Monday, December 26, 2022

hedyot and idiot

What is the connection between the Hebrew hedyot הֶדְיוֹט - "layman, layperson" and the English "idiot"?

They share a common origin, but in this case the Hebrew is closer to the original meaning than the English is. 

Hedyot entered Hebrew in the rabbinic period, being borrowed from Greek. It was used in phrases like כֹּהֵן הֶדְיוֹט kohen hedyot (as distinguished from the High Priest), or in this mishna, discussing permitted work on the intermediate days of the festivals:

הַהֶדְיוֹט תּוֹפֵר כְּדַרְכּוֹ, וְהָאֻמָּן מַכְלִיב

A layman, who is not a skilled tailor, may sew in his usual manner if necessary for the Festival, whereas a craftsman may form only temporary stitches. (Moed Katan 1:8)

Klein notes that its original meaning of hedyot was "a private man, a layman, a common person" and provides this etymology:

Gk. idiotes (= private person, one not holding office; layman; an ignorant), from idios (= one’s own, private, personal, separated, distinct)

The same idios gave us two other English words that preserve that original sense of "separate, private":

  • idiom: "phrase or expression peculiar to a language"
  • idiosyncrasy: behavior or thought particular to an individual
But what about "idiot"? That seems to have a different meaning than the words we've mentioned so far. Well, it took a longer journey:

early 14c., "person so mentally deficient as to be incapable of ordinary reasoning;" also in Middle English "simple man, uneducated person, layman" (late 14c.), from Old French idiote "uneducated or ignorant person" (12c.), from Latin idiota "ordinary person, layman; outsider," in Late Latin "uneducated or ignorant person," from Greek idiotes "layman, person lacking professional skill" (opposed to writer, soldier, skilled workman), literally "private person" (as opposed to one taking part in public affairs), used patronizingly for "ignorant person," from idios "one's own"

So like hedyot, it originally meant a private person (as opposed to a ruler like a king) or a common soldier (as opposed to a military officer). Only later did it come to mean someone uneducated, then a more "technical" term for someone mentally deficient, and eventually in our day simply an informal term for a foolish or stupid person. 

That last meaning exists in modern Hebrew as well - as אִידְיוֹט (borrowed from European languages). Despite their similarities, it's important for any speaker of Hebrew today to not use them interchangeably.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

choref and cherpa

A reader recently asked if I've explored the words חֹרֶף choref - "winter" and חֶרְפָּה cherpa - "shame." I know that I wrote about choref. It's a post I go back to often, since it's a quick way of explaining how words can change over time (stav used to be the later season, and choref the earlier one.) In fact, I revisited it in a recent column in HaMizrachi Weekly (see page 28 here).

However, to my "shame" I never thought to write about a connection to cherpa. Perhaps that's because Klein doesn't suggest one, and back in 2007 when I first wrote that post, I relied on him even more heavily than I do now.

So I thought of writing an update to that post, exploring the possible connection to those two words. But as it happened, Mitchell First beat me to it. He recently sent me a copy of his latest book, Words for the Wise. As with his previous books, it includes many interesting short essays on history, liturgy, and of course the history and meaning of Hebrew words. (For the latter topic, you'll often notice credit to Balashon, which is always appreciated).

Mitchell wrote a truly comprehensive review of the root חרף and at this point, I don't feel that I have much to add. His original column on the topic can be viewed here, although the book has an expanded version (pp. 167-174), so if you can, it's worth taking a look there.

Happy winter everyone!

Sunday, November 20, 2022

pulmus and polemic

The connection between the English word "polemic" and the Hebrew פּוּלְמוּס pulmus seems fairly obvious. They both mean "controversy, dispute, debate" and both ultimately derive from the Greek polemos. Cased closed, right?

Well, I, for one, was surprised to learn that while what I wrote above is true, they each shared an earlier meaning, no longer in use. The Greek polemos meant "war", and that was the original meaning of both pulmus and polemic. 

Here are the Online Etymology Dictionary entries for "polemic" both as noun and adjective:

polemic (n.)

1630s, "controversial argument or discussion, a controversy," from French polémique (16c./17c.), noun use of adjective meaning "disputatious, controversial" (see polemic (adj.)). From 1670s as "a disputant, one who writes or argues in opposition to another."

polemic (adj.)

"of or pertaining to controversy," 1640s, from French polémique "disputatious, controversial," or directly from Greek polemikos "of war, warlike, belligerent; skilled in war, fit for service; like an enemy, stirring up hostility," from polemos "war," a word of unknown origin. 

And here is Klein's entry for pulmus:

פּוּלְמוֹס, פֻּלְמוֹס m.n. (pl. פּוּלְמוֹסִים, also פּוּלְמוֹסִיּוֹת) PBH 1 war. NH 2 polemic. [From Gk. polemos (= war), which is related to pelemixein (= to shake, cause to tremble), from IE * pelem–, enlargement of base *pel– (= to shake, swing).] 

We find the meaning "war" in a number of Talmudic sources, such as Mishna Sotah 9:14:

בַּפֻּלְמוֹס שֶׁל אַסְפַּסְיָנוּס גָּזְרוּ עַל עַטְרוֹת חֲתָנִים, וְעַל הָאֵרוּס. בַּפֻּלְמוֹס שֶׁל טִיטוּס גָּזְרוּ עַל עַטְרוֹת כַּלּוֹת, וְשֶׁלֹא יְלַמֵּד אָדָם אֶת בְּנוֹ יְוָנִית. בַּפֻּלְמוֹס הָאַחֲרוֹן גָּזְרוּ שֶׁלֹּא תֵצֵא הַכַּלָּה בָּאַפִּרְיוֹן בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר, וְרַבּוֹתֵינוּ הִתִּירוּ שֶׁתֵּצֵא הַכַּלָּה בָּאַפִּרְיוֹן בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר:   

In the war [pulemus] of Vespasian the Sages decreed upon the crowns of bridegrooms, i.e., that bridegrooms may no longer wear crowns, and upon the drums, meaning they also banned the playing of drums. In the war of Titus they also decreed upon the crowns of brides, and they decreed that a person should not teach his son Greek. In the last war, meaning the bar Kokheva revolt, they decreed that a bride may not go out in a palanquin inside the city, but our Sages permitted a bride to go out in a palanquin inside the city, as this helps the bride maintain her modesty. 

