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!