hebrew kirya hadasha קריה חדשה - "new city".
  • Another theory also says the first half of the name comes from qart, but says that the second half derives from the name Juba, a Numidian general who died around 230 BCE in that area. So the town would have originally been known as the "City of Juba."
  • The Online Etymology Dictionary gives this origin: the name is said to be Carthaginian, from Phoenician qorteb "oil press." I've seen this theory mentioned in many books and websites (sometimes spelling it korteb or corteb). However, they're all fairly recent - from the last century, and it's unclear to me where it originated. More significantly, I can't find a word in any Semitic language that resembles qorteb and means anything like "oil press." The only word I could find even somewhat similar is kurtov קרטוב, which as we discussed here meant a volume of liquid, and came from Greek. I don't see how that would come to mean "oil press," and I don't know how likely the Phoenicians were to have borrowed from the Greeks at that time. If any readers can shed light on this question, I'd love to hear from them.
*** Update ***

Only a few hours after I posted my question, reader Y responded with an answer! Here's my summary of Y's theory (with some additions of my own):

The first to say that Cordoba came from Phoenician word meaning "oil press" was Samuel Bochart, who wrote an entire book discussing Semitic origins to place names, including those settled by the Phoencians: Geographia Sacra seu Phaleg et Canaan (1646). 

Bochart based his etymology on the word kotev קטב or kotbi קטבי. It appears in the Mishna (Sheviit 8:6), but the meaning isn't entirely clear. Rambam says it means an small oil press, which would support Bochart's etymology. However, Bochart actually quotes the Arukh, who says kotev refers to the wooden beam used to hold the millstone that presses the olives. (Certainly both explanations are related to the production of olive oil). In his expansion on the Arukh, the Arukh Hashalem connects this meaning of kotev to the homonym kotev meaning "axis, pole" as we've discussed here. Jastrow makes the same connection, but Ben Yehuda and Klein do not connect the two meanings.

The addition of the "r" to kotev, to eventually arrive at "Cordoba" was Bochart's conjecture. As Klein notes here:

ר often serves for the dissimilation of the reduplication of a consonant. So, e.g., דַּרְמֶשֶׂק is a dissimilated form of דַּמֶשֶׂק (= Damascus). In this way many bases and words have been enlarged into quadriliterals; cp. e.g. BAram. כָּרֽסֵא (= chair), which is prob. a loan word from Akka. kussu (= chair, throne), whence prob. also Heb. כִּסֵּא; base כרסם (= to chew, gnaw, devour), dissimilated from כסם (= to shear, clip); שַׁרְבִיט (= scepter), enlarged from שֵׁבֶט (of s.m.); סַרֽעַפָּה (= branch), enlarged from סֽעַפָּה (of s.m.); שַׂרְעַפִּים (= thoughts), enlarged from שֽׂעִפִּים (of s.m.).

So it's not unprecedented for a resh to be added to a Semitic word. And indeed, the name Cordoba in Hebrew was written as קורטבא (or קרטבא), the same spelling as קוטב, with only the resh added. You can see this spelling in the writings of the rabbis who lived in Spain (see here for example of a responsa by the Rosh, who also mentioned Seville). But I was surprised to find that the name appears even in the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 115b:

יצחק ריש גלותא בר אחתיה דרב ביבי הוה קאזיל מקורטבא לאספמיא ושכיב

Yitzḥak the Exilarch, son of the sister of Rav Beivai, was walking from Cortva to Spain and died along the way. 

Jastrow claims that this was a Babylonian town, Kardu, also known as Karduniaš. But Steinsaltz, in his notes on Yevamot, writes that according to the context (which also mentions Spain), the town was likely Cordoba, which was an important city in Talmudic times. (Spain, or more precisely Hispania, did not always control Cordoba, so the trip from Cordoba to Spain could make sense depending on the time).

Ultimately, this was a theory by Bochart, writing in the 17th century, without access to modern research. Y comments:

Back to Cordoba, since Bochart's additional r is ad hoc, and since a city is unlikely to be named after a technical term referring to a part of an oil mill, the etymology can be rejected. The "Phoenician" part is also an unsupported speculative extrapolation.