We have a citation above as to the earliest appearance of "polemic" meaning dispute in English. When did the meaning change in Hebrew?

Kutcher (Milim V'Toldotehen, 31) writes that the change from "war" to "war of words" was a result of influence from European languages like German and English. However, he doesn't say exactly when. 

Ben-Yehuda has no entry for pulmus in his dictionary at all - which isn't surprising since he avoided including in it words that he considered "foreign."

The Historical Dictionary Project of the Academy of the Hebrew Language has the earliest "modern" meaning in a 1911 work.  That surprised me, since I assumed that the polemics written in the Middle Ages to defend Judaism were known as pulmusim, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

So as so frequently happens, even the most obvious words leave much for me to discover. 

Monday, November 07, 2022

chesed and chasid

There are some words in Biblical Hebrew that are difficult to interpret because they only appear once in the entire Tanakh. We've discussed plenty of those. However, there are other roots that are so common, and have such variety of meaning, that it can be just as difficult to pin down the "main" sense (if there even is one.) The root חסד is certainly one of those cases.

Its two main forms appear frequently: חֶסֶד hesed (246 times) and חָסִיד hasid (32 times). But what do they mean? Hesed can be easily defined as "kindness" (or an act of kindness), "grace", or "mercy." The related hasid is either an adjective, hesed-like, or a noun, "one who does hesed." But that doesn't make its translation any simpler - it can mean (one who is) pious, devout/devoted or kind. 

So lets look at some different explanations of these words and how scholars have tried to interpret them.

Klein has both words representing kindness. He defines hesed in this order:

1 kindness, goodness, mercy. 2 affection. 3 lovely appearance.

And hasid, according to him, has a similar development. In Biblical Hebrew it means "kind, benevolent", and only in Modern Hebrew does it gain the sense of "pious, godly, devout."

The BDB entry (note the new Sefaria BDB resource!) goes further than Klein. They also have the root starting with "kindness", but note that both words can refer to piety in the Tanakh as well (e.g, hesed - Yeshaya 57:1; hasid - Tehilim 4:4). 

Gesenius says the root has a different original meaning: "to love, desire." This "desire" comes to mean "zeal" or "love" for anyone - expressing itself in kindness or mercy. In other contexts, it can reflect piety (towards God) or the grace of God toward humans. That sense of grace is expanded, in some cases, to beauty in general (as in Esther 2:9,17).

The Ben Yehuda dictionary entry for hesed begins with the translation "grace" and explains it as something "beyond the requirement of the law, not done out of obligation but because of love." In fact, this is the only translation offered by Ben Yehuda. As far as hasid, he initially defines it as "one who acts with hesed," then "one who acts with tzedek," and only in the third definition offers the translation "pious" (for which he does provide biblical sources.)

Steinberg goes in a different direction. He says that the root חסד means "diligent." When diligent in the positive sense, that can lead to generosity, kindness, love, and devotion. Perhaps this sense of devotion can explain how hasid came to mean someone devoted to God (i.e., devout, pious) more than just someone who is kind.

From the sense of "pious ones", the term was adopted by those opposing Hellenistic Jews in the Second Temple period, and later following this, by an Ashkenazi religious community in the 12th and 13th centuries, and the Jewish spiritual movement begun in 18th century Europe. Today, in secular Hebrew, a hasid, can be a devotee or follower of any movement or individual.

There are two related terms to חסד that we have not yet discussed. One is the surprising use of hesed in a negative context. It is not common - only appearing in Vayikra 20:17 where it means "disgrace" and Mishlei 14:34, where it means "reproach" (as well as in the verb form in Mishlei 25:10). How did it obtain this opposite meaning to all else that we've seen?

Klein gives two possible answers. One is that they come from different roots. He writes for this meaning of חסד:

he insulted (a hapax legomenon in the Bible, occurring Pr. 25:10). [Aram. חֲסַד (= was put to shame), Aram.-Syr. חַסֵּד (= he reproached, reviled), Aram. חִסְדָּא (= shame), Syr. חֶסֽדָּא (= shame, reproach, ignominy), Arab. ḥasada (= he envied). Some scholars connect Arab. ḥasada with MH חָשַׁד (= he suspected). See חשׁד. See also חֶסֶד ᴵᴵ.

But he also offers the suggestion that this is a case where one root can contain two opposite meanings. For his second definition of hesed, he notes:

According to some scholars חֶסֶד ᴵᴵ and חֶסֶד ᴵ are of the same origin. For the ambivalence of meaning cp. בֵּרַךְ (= he cursed), which is ult. identical with בֵּרַךְ (= he blessed)

Perhaps this is a case of a contronym, which we have discussed several times. The BDB, for example, writes that the same "eager zeal or desire" which led to kindness, can also lead to envy, shame, and reproach.

The other word which may be related is the Hebrew word for "stork", חֲסִידָה - hasida. In his entry, he defines it as:

lit.: ‘the pious bird’; so called in allusion to its love for its young

He notes that the Latin word for stork, pietaticultrix, had the same meaning - representing its dedication to both its young and its parents. When the hasida is mentioned in Vayikra 11:19, Rashi, quoting Hullin 63acomments:

Why is it called hasida? Because it acts kindly with its fellows in respect to food.

However, a question remains: if the stork acts with hesed, why is it listed as a non-kosher bird?  An answer offered in the name of various Chassidic (!) rebbes is that the stork is devoted only to its own kind. That may be a sign of piety, but it is not a sign of kindness - and so the stork is not kosher. In our review of the various meanings of hesed, this is a very important lesson to remember.

Monday, October 31, 2022

chok and chakika

The Hebrew word for "law, statute" חֹק chok, derives from the root חקק. That root can mean "to decree, legislate", but it can also mean "to engrave" or "to carve (out)."  What is the connection?

Before researching this question, I would have assumed that the laws were originally engraved in stone or clay, and that would explain the development. But that doesn't seem to be exactly the case.

Klein provides the following entry for חקק:

Aram. חֲקַק (= he engraved), Arab. ḥaqqa (= was right, was obligatory), ḥaqq (= justness, truth, necessity, obligation), Ethiop. ḥeq (= moderate, sufficient).

 (While he mentions here the Arabic haqq "truth", there is also an Arabic cognate, huqq, meaning "a hollow place". This developed into huqqah - "a small box, vessel", which eventually entered English as "hookah".)

Klein also notes the related root חקה, which while also meaning "to engrave," more commonly means "to imitate." One definition that Klein provides for this root is "to trace," which seems to be the bridge between engraving and imitating. 

However, regarding חקק, the cognates from the other Semitic languages imply that the development went from "engraving" to "set in place." This led to the Arabic "truth" and eventually to the Hebrew chok as well. This also can be seen from the progress of the word chok itself. Note the order of definitions in Klein's entry:

1 something prescribed, enactment, decree, statute, law, rule. 2 prescribed portion, prescribed due.

It didn't originally mean "law" but rather a set portion, a prescription. We see that usage in this verse, describing the portion the Egyptian priests received from Pharoah:

רַק אַדְמַת הַכֹּהֲנִים לֹא קָנָה כִּי חֹק לַכֹּהֲנִים מֵאֵת פַּרְעֹה וְאָכְלוּ אֶת־חֻקָּם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָהֶם פַּרְעֹה עַל־כֵּן לֹא מָכְרוּ אֶת־אַדְמָתָם׃

"Only the land of the priests he did not take over, for the priests had an allotment [chok] from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh had made to them; therefore they did not sell their land." (Bereshit 47:22)

It is easy to see how the word for a prescription can turn into a word for a law or rule. 

In the Tanakh, we also find the related word חֻקָּה chuka. In Biblical Hebrew it is essentially synonymous with chok. But in Modern Hebrew chukah got a more specific meaning - "constitution."

Sunday, October 02, 2022


I was recently asked about the etymology of the word סְנִיף snif  - meaning "branch," as in the branch of a bank or the local branch of a youth movement.

Klein provides some information. For snif, he writes:

PBH 1 attachment, addition. NH 2 branch of a school or of a business institution. [From סנף.] 

But in his entry for the root סנף, he doesn't have much to offer regarding the origin. He defines the verb as "to add, join, insert" (with some forms also meaning "to annex"), but leaves the etymology as "of uncertain origin." This is actually surprising, since he tends to rely heavily on the Ben Yehuda dictionary's etymologies. 

In this case the entry for סנף in Ben Yehuda suggest that סנף may be the ספעל (saf'el) verb form of the Hebrew root ענף, also meaning "branch." (Saf'el is similar to shaf'el, which we saw here, and is more likely to be found in words wtih Aramaic influence.) So the meaning would be "to cause to become a branch." Even-Shoshan expands on this, implying that the original form was סענף, but the ayin dropped out, leaving סנף.

In this essay, Yaakov Etsion notes that in Talmudic Hebrew, snif referred to wedges or beams that were attached to larger pieces. From there it was later borrowed into the more abstract sense of any type of attachment. And in the end, Etsion notes that it was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda himself who gave snif the modern meaning of "branch, affiliate."


Sunday, August 21, 2022

taar and morah

In the Tanakh, there are two words for razor for shaving. The more common one, תַּעַר ta'ar, is found in five verses: Bamidbar 6:5, 8:7; Yeshaya 7:20; Tehilim 52:4,  and Yechezkel 5:1. (In Yirmiyahu 36:23, it refers to a scribe's knife.) 

The less frequent word, מוֹרָה morah, only appears three times: Shoftim 13:5, 16:17; and Shmuel I 1:11. All of these mentions of morah refer to nazirites (Shimshon and Shmuel). 

The laws of the nazirite are found in Bamidbar, and that is where ta'ar appears. The phrasing of the verses is very similar. Bamidbar 6:5 says תַּעַר לֹא־יַעֲבֹר עַל־רֹאשׁוֹ "no razor [ta'ar] shall touch his head." Of both Shimshon and Shmuel the verses say וּמוֹרָה לֹא יַעֲלֶה עַל רֹאשׁוֹ "and no razor [morah] shall come on his head." This would seem to indicate that the two words are synonymous - referring to the same object, first in the law of the nazir, and then in the stories of two nazirites.

This understanding is reflected in the etymology of the two words. Many recent scholars say that they share a common origin. For example, Klein writes in his entry for morah:

Of uncertain origin; possibly contraction of מַעֲרָה, from ערה ᴵ (= to lay bare), whence תַּעַר (= razor).

The root ערה, "to lay bare, strip" (the source of arom ערום - "naked") therefore led to both words. Morah was a contraction (the ayin dropped out) of ma'areh (meaning an open, bare place - see Shoftim 20:33), and ta'ar was a different way the noun was formed.

Kaddari also accepts this theory, and expands it by noting the connection between the root גלח - "to shave" and גלה - "to uncover, expose."

This same root - "to reveal" - can explain another usage of ta'ar in the Tanakh. It can also mean "sheath (of a sword), scabbard" (Shmuel I 17:51; Shmuel II 20:8; Yirmiyahu 47:6; Yechezkel 21:8,9,10,35). As Klein points out:

Prob. from ערה ᴵ (= to lay bare, uncover), whence also Ugar. t‘rt (= sheath of a sword); hence of the same etymology as תַּעַר ᴵ.

Gesenius says that ta'ar as sheath, "perhaps so called from emptiness." 

Today, morah is almost never used for "razor" (probably because its other meaning, female teacher, is much more prevalent). Ta'ar is used for razor, although the phrase סַכִּין גִּלּוּחַ sakin giluach is also common. As far as sheath/scabbard, I guess I never had a reason to use the word, since the current word surprised me: נָדָן nadan. But it too is biblical, found in Divrei Hayamim I 21:27. However its origin is Persian (see a discussion here).