While I'm certainly not fully convinced of the etymology, I'm a little more generous with the possibility than Y. If the kotev referred to the olive oil press in general, and since Spain has long been associated with olives and olive oil, it's not impossible that it was the source of the name. But whether Bochart was correct or not, I certainly appreciate the scholarship of my readers today, who are always ready to answer the questions that leave me puzzled.

Monday, August 16, 2021

katzin, qadi and alcalde

 A while back, I discussed Hebrew words that begin with the letters קצ. In that list I wrote:

קצה - cut, from it we have קצין, captain, judge. The word cut is figuratively used for deciding.

This was based on Horowitz's book. Klein has a similar entry for the biblical word katzin  קצין:

קָצִין m.n. 1 judge, prince, leader. NH 2 officer. [Derived from קצה ᴵᴵ and lit. meaning ‘decider’. Related to Arab. qāḍi (= judge), prob. part. of qaḍā(y) (= he decided). 

Stahl, in his Bilingual Etymological Dictionary of Spoken Israeli Arabic and Hebrew, in the entry קאדי, writes that the root קצה derives from קץ ketz, meaning "end", because the one who decides (in this case, the judge) puts an "end" to the disagreement. 

As Klein noted, katzin is also related to the Arabic qadi (sometimes spelled cadi), also meaning "judge." From Arabic, the word entered Spanish as alcalde, a term meaning "mayor", but one who also has a judicial role, like a "justice of the peace." It is used with that meaning in Spain and throughout Latin America.

Sunday, July 11, 2021


The last post was discussing the word dfus דפוס - "printing," and how it derives from the Greek typos, meaning "type." At the end, I noted that the verb hidpis הדפיס means (perhaps surprisingly) "to print", not "to type." So today let's look at the Hebrew word meaning "to type."

In Hebrew, hiklid הקליד means "he typed", haklada הקלדה is typing, and mikledet מקלדת means "keyboard." This root קלד, has a more interesting story than I expected.

To understand the background, we should focus on the last of the three words I mentioned above: mikledet. Even if you weren't familiar with the Hebrew word, did you ever wonder why a keyboard is called that? The buttons you press when you type aren't actually "keys"...

But if you think about a similar device upon which you press all your fingers, you might be able to understand the association better. That device is the piano, with its 88 keys. And in fact, long before a keyboard referred to a device for typing on a computer, it was used to describe the set of keys used to play pianos, organs and other similar musical instruments.

The word key originally meant "an instrument for opening locks," as it does today. So how did it come to be used for the levers of the piano?

There are a number of different theories. The Online Etymology Dictionary mentions has the following passage in their entry for key:

The musical sense originally was "tone, note" (mid-15c.). In music theory, the sense developed 17c. to "sum of the melodic and harmonic relationships in the tones of a scale," also "melodic and harmonic relationships centering on a given tone." Probably this is based on a translation of Latin clavis "key," used by Guido for "lowest tone of a scale," or French clef (see clef; also see keynote). Sense of "mechanism on a musical instrument operated by the player's fingers" is from c. 1500, probably also suggested by uses of clavis. OED says this use "appears to be confined to Eng[lish]." First of organs and pianos, by 1765 of wind instruments; transferred to telegraphy by 1837 and later to typewriters (1876).

We see from here that "key" developed into two different meanings. In addition to the mechanism in musical instruments, it also took another musical meaning: "a group of notes based on a particular note and comprising a scale."

What isn't clear from the Online Etymology Dictionary is if one meaning of key arose from the other. Some say that the earlier meaning, "tone, note" led to the sense of the mechanisms used to play those notes. They also point out that the tone was called a "key" because it opened the scale. The word "keynote" preserves this sense, as it is the first (lowest) note of the scale.

Others say that the two meanings arose independently, and that piano keys were so called because the way they were designed and assembled was similar to a lock and key. For example, this site shows how ancient organs were made by "adapting keys with levers."

Whatever the origin, the meaning stuck, and in English keys in that sense are used to refer the things pressed on both a piano and a typewriter (and keyboard).