Monday, August 08, 2022

gazam and higzim

'When discussing hiflig, I mentioned that while one definition is "exaggerate", that's not a use common in Hebrew today. 

I've now given it a bit more thought, and I think the reason is perhaps the popularity of the word higzim הגזים for "exaggerate." With a word that pervasive, there wasn't need for a synonym, which left hiflig as "exaggerate" an archaic usage.

That got me wondering about higzim. It is the hifil form of the verb גזם. That verb, in its kal form, means "to cut", or more specifically "to prune, trim." (We've already noted that it fits the pattern of roots beginning with *גז meaning "to cut.") How did a root that means "to prune" (the process of shortening) come to mean "to exaggerate" - which is making something bigger than it really is?

Klein notes that in addition higzim meaning "to exaggerate", it also means "to threaten." While not in common use today, that sense is found in Talmudic Hebrew. Jastrow provides a few such cases in his entry. For example, he quotes Shevuot 46a:

עביד איניש דגזים וכ׳ a man frequently threatens mischief and does not do it. Ib. הכי נמי ג׳ וכ׳ .. in this case, too, he may have threatened and not done it.

The English Steinsaltz translation is slightly different than Jastrow's:

אלמא עביד איניש דגזים ולא עביד הכא נמי דגזים ולא עביד

Evidently, a person is prone to bluster without acting on his threat. Here, also, it could be that he was blustering about seizing collateral, but did not act on it.

The choice of "to bluster" as the translation of the Aramaic cognate גזים was a clever choice. Meaning "to talk or act with noisy swaggering threats" and "to utter with noisy self-assertiveness", it encompasses both the sense of "to threaten" and "to exaggerate." This is appropriate for the case above, where the person doesn't carry through with his threat.

But not every threat is a bluster. For example, the midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:6) refers to the story of Joseph and Potifar's wife, saying that if Joseph did not acquiesce to her request, she threatened to tell her her husband that Joseph assaulted her. And yet Joseph did not give in to her, despite what she threatened to do to him - שֶׁהָיְתָה מַגְזֶמֶת לַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ. And as we know from the biblical story - she did indeed tell her husband that Joseph assaulted her - she carried out her threat.

One word can't therefore contain all the meanings of higzim. So we need a different explanation as to the different meanings of the verb גזם. Klein provides just such an explanation. After providing an initial definition of גזם meaning "to cut down, hew down," in his explanation of the second meaning ("to exaggerate, to threaten"), he writes:

This base is prob. identical with גזם ᴵ. The phases of sense development prob. are: cut; ‘to speak in a cutting or sharp manner; to exaggerate; to threaten’.

It seems to me that "to threaten" probably preceded "to exaggerate", but his connecting of "to cut" and to speak in a "cutting or sharp manner" makes sense to me.  

Sunday, July 31, 2022

hiflig and muflag

A few months ago, we discussed the root peleg פלג. I noted the following:

The cognate פלג provides even more words. As with פלח, the root means "cleave, split, divide." Here are a sample of some of the words deriving from that root:

  • פִּלֵּג pileg - "to divide, separate"
  • הִפְלִיג hiflig - "to depart (by ship), to set sail"

Looking back, I don't think I gave enough attention to the form hiflig, and I didn't even mention the passive form - muflag מופלג. Let's look at them now.

Unlike pileg, these forms only appear in post-Biblical Hebrew. Klein provides a few different meanings:

        Hiph. - הִפֽלִיג 1 he separated (orig. ‘he divided’); 2 he went off (lit.: ‘he separated himself’); for sense development cp. Fren. partir (= to divide, separate), se partir (= to separate oneself, depart, leave); 3 he set sail; 4 he turned aside, diverted, put off; 5 he removed; 6 he exaggerated (lit. prob. meaning ‘he went too far’).
    — Hoph. - הֻפֽלַג 1 was diverted; 2 was removed.

For muflag he offers a few more:

 PBH 1 distant, remote. PBH 2 distinguished, excellent. NH 3 exaggerated.

However, there are many more meanings found in Talmudic and Rabbinic Hebrew. Jastrow lists the following (see the link for citations) for hiflig:

  • to part, go away
  • to go to sea
  • to rest from work, to pause
  • to divert, put off; to discard
  • to reject, disregard, discard
  • to decline from the road
  • to withdraw one's self, to be reserved, speak in indefinite and general terms
  • to differ
  • to go too far
And for muflag, Jastrow adds: removed, far, distinguished, special expert.

But Jastrow is only a dictionary of Talmudic and Midrashic Hebrew. The Ben-Yehuda dictionary, which goes all the way up to the early modern period, has even more. For example, it also includes:

  • to put off with fair words
  • to put aside
  • to separate oneself
  • to branch off, to step aside
  • to not mind, to not pay attention
  • to go astray
  • to go far
It also has "detached" for muflag. (I should note that the Ben-Yehuda dictionary has 6 (!) pages of examples of uses of these two roots, and they cover far more subtle differences than the translations I provided above).

What I find remarkable, is that with the root having so many meanings and connotations over the centuries, in modern Hebrew very few are still in use.

The dictionary web site Morfix only provides three definitions for hiflig:

to depart (by ship, boat); to sail; to exaggerate 
However, I don't recall hearing hiflig used in the sense "to exaggerate" in conversation in Israel. That could simply be an oversight on my part, but looking at the site Reverso, which takes its examples from a corpus of translated texts, I think I'm not so far off. For hiflig, Reverso only suggests the following: 

sailed, sail, sailing, shipped out, proceeded, departed

If we add the word שבח shevach - "praise" - to the phrase, then we find examples both in Medieval Hebrew and in Modern Hebrew of הפליג בשבח meaning "lavish praise (on someone/something)." Those examples don't imply exaggeration.

Regarding muflag, we see a similar phenomenon. Looking at the definition found in the various dictionaries, you might think that the common meaning was "exaggerated." That's particularly true if you consider some of the negative connotations of hiflig cited, like "to go astray", "to reject', and in particular, "to go too far", which Klein suggested was the origin of the meaning "exaggerated". 