As Yaakov Etsion points out in this article, Hebrew was also faced with the question of what to call the keys of a piano. That in itself isn't so remarkable - in Modern Hebrew there were multitudes of words that needed coining. What is uncommon here, is that Hebrew already had a word for keys of musical instruments. When David returned the Ark to Israel, the verse says:

וְדָוִד  וְכׇל־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל מְשַׂחֲקִים לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה בְּכֹל עֲצֵי בְרוֹשִׁים וּבְכִנֹּרוֹת וּבִנְבָלִים וּבְתֻפִּים וּבִמְנַעַנְעִים וּבְצֶלְצֱלִים׃ 

Meanwhile, David and all the House of Israel danced before the LORD to [the sound of] all kinds of cypress wood [instruments], with lyres, harps, timbrels, sistrums, and cymbals. (Shmuel II 6:5)

The word translated here as "sistrums" (other translations have "rattles" or "coronets") is מנענעים mina'anim. At some point (and without any direct evidence to the contrary), the mina'anea became associated with the keys of the piano and organ. But this was a difficult word to pronounce, and in 1955 the Academy of the Hebrew Language came up with an alternate word for keys of the piano: klidim קלידים.

Why this word? Because it was based an archaic word for "keys" - aklida אקלידא. It is found in Talmudic literature, for example in Sanhedrin 113a:

בעי רחמי והבו ליה אקלידא דמטרא

[Elijah] prayed for mercy and they gave him the key (aklida) to rainfall

Of course, Hebrew already had a very common word for key: mafteach מפתח. But by adopting an obscure word instead, there would be no chance that someone might mix up the words for piano keys and house keys.

Klein points out that aklida, an Aramaic word, derives from the Greek kleida, accusative of kleis (= key). Those Greek words have given us a number of words in English, including "clavicle" (literally a "small key", based on the shape of the bone) and perhaps Cleopatra, which may have meant "key to the fatherland." The Latin cognate, clavis (also meaning "key") gave us words like enclave (enclosed, "locked in"), as well as the musical terms clef (parallel to keynote, as we discussed above) and clavichord (a medieval musical instrument, played with a type of keys).

The Academy's recommendation to use klid קליד for "piano key" was widely accepted, although not without opposition. The linguist Yitzchak Avineri wrote in a 1958 column, that while he did not object to adopting foreign words when necessary, this was not the case here, since Hebrew already had a word for piano key, the "biblical" mina'anea (in quotes because I haven't seen any proof that it was anything like a piano.)  Not only did klid have Greek origins (as compared to Semitic ones), even the loan translation was from English, a foreign language that invented the idea that pianos had 88 "keys." He concluded the column by saying that "this is not the way to expand the language."

However, language doesn't always listen to the experts. Klidim became the accepted term for piano keys, and a keyboard - both musical and for typing - is a mikledet. However, this new root did not take over fully. The keys of a piano are klidim, but the keys on a computer keyboard (and typewriter) are makashim מקשים (makash in singular, from the root נקש, "to strike.") And while one is maklid on a keyboard, that verb is reserved for typing. On the piano, one is poret al haklidim פורט על הקלידים (from a Biblical root meaning "to play a musical instrument", as found in Amos 6:5). 

So perhaps Avineri would have some comfort in the fact that at least in some contexts those ancient Hebrew roots persevered.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

dfus, tofes and tipus

As I've written before, I'm a major podcast listener, and am always looking for podcasts that discuss language, particularly the Hebrew language.

Recently, I came across a podcast devoted to the nuts and bolts of the Hebrew language, called Kululusha. It's in Hebrew, and the host, Yiram Netanyahu (no relation), interviews experts on Hebrew language and linguistics, including some people I've quoted here frequently. 

In the latest episode, he had a conversation with the linguist Dr. Gabriel Birnbaum, about the influence of foreign words on Hebrew. It was a very interesting discussion, and I recommend that any of you who can follow a talk like that in Hebrew to listen. 

A lot of the foreign words that Dr. Birnbaum mentioned will be familiar to readers of Balashon. But there was one that he mentioned briefly that I've been meaning to write about for a while - the Greek typos. As noted in the podcast, that one Greek word gave us three distinct words in Hebrew: dfus דפוס, tofes טופס and tifus טיפוס. Let's take a look.

The Greek word typos is the origin of the English word "type":

late 15c., "symbol, emblem," from Latin typus "figure, image, form, kind," from Greek typos "a blow, dent, impression, mark, effect of a blow; figure in relief, image, statue; anything wrought of metal or stone; general form, character; outline, sketch," from root of typtein "to strike, beat," from PIE *tup-, variant of root *(s)teu- (1) "to push, stick, knock, beat" (see steep (adj.)).

Extended 1713 to printing blocks of metal or wood with letters or characters carved on their faces, usually in relief, adapted for use in letterpress printing. The meaning "general form or character of some kind, class" is attested in English by 1843, though the corresponding words had that sense in Latin and Greek. 

As in English, the Greek typos had both the the sense of "to strike" and "a form, kind." (I would not have guessed, as I type on my keyboard, that the earlier meaning was to "to strike.") The Hebrew words reflect those different meanings as well.

Dfus is closest to the sense of a "dent, impression". It is found in early Rabbinic Hebrew, such as Mishna Menachot 11:1, where it refers to a baking mold that was used to prepare the offering of the shtei halechem (the two loaves of bread), brought on Shavuot. While many editions of the Talmud have the word written in the form familiar today - dfus דפוס, other manuscripts preserve what is likely the original spelling - tfus טפוס. The letters "t" and "d" both produce dental stop sounds, and just saying them out loud makes it understandable how tfus became dfus. After the Talmudic meanings of "form, model, mold", in modern Hebrew dfus took on the sense of "print, printing, press." The related verb, hidpis הדפיס means "to print" and a madpeset מדפסת is a "printer."

Tofes טפס, in Talmudic Hebrew, meant the standard, boilerplate lines in a document (in contrast with the toref תורף, which refers to the specific details of that document, like the dates, names, etc.) Today it means any kind of form to be filled out.

Tipus is the most abstract of the three, meaning "type, kind, class." In modern Hebrew, the adjective tipusi טיפוסי - "typical" (which also derives from typos) was added. In Hebrew slang, a tipus is an unusual character. 

Curious about the Hebrew word for the verb, "to type"? Then keep an eye out for the next post...

Monday, June 28, 2021


The English word tripe has two definitions:

1 : stomach tissue especially of a ruminant (such as an ox) used as food
2 : something poor, worthless, or offensive

For me, the second definition was more familiar than the first - but that may be because I don't eat red meat.

The Online Etymology Dictionary provides this origin for tripe:

c. 1300, from Old French tripe "guts, intestines, entrails used as food" (13c.), of unknown origin, perhaps via Spanish tripa from Arabic therb "suet" [Klein, Barnhart]. Applied contemptuously to persons (1590s), then to anything considered worthless, foolish, or offensive (1892).

This book gives it a similar etymology, saying it comes from the Arabic tharb, meaning a "thin layer of fat lining the intestines."

I haven't seen explicit proof, but I think tharb as "fat" may be cognate with the Hebrew root רבב, meaning "to become many, much, great." As we saw in our discussion of ribah, Klein notes that the related Arabic verb rabba means "to make thick or dense." 

The Arabic-English Lexicon, in its entry for the related Arabic verb taraba, says that it originally meant "the removing of the tharb, i.e. the fat that forms the integument of the stomach of a ruminant", and then associatively became "the act of blaming, reproving, and punishing or chastising for an offence or a crime."  As we noted in the entry for the Hebrew word chitui, sometimes a verb that derives from a noun refers to the removal of that noun. In this case, the verb taraba meant the removal of the tharb

While the fat itself might have had a positive association, the noun tharb also took on the negative sense of "blame, reproof, reproach." This may be the reason that Muhammad changed the name of the Arabian city Yathrib to Medina, as we mentioned in our discussion of the Hebrew word medina.

** Update:

Thank you to reader Shalom for pointing this out:

The Aramaic translation of the Biblical חלב (fat) is תרב.
He then shared Jastrow's entry for תרב, which gives examples of terav being used as a translation for chelev, and also provides a cognate with the Hebrew root רב, "to increase."

Monday, June 21, 2021

akhu and oasis

In Pharaoh's famous dream, he was standing by the river, 

"when out of the Nile there came up seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass." (Bereshit 41:2)

The word translated here as "reed grass" is akhu אחו in Hebrew. Other translations include "marsh grass," "marshland," or "meadow." The word only appears a few more times in the Bible - once later in the chapter, when Pharaoh retells his dream (41:18), and in Hoshea 13:15 ("For though he flourish among reeds" - in the plural form אחים achim) and Iyov 8:11 ("Can papyrus thrive without marsh? Can rushes grow without water?).