But again, that's not really what we see in common use. Morfix does suggest "exaggerated", but the meanings listed are "grand" and "exalted". Reverso doesn't have "exaggerated" at all, instead offering:

superlative, ripe old, old age, great age, overdrive, superlatively, superfluous

I do recognize that "superfluous" isn't so far from "exaggerated", but I think the latter implies more conscious intent. A common use of muflag today is in the phrase gil muflag גיל מופלג (as seen in some of Reverso's suggestion), referring to someone very old.  So I think good translations of muflag could be "exceeding(ly great)" or "excessive", depending on the context. Sometimes it would reflect the earlier sense of "to go far" and other times "to go too far."

Sunday, July 24, 2022


A reader asked about the etymology of  אוֹלָר olar - "pen knife" - since Klein reports that the word is "of unknown origin." The more recent Even-Shoshan dictionary also does not provide the origin of the word.

The word olar appears for the first time in Mishnaic Hebrew, but appears in only a very few sources, making its history difficult to decipher.

The most prominent source is Mishna Kelim 12:8, which lists various utensils subject to ritual impurity. It begins by mentioning: הָאוֹלָר, וְהַקֻּלְמוֹס  - the olar and the kulmos. Since the latter is a "reed pen" (as we discussed here), the olar was understood to specifically refer to a penknife, since that kind of small knife was originally used for cutting the quills used for pens. Like the English word penknife, today olar refers to any kind of pocket knife, like the famous Swiss Army knife.

We also find the olar and the kulmos together in Tosefta Kelim BB 7:12, and that's pretty much it. The Historical Dictionary Project of the Academy of the Hebrew Language provides a few more mentions, but none shed light on the possible origin of the word. However, looking at the quotes mentioned there, we do find that some sources have the word spelled אוֹלָד olad, instead of olar

Jastrow prefers this spelling, and provides this definition:

a tool for hollowing out and cutting the writing reed (scalprum), a sort of pen-knife.

Following his general tendency to look for Semitic origins for Talmudic words, Jastrow suggests that olad comes from the roots ילד or ולד, presumably in the way that a fetus fills the abdominal cavity of a pregnant woman.

That suggestion seems farfetched to me. Yet putting his etymology aside, it's not clear which is the original word - olar or olad. Based on the similarity between the letters resh and dalet, it's understandable how such a rare word could have been the subject of a scribal error in either direction. But with no etymology, we can't really say which form should be preferred.

The question of olar vs olad became more intense during the dawn of modern Hebrew - I assume because the word was now entering the vernacular, and people needed to know how to say and write it. 

Bialik claimed that olad was the original form (which lead to an interesting conversation with Avineri), as did Kohut in his Arukh Hashalem. Tur-Sinai agreed that olad was probably the original form, but noted that since we don't know the etymology, there's no point in objecting to the popular form olar. And since olar is the way it appears in most printed editions of the Mishna, as well as in the later works of the Rambam (as pointed out by Melamed here) , that's what stuck.

So what about the etymology? The footnote to the olar entry in the Ben-Yehuda dictionary concedes that the source isn't known (which is likely what led Klein to the same conclusion). It notes that there were attempts to find a Greek source, but like Jastrow's Hebrew one, they are not convincing. It quotes Fleischer as saying that olar (or olad) is one of those words that entered Hebrew in the Mishnaic period that we simply don't know the etymology. Fleischer was commenting on Jacob Levy's dictionary of Talmudic terms (in German). Levy (page 40) proposes a Greek etymology, and then Fleischer later disagrees (page 279). Using Google Translate, Fleischer considers this one of the "numerous unsolved, maybe even unsolvable, etymological riddles of this mixed language." (German speakers are welcome to provide a better translation).

Nothing I found in more recent scholarship has presented a "new" etymology for olar.

If you read this far that might not be satisfying, and even frustrating. But I look at it as an opportunity. Perhaps one of you will be the one to crack the case!

Sunday, July 17, 2022


This is a short one, but I thought it was interesting.

The Hebrew word for helmet, kasda  קַסְדָּה (or in the Mishna, קַסְדָּא) comes from Latin. Here is Klein's etymology:

From L. cassis, gen. cassidis, which prob. stands for * kadh-tis, from IE * kadh– (= to guard, watch), whence also Old Eng. hōd, hood, haett (= hat).

While words like hood and hat may indeed be distantly cognate with kasda, I liked these closer cousins. 

The Latin cassida shows up in the name of a genus of tortoise beetles, whose shells do recall a helmet:

From Wikipedia / © Darius Baužys

It also appears in the name of of a family of large sea snails, the Cassidae, who are also known as "helmet snails":

How responsible of them to be wearing a kasda!

Monday, July 11, 2022

safsal and asla

One of the fun things when doing etymological research is discovering two related words, that you previously had no idea were connected, but once you look into it the connection makes a lot of sense.

That's the case with the words סַפְסָל safsal and אַסְלָה asla

Here's Klein's entry for safsal:

PBH bench, stool. [From L. sub-selliam (= bench, seat), through the medium of Gk. suphellion, formed from sub (= under; see סוּבּ◌), and sella, from the base of sedēre (= to sit)]

Having safsal derive from the Latin subsellium makes even more sense when you note that some manuscripts of the mishna vocalize the word as safsel

The Latin sella - "seat, chair" - also appears in asla (today "toilet" / "toilet bowl"). Again, here's Klein:

PBH (pl. אֲסָלוֹת, resp. אֲסֶלּוֹת) closet stool, lavatory seat. [L. sella (= seat, chair, stool), for sed-lā, from sedēre (= to sit). ... The אַ◌ in אַסְלָה is prosthetic.]