Due to its first appearance in Pharaoh's dream, it should not be too surprising that it has an Egyptian origin. R. Aryeh Kaplan writes, "Achu in the Hebrew, from the Egyptian Akhi." Sarna, in the the JPS commentary on Genesis, similarly notes:

Hebrew 'ahu, from an Egyptian loan word that originally meant the land flooded by the Nile, and then came to be used for pastureland in general. From Egyptian it passed into Hebrew and other Semitic languages.

From those other Semitic languages, we  may get a familiar word in English. Stahl, in his entry for the Arabic word waha, says that it also derives from the Coptic (Ancient Egyptian) word that gave Hebrew akhu. In Arabic waha means "oasis", which a lush meadow could would certainly have been seen as in the desert.

Stahl goes on to say that the word "oasis" itself also came from the same Egyptian root, via Greek. An early mention of the Egyptian origin of "oasis" can be found in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. A full etymology is offered by the Online Etymology Dictionary:

"fertile spot in a desert, where there is a spring or well and more or less vegetation," originally in reference to the Libyan desert, 1610s, from French oasis (18c.) and directly from Late Latin oasis, from Greek oasis, probably from Hamitic (compare Coptic wahe, ouahe "oasis," properly "dwelling place," from ouih "dwell"). The same Egyptian source produced Arabic wahah. Figurative sense of "any fertile place in the midst of a waste" is by 1800.

I found it interesting that today, Al-Waha refers to "an immersion-based Arabic-language camp for students." I suppose that's similar to the ulpan for learning Hebrew. I can certainly imagine that any place dedicated to learning a new language would be a kind of oasis...

Sunday, June 13, 2021

kriyat yam suf

I recently came across an early draft of the speech my son prepared for his bar mitzva, ten years ago this month. It was rather nostalgic to see it again. And while I enjoyed hearing his points, I was actually more fascinated with the typos and misspellings in this first draft. On the one hand, they prove that he actually wrote the speech himself, which was impressive for a 13 year old. But it also was cute to enter the mind of a kid who grew up in Israel, spoke English at home, and tried to straddle both worlds when writing his speech.

One of the most curious phrases he used was "the tearing of the Red Sea." Normally, in English we say "the splitting of the Red Sea." But he directly translated the Hebrew phrase kriyat yam suf קריעת ים סוף. The verb kriya, from the root קרע, means "to tear" and so in the literal sense, his translation to English was logical.

But this actually brings us to a more substantial question. Why do we call it kriyat yam suf? In the Bible, the verbs used to describe the splitting of the sea are baka בקע (as in Shemot 14:16, 21, Tehillim 78:13 and Nechemiah 9:11), or less frequently, gazar גזר (as in Tehillim 136:13). Both roots mean to split, with various nuances. So why did Rabbinic Hebrew (like in the Dayenu song found in the Haggadah) prefer a different Biblical root: kara?

I found a detailed discussion of the question in this article

"'קריעת ים סוף' כמשקפת תהליכי לשון" מאת ציון עוקשי פורסם בכתב העת דעת לשון – מחקרים בלשון העברית לתקופותיה, מכללת אפרתה, ירושלים תשס"ח

The author, Tzion Okashi, focuses primarily on the distinction between baka and kara, and suggests two possible reasons for the later use of kara. One might be from Aramaic influence, as is frequently found in words adopted in Rabbinic Hebrew. He point out that the Aramaic translations of the Bible use the root בזע to translate both בקע and קרע, which may have led to the shift of one usage to the other.

The other answer I found more interesting. He says this is due to a change in the perception of the nature of the event. While the Torah uses the word baka, that is generally applied to the splitting of a solid, hard object, like a rock or a block of wood. That type of splitting can not be repaired or restored. The action of kriya, however, is associated with the tearing of softer items like garments (as is practiced, for example, in Jewish mourning.) According to this theory, those who preferred to refer to kriyat yam suf visualized the sea closing up on itself after the split. The split was not permanent, just as clothing can be repaired, or a zipper can close the opening in a garment. Okashi writes that the Tanach chose to focus on the force of the miracle, which split the sea as one would break open a block of wood, while the Sages preferred the image of the water letting Israel pass through, only to close upon the pursuing Egyptians.

So it seems that even at that early age, our son somehow picked up on the same message the Sages did when they chose their phrasing. Quite impressive, I must say!

Sunday, May 23, 2021


The Hebrew word for jam or jelly, ribah ריבה, was coined by the father of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. On that, everyone agrees. However, there has been debate over how he came up with the word, and if it was a good choice. Let's look at its history.

As Elon Gilad writes, the first mention of ribah was in a column by Ben-Yehuda in his newspaper, HaZvi, in 1888. To show that this was not a coinage out of whole cloth, he titled his piece "A new word that is old." Gilad summarizes Ben-Yehuda's justification for choosing the word:

In the article Ben-Yehuda set out to show how he found the word riba in the Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim 7:9) in a passage concerning the frying of a dish call tofini. What exactly this tofini is is not at all clear, but that’s besides the point. We find a bunch of rabbis seemingly debating the recipe, when one of them says tofinei riba. Ben-Yehuda acknowledges that commentators wrote that this was a copying error and that originally the text said raka, which means “soft” - meaning that the dough was half done.

Ben-Yehuda concludes that the word riba comes from the root r-b-b and that this root means, as it means in Arabic, something condensed by heating. It's a root that gave Arabic the word murabab - jam. “Thus, we gained a new word that is old for a kind of sweets, for the kinds of fruit cooked in sugar, in honey, and it is riba,” Ben-Yehuda concluded.

However, looking at the original text of Ben-Yehuda's column (page 4), I think Gilad's explanation could use some clarification. Here's what Ben-Yehuda wrote:

My understanding is that Ben Yehuda claimed that those who felt the text should read raka רכה were in error. He relies on the parallel text in the Babylonian Talmud (Menachot 50b) which has the word with a bet - raba רבה. He relies on Rashi's explanation on the passage in Menachot, which says that raba means "a lot", so it should be baked more than once.

But then he goes on to reject that approach as well, and says that the word should be read as riba ריבה, not raba, according to the the text in the Jerusalem Talmud. And for this he quotes the Arabic cognate. 

As Klein writes, the Arabic verb rabba means "he reared, increased, originally 'he made thick or dense,'" and rubb means "thickened juice of fruit", which led to mirabb - "jam, preserved fruit."

And so Ben Yehuda concludes that this is how he understands the Talmudic passage - the tofini is not repeatedly cooked, but rather made thick by cooking. 

Ben-Yehuda's coinage, and particularly his interpretation of the text in the Talmud, aroused the ire of another pillar of modern Hebrew - the writer S.Y. Agnon. In his 1943 novel Shevuat Emunim ("Betrothed"), Agnon writes about pre-World War I Jaffa, and says that in the evenings they would drink tea and eat preserves, and then adds:

If some intellectual were present, he would make fun of the hotel-keeper who had misunderstood a Talmudic word, and called fruit preserves 'jam.'

This was clearly a jab at Ben-Yehuda. Not only does Agnon say that it is a mistake to call preserves (for which he uses the older word mirkahat מרקחת), but he refers to him as a "hotel keeper." In the Hebrew, that phrase is baal hamalon בעל המלון. Ben-Yehuda was the author of the first modern Hebrew dictionary, and so could have been known as the baal hamilon בעל המילון (literally, "master of the dictionary.") But Agnon rejected Ben-Yehuda's switching raba for riba in the Talmudic passage, and made the same vowel switch back from milon to malon.

Many have also criticized Ben-Yehuda's rejection of the scholars who claimed that the word in Shekalim should be read raka. According to them, that word represents the more accurate texts of the passage (as well as the text in Menachot). And perhaps for that reason, when Ben-Yehuda's dictionary was published after his death, neither the entry for riba, nor the notes by Tur-Sinai mention the Shekalim passage at all, but rely entirely on the Arabic cognate, and other medieval Hebrew words based on the same root:

We've now shown Ben-Yehuda's original justification for choosing riba for jam, and the revised explanation in his dictionary. A third report, found often in Ultra-Orthodox circles (who in his lifetime and even today don't have much respect for Ben-Yehuda), attributes Ben-Yehuda with a poor understanding of basic Talmudic terminology. There are a few different versions, but they generally say that he read a passage like this:

"מאי ריבה? מיני מתיקה"

Mai ribah? Minei metika.

and from it coined the word ribah. If that were so, it would indeed be a gross misreading of the text. The phrase mai ribah is found in a number of Talmudic passages (for example Sotah 16b), and means, "What does it include?" This is because ריבה riba in this case literally means "an extension of scope, widening qualification". So while the passage really meant "What does [this case] include? Sweet things", Ben-Yehuda thought it meant "What is riba? Sweet things", and so used it to refer to jam.