The same roots for these Hebrew words have also made their way into English. The verb sedere made its way into such words as sedentary, preside, and sedate. And if we go back to its Proto-Indo-European root, *sed, we get even more English words, including very common ones like sit, set, and chair

That same PIE root, via Greek, gave us one more very familiar Hebrew word - sanhedrin סנהדרין. Klein provides the background:

PBH 1 ‘Sanhedrin’ — the supreme Jewish court (סַנְהֶדְרִין גְּדוֹלָה) in the time of the Second Temple, consisting of 71 scholars. 2 one of the lesser courts with 23 members, called סַנְהֶדְרִין קְטַנָּה, lit.: ‘the small Sanhedrin’. [Gk. synedrion (= council, council chamber), lit.: ‘sitting together’, from syn (= with, together with), and edra (= a seat), which is cogn. with L. sedēre (= to sit).]

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives a similar etymology, but has the Greek hedra for "seat." 

All these words represent very different kinds of "seats", each with their own purpose. Since sitting is such a common experience, it shouldn't be surprising that it has led to so many words - expressing both the literal and symbolic expression of the action.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

falafel, pilpel, and pilpul

One of the foods most identified with Israel is falafel. While the food is ancient, the name is more recent - and derives from the Arabic falafil. There are a number of theories as to the etymology of falafil:

The most common suggestion I found was that the Arabic derives from the Persian word for "pepper", which in turn was borrowed from Sanskrit. This is likely due to how the falafel was spiced. 

Like Arabic, Hebrew also received their word for pepper - פִּלְפֵּל pilpel - in a similar fashion. Here's Klein's entry for pilpel:

Like Arab. fulful, filfil (= pepper) borrowed through Persian and Aram. mediation from Old I. pippalī́ (= berry, peppercorn), which is of imitative origin. Gk. peperi (whence L. piper) is of the same origin. L. piper was borrowed by many European languages.

Those European languages include English. Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for "pepper":

"dried berries of the pepper plant," Middle English peper, from Old English pipor, from an early West Germanic borrowing of Latin piper "pepper," from Greek piperi, probably (via Persian) from Middle Indic pippari, from Sanskrit pippali "long pepper." The Latin word is the source of German Pfeffer, Italian pepe, French poivre, Old Church Slavonic pipru, Lithuanian pipiras, Old Irish piobhar, Welsh pybyr, etc.

Application to fruits of the Capsicum family (unrelated, originally native of tropical America) is from 16c.

Other words deriving from the spice "pepper" include "peppermint", "pepperoni", and "pep" (as in "vigor, energy"). The Hungarian word "paprika", however, got its name from the New World sweet (bell) peppers.

The Hebrew pilpel is found in rabbinic literature, starting in the mishna. It also appears in the Aramaic form פִּלְפַּלְתָּא pilpalta, but with the same meaning. In modern Hebrew there was an attempt to establish the related פִּלְפֶּלֶת pilpelet as the word for bell peppers, leaving pilpel for the spice pepper. You'll still see pilpelet in dictionaries, but from my experience, Israelis use pilpel for both kinds of pepper, and don't use pilpelet at all.

One Hebrew word that many claim ultimately derives from the same Sanskrit root is פִּלְפּוּל pilpul. It is variously translated as "sharp analysis", "intense debate", or for those less charitable, "hairsplitting" or "sophistry." It is a method found in studying Talmud, where different texts, or passages in the same text, are closely analyzed, and conclusions are found from the contradictions between them. The sharpness of the debates has led to the theory that pilpul is related to pilpel (pepper). For example, here's the opening of the entry from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia for pilpul:

A method of Talmudic study. The word is derived from the verb "pilpel" (lit. "to spice," "to season," and in a metaphorical sense, "to dispute violently" [Tosef., B. B. vii. 5] or "cleverly" [Shab. 31a; B. M. 85b]). Since by such disputation the subject is in a way spiced and seasoned, the word has come to mean penetrating investigation, disputation, and drawing of conclusions, and is used especially to designate a method of studying the Law (Ab. vi. 5; Baraita; B. B. 145b; Tem. 16a; Ket. 103b; Yer. Ter. iv. 42d).

However, it then goes on to note that a different etymology derives from it from the Hebrew root פלל. This is the origin that Klein provides in his entry for the verb פלפל, meaning "to discuss, argue, debate":

Pilp. of base פלל. Whence also Syr. פַּל (= he sprinkled), corresponding to Heb. בְּלֵל, respectively בִּלֽבֵּל. There is no connection between the v. פלפל ᴵ and the n. פִּלְפֵּל (= pepper) as most scholars would have it.

(Interestingly, in his earlier CEDEL, Klein does write that pilpul derives from "he spiced, he seasoned" from which came the meaning "he argued, he debated, he disputed violently.")

As we've discussed before, the root פלל means both "to judge" and "to pray", and according to Klein, originally meant "to cut," and "to decide", which would presumably be his connection to the debates of pilpul

As often happens, Klein's Hebrew etymological dictionary relies on the Ben Yehuda dictionary, which also denies a connection between pilpul and pepper, and directs us to a 1935 essay by the linguist Hanoch Yelon. Yelon interprets the word תִּתַּפָּל in Shmuel II 22:27 as deriving from פלל, and meaning "to roll (over)" and so the root פלפל (in the sense of analysis) would mean to turn something from side to side while investigating it. This use is found in the midrash (Pesikta Rabbati 21:1) where we read of a warrior who   מפלפל בזיינו ומראה פנים לכל צד - "turned his sword about and made it face each direction." 

From this, and other examples he brings, Yelon is convinced the connection to pepper is only a folk-etymology. This folk-etymology may go back a long time (see for example this passage from Yoma 85b, which compares a good argument to spicy pepper), but most modern scholars accept that pilpul and pepper aren't related. However, they don't all agree with Yelon's etymology. For example, the Even-Shoshan dictionary says פלפל derives from בלבל, meaning "to confuse, to mix up", although it does give a similar definition of the original meaning of pilpul based on that etymology: "to turn something over and over."

Well, this analysis has gone on quite a bit, and I don't want to be accused of excessive pilpul, so we'll end it here...

Tuesday, June 21, 2022


There is no question that the name of the star Betelgeuse (the inspiration for the 1988 movie Beetlejuice) derives from Arabic. However, how it got that name is the subject of dispute. Let's review how different sources present the etymology, and how it might connect to any Hebrew words.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has a short entry for Betelgeuse:

alpha Orionis, bright reddish star in the right shoulder of Orion, 1515, from Arabic Ibt al Jauzah, traditionally said to mean "the Armpit of the Central One" (with this arm he holds his club aloft), but perhaps more accurately "Hand of al-Jauza (Orion)." Intermediary forms include Bed Elgueze, Beit Algueze.

However, this leaves many open questions. The Arabic 'ibT means "armpit", but why then would the term be "more accurately" be the "Hand of al-Jauza (Orion)", with hand being yad in Arabic (as in Hebrew). What is the role of these "intermediary forms": Bed ElguezeBeit Algueze, the latter of which would seem to indicate the Arabic word for house: bayt (again similar to the Hebrew beit)? And what is the meaning of Jauza? Why is it "the Central One" or "Orion"? And what is its etymology?

These questions are addressed in other sources, although without complete clarity. The Wiktionary entry for Betelgeuse attempts to tackle them:

Ultimately from an alteration of the Arabic يَد الجَوْزَاء‎ (yad al-jawzāʾ, “hand of the central one”), from يَد‎ (yad, “hand”) + جَوْزَاء‎ (jawzāʾ, “central one”).

Jawzā, ‘the central one’, initially referred to Gemini among the Arabs, but at some point they decided to refer to Orion by that name. During the Middle Ages the first character of the name, ’ (ي, with two underdots), was misread as a ’ (ب, with one underdot) when transliterating into Latin, and Yad al-Jauza became Bedalgeuze. This was then misinterpreted during the Renaissance as deriving from a corruption of an original Arabic form إِبْط الجَوْزَاء (ʾibṭ al-jawzāʾ, “armpit of the central one”). 

A similar explanation is found in the American Heritage dictionary:

The history of the curious star name Betelgeuse is a good example of how scholarly errors can creep into language. The story starts with the pre-Islamic Arabic astronomers, who called the star yad al-jawzā', "hand of the jawzā'." The jawzā' was their name for the constellation Gemini. After Greek astronomy became known to the Arabs, the word came to be applied to the constellation Orion as well. Some centuries later, when scribes writing in Medieval Latin tried to render the word, they misread the y as a b (the two corresponding Arabic letters are very similar when used as the first letter in a word), leading to the Medieval Latin form Bedalgeuze. In the Renaissance, another set of scholars trying to figure out the name interpreted the first syllable bed- as being derived from a putative Arabic word *bā meaning "armpit." This word did not exist; it would correctly have been ib. Nonetheless, the error stuck, and the resultant etymologically "improved" spelling Betelgeuse was borrowed into French as Bételgeuse, whence English Betelgeuse.

More details about how this came to be can be found in this article and in this one

We've now learned two more things. One, that there may have been a number of transcription and translations errors, leading from Yad al-Jauza to Bedalgeuze, which was then misunderstood as ʾibṭ al-jawzāʾ. (The Hebrew Wikipedia article for Betelgeuse notes that the transcription error may have led to the term being interpreted as Beit al-Jauza -- the house of Jauza).  Secondly, the term originally referred to the constellation Gemini, and only later came to refer to Orion.

Now let's turn to jawza - the "central" one. This etymology surprised me. Recall that the term originally referred to the constellation Gemini, "the twins." The Arabic term for Gemini is Jawza'. And the Arabic Etymological Dictionary has the following entry:

jauz : pair [zauj]

From this it would seem that jauz and zauj (also the Arabic word for "husband", one member of the pair), are related through metathesis. This would make them both cognate with the Hebrew zug זוג - also meaning "pair." To me this seems like a pretty obvious etymology: the constellation Gemini, the "twins", was called al-jauza, "the pair." But I haven't seen any sources that take this approach.

Rather, they all claim, as we've quoted above, that it derives from jawza meaning "central." Does that term have any Hebrew cognates?

From the Wiktionary entry for the Arabic root jwz, we see that as a verb it has a number of meanings, including "to cause to travel over, pass through" and "to carry through one's views." As a noun it can mean "main part" or "middle" - both giving us our "central." The connection between "passing through" and "central" is easy to understand - in general, one passes through the middle. The Arabic Etymological Dictionary adds that the verb jaza also means "to divide" (in addition to "go through, cross over, pass along.").

This verb does give us a connection to Hebrew. Stahl, in his Hebrew etymological dictionary of Arabic, notes that jaza, meaning "to divide, cut", is cognate to the Hebrew גזז - "to cut off, shear." Here's Klein's entry for גזז:

JAram. גְּזַז, Syr. גַּז, Arab. jazza (= he cut off, shore), Aram. גִּזָּא, Syr. גֶּזְּתָא (= wool), Akka. gizzu sha ṣēni (= sheep-shearing, wool). cp. the related base גזה.
I still think that the term might have originally meant "the twins/pair." But it's nice to know that even the accepted etymology has a possible Hebrew cognate as well.

Monday, June 13, 2022

shamir, shumar and emery

The word שמיר shamir has two meanings in the Tanach. In the book of Yeshayahu (5:6, 7:23-25, 9:17, 10:17, 27:4, 32:13) it refers to a kind of thorny plant or thistle. In other books of the prophets (Yirmiyahu 17:1, Yechezkel 3:9, Zechariah 7:12) it has a different meaning - a very hard stone, like a diamond.

Klein suggests they are related. For the thistle meaning he has this entry:

שָׁמִיר ᴵ m.n. Christ’s thorn (mostly occurring together with, שַׁיִת, q.v.). [Related to JAram. שַׁמָּרָא, שֻׁמָּרָא (= fennel), Arab. samur. cp. שֻׁמָּר.] 