The problem is not only as we've seen did Ben-Yehuda not use that passage as his reason for the coinage, but there is no such passage anywhere in Talmudic literature (nor is there for any of the variants of this story). It's rather ironic that people who are trying to make fun of Ben-Yehuda for not understanding the Talmud are actually proving their own ignorance instead. They should really leave the satire to people like Agnon...

Sunday, May 16, 2021

cameo and kamea

I was recently asked if there is a connection between the English word "cameo" and the Hebrew word קמיע kamea - "amulet." 

If that seems like a strange suggestion, perhaps you aren't familiar with the background of "cameo." While today it usually means "a small theatrical role usually performed by a well-known actor and often limited to a single scene," that's not the original sense. (Modern Hebrew also has hofa'at kamea הופעת קמע meaning a "cameo appearance, but that is a much more recent usage.) The original sense can be found in this entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

early 15c., kaadmaheu, camew, chamehieux and many other spellings (from early 13c. in Anglo-Latin), "engraving in relief upon a precious stone with two layers of colors" (such as onyx, agate, or shell) and done so as to utilize the effect of the colors, from Old French camaieu and directly from Medieval Latin cammaeus, which is of unknown origin, perhaps ultimately from Arabic qamaa'il "flower buds," or Persian chumahan "agate."

In 19c. also used of other raised, carved work on a miniature scale. Transferred sense of "small character or part that stands out from other minor parts" in a play, etc., is from 1928, from earlier meaning "short literary sketch or portrait" (1851), a transferred sense from cameo silhouettes. A cameotype (1864) was a small, vignette daguerreotype mounted in a jeweled setting.

Since cameo originally meant a type of jewelry, that's much closer to the sense of "amulet." Yet, none of the suggestions mentioned in this entry can be connected to kamea. (I haven't been able to find any Hebrew cognate to the qamaa'il referenced above. In fact, the claims is disputed entirely in this article, saying that qamaa'il is not found in Arabic dictionaries.)

However, that doesn't mean a connection isn't possible. Let's first look at the origin of kamea, to see if it can bring us closer to cameo. (Ben Yehuda points out that the original pronunciation was kamia, but the transition to kamea may have been from the Italian "cameo.") Here's Klein's entry:

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

email subscriptions update

As I mentioned in an earlier post, FeedBurner, the service that provided email subscriptions to Balashon, will be ending that service in a few months.

I've set up a new service with Mailchimp, to provide the same option of receiving Balashon posts by email. 

If anyone would like to subscribe that way, you can easily do so by entering your email address in the box on the right margin of this page, under Subscribe to Balashon by email.

For those who were already subscribed via FeedBurner, I've migrated your subscriptions to Mailchimp. If you do not wish to receive those emails, you can easily unsubscribe by clicking the unsubscribe from this list link at the bottom of every email.

Thanks for your patience during this transition, and I hope to have some new posts with regular Balashon content up soon!

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

still working on the email subscriptions

I'm still working on getting the new email subscription service working, so I need to do some additional test posts.

To make this a little more interesting, I'll provide some links about other things I've been working on.

For over a year, I've been writing for 929 - the project that studies a chapter of Bible each day. 

You can read my posts, which generally talk about words, here.

I also write for HaMizrachi, a magazine with articles about Torah and other subjects, printed around the holidays. Again, I write about words, and while there isn't an index of all my articles, my latest one - for Yom HaAtzmaut - is here.

Aside from writing about words, I also like to write about the Bible and Jewish thought. I've published in Tradition, Lehrhaus, Hakirah, and JBQ. I've put everything I've published on my Academia.edu profile. Feel free to browse and let me know what you think.

Ok, that's good for now, I probably should save some more in case I need additional posts like this...

Saturday, April 17, 2021

changes for email subscribers

Just a little maintenance here. Feedburner, the service that provided email subscriptions to Balashon, will be ending that service in a few months. So I am in the process of investigating new options and will hopefully migrate all subscribers soon. 

If you don't subscribe by email, you can ignore this message. Thanks!

Monday, March 29, 2021

mashal and moshel

The 929 Project, which covers a chapter of the Tanakh every day over a 3.5 year cycle, will be starting the book of Mishlei (Proverbs) soon. Since I write a weekly entry for 929, I thought I would take the opportunity here to look into the word mashal משל - the source of the book Mishlei.

In the Bible, the root משל has two meanings - "to rule" and "to resemble, to make like, to speak in parables." The first sense, to rule, appears 81 times as a verb, and also has noun forms, like moshel מושל - "ruler. governor" and memshala ממשלה - meaning "rule, dominion" in Biblical Hebrew, and "government" in Modern Hebrew.

The second meaning occurs 17 times as a verb, and an additional 39 as a noun, generally translated as "proverb" (giving the name to the biblical book.)

Is there a connection between the two meanings? Many older sources do make a connection. Here are a few examples:

Rabbi Hirsch, on Bereshit 4:9, writes that the basic meaning of mashal is "to declare what something is and should be, to give its character and designation. Hence: to command, to rule. […] Hence, also the Proverbs of Shlomo: saying which tell us what men and things are and should be. So in general. But hence mashal also means quite specially such a saying or sentence whose meaning refers not to the things actually described in it, but they are used metaphorically to refer to some general fact or teaching, to describe the character or designation of something else, i.e. a parable."

Jastrow has the original meaning as "to handle, to touch" (he brings the example of Yoma 46a - "the fire had taken hold of them.")  That sense developed into a) to attend, manage, control, and b) something tangible, substantial, plausible. From there it developed to "a truth substantiated by an illustration, wise saying, fable, allegory, example."

Steinberg suggests that the earlier, common meaning was "to straighten, to organize." This organization can both be done by a ruler, or by an orator, who arranges two concepts in a parable.

Gesenius, in his dictionary, writes: "Learned men have made many attempts to reconcile the significations of making like and ruling […] I have no doubt but from the signification of making like, is derived from that of judging, forming an opinion […] which is nearly allied to the notion of giving sentence, ordering, ruling."

However, more recent scholars have begun to doubt that the two meanings share a common origin. Klein, for example, lists them as two separate entries. For the meaning "to rule," he provides one cognate: the Phoenician משל. For the sense "to be like, resemble, to speak in parables," he offers a number of Semitic cognates:

Aramaic מְתַל (= was like, resembled), Syriac מְתַל (= he compared; he spoke in parables), Akkadian mashālu (= to be like), Arabic mathala (= was like, resembled, imitated), mithl (= a thing similar, resemblance, likeness), Ethiopian masala (= became like).

The substitution of the "sh" for "t/th" in many of these languages, but only for this meaning, could indicate a separate origin. (The Aramaic amatla אמתלא - "excuse, pretext" derives from the cognate מתל, and has entered Hebrew as אמתלה, with the same meaning.)

But as Prof. Chaim Cohen argued in this comprehensive article (English summary here, pp. 372-373), this may not be the case. He writes that "while a majority of Biblical scholars today derive the term משל from a primary verb מש"ל 'to be like' […] this view, despite many attempts to bolster it with additional evidence, has never been sufficiently compelling to win overall scholarly approval." He goes on to claim that the original meaning of the noun mashal is "saying" and the verb means "to express, relate." 

This understanding fits the book of Proverbs well. While many of the Proverbs are indeed parables - for example, "A passerby who gets embroiled in someone else’s quarrel is like one who seizes a dog by its ears." (Mishlei 26:17), others are simply sayings without a metaphor: "Do not envy evil men; Do not desire to be with them" (Mishlei 24:1). 

So it could well be that the original meaning of mashal was "saying" and then later developed to the more specific type of saying - the parable.

If that's the case, perhaps we can make a connection to "ruling" after all. I did not see this mentioned in the sources I read, but there are other words in Hebrew that connect ruling to speaking - see my posts on nagid נגיד and amar אמר. It would not surprise me if mashal is an additional example.