And for the stone he has the following:

שָׁמִיר ᴵᴵ m.n. 1 smiris corundum, adamant, diamond, emery (in the Bible occurring only Jer. 17:1; Ezek. 3:9; Zech. 7:12). 2 ‘shamir’ (a legendary worm or stone created on the Sabbath eve that could cut any stone). [Related to Syr. שָׁמִירָא (= adamant; emery), Arab. sammūr. שָׁמִיר ᴵᴵ is prob. a special sense development of שָׁמִיר ᴵ and properly denotes orig. a thorn or prickle used as a point for engraving. cp. Jer. 17:1: חַטַּאת יְהוּדָה כְּתוּבָה בְּעֵט בֵּרְזֶל בְּצִפֹּרֶן שָׁמִיר, ‘The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond’. Gk. smiris (= emery powder) — whence Gk. smeri, whence It. smeriglio, whence Fren. émeri, whence Eng. emery — is prob. borrowed from שָׁמִיר ᴵᴵ. cp. ‘emery’ in my CEDEL.]

So he concludes that the stone, used for engraving, was similar to the earlier meaning of thorn, and therefore derives from it. And as he notes, this could be a source for the English word "emery," as conceded by the Online Etymology Dictionary:

granular mixture used as an abrasive, late 15c., from French émeri, from Old French esmeril, from Italian smeriglo, from Vulgar Latin *smyrilium, from Greek smyris "abrasive powder" used for rubbing and polishing, probably a non-Greek word, perhaps from a Semitic source. Emery board is attested from 1725.

However, the Encyclopedia Mikrait (entry מלים זרות, page 1078), includes the Hebrew shamir and the Greek smyris in a list of biblical Semitic and Indo-European words that derive from a language family not common to either. It doesn't say where this word (or the others in the list) comes from, but says it's possible that the origin is from Asia Minor, Crete or elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

Neither of the two meanings is in popular use today. The Talmud and  midrash (for example Avot 5:6) identified the second meaning not as a stone, but as Klein mentioned, "a legendary worm  ... that could cut any stone." This version continued to appear in legends.

The two original meanings inspired the future Israeli prime minister, then Yitzhak Yezernitsky, to change his name to Yitzchak Shamir. As a biography notes, he chose it because it means a "thorn, which stabs and stings: the question is who" and a "hard precious stone capable of breaking steel."

But the most common usage of shamir today is one that Klein doesn't mention: the herb "dill." Almost all dictionaries, if they mention any background at all, will comment that this is the "popular" usage, but the correct Hebrew term for dill is שֶׁבֶת shevet or more specifically שֶׁבֶת רֵיחָנִי shevet reichani. This is the term found in the Mishna. Then why did the people start calling dill shamir

It seems to be due to a confusion between dill, and the botantically related, and similar looking, "fennel".  As Klein noted above, the thistle meaning of shamir is related to the words for fennel in other Semitic languages: shumra in Aramaic and samur in Arabic. This led to the adoption of shumar for fennel in later Hebrew, with shamir available for dill. Here is how each of those spices are defined in the Encyclopedia Judaica, as cited in the Jewish Virtual Library:


The umbelliferous plant Foeniculum vulgare, leaves of which are used as a spice similar to dill, fennel is called gufnan in the Mishnah (Dem. 1:1) and shumar in the Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud (Dem. 1:1, 21d) states that the Galileans did not consider it a spice, but it was regarded as such in Judah.


Called shevet in the Mishnah, dill is the plant Anethum graveolens used today mainly as a spice in pickled cucumbers. In mishnaic times its foliage, stems, and seed were used as a spice (Ma'as. 4:5), and it was sown for this purpose (Pe'ah 3:2). It is an umbelliferous plant with yellow flowers, which grows wild in the Negev (it is popularly but erroneously called shamir).

From the Chubeza site (a great CSA farm in Israel), the following is added:

Officially, the proper Hebrew name for dill is “shevet reichani” – aromatic “shevet,” but the name this herb somehow ended up with is “Shamir”, a word actually used to describe a thorny wild plant used metaphorically in the Bible when describing a farm overgrown with weeds. Amotz Cohen, teacher and nature explorer, believes that dill is really the “poterium” found primarily in abandoned fields over the country.

Steinberg, in the Milon HaTanach entry for shamir, writes that "in the European exile shamir was used for the plant we call shumar (i.e., fennel)." So perhaps first shamir was used to mean fennel, and then later became designated for dill.

As often happens with "popular" usage, there isn't a definitive answer to when and how the term was adopted, but there is no doubt that in Israel today, shamir = dill, and dill = shamir.

One word that Klein doesn't connect to shamir, and I find this surprising, is masmer מסמר - "nail." Here is his entry:

A collateral form of מַשְׂמֵר; derived from סמר. cp. Aram. מַסְמְרָא (= nail). Arab. mismār is prob. an Aram. loan word

Looking at the root סמר, it's noteworthy that Klein defines it as "to bristle up." To me, "bristle" recalls "thorn" and "nail" echoes the hard stone used for cutting. While Klein doesn't connect them, the Even-Shoshan dictionary does entertain the possibility that they are related. So perhaps this is one more cognate word to consider.

Sunday, May 01, 2022


A reader asked about the word shidah שִׁדָּה, translated by Morfix as "dresser, chest of drawers." That seemed like an easy task - but I didn't know what I was getting into.

The word shidah appears in only one verse in the entire Tanach. It appears twice in the verse, so I don't know if it counts as a hapax legomenon, but it certainly suffers from the same fate that other such words do - without multiple appearances, they are hard to translate. In this case, it's even harder, because the context of the verse itself leaves nearly infinite possible interpretations.

It appears in the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in a section where the king is boasting about his possessions. Here is the Hebrew:

כָּנַסְתִּי לִי גַּם־כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב וּסְגֻלַּת מְלָכִים וְהַמְּדִינוֹת עָשִׂיתִי לִי שָׁרִים וְשָׁרוֹת וְתַעֲנֻגוֹת בְּנֵי הָאָדָם שִׁדָּה וְשִׁדּוֹת

And the English (but I'm not translating - yet - our word shidah)

I further amassed silver and gold and treasures of kings and provinces; and I got myself male and female singers, and the pleasures of people, shida v’shidot. (Kohelet 2:8)

This is an incredibly difficult phrase to translate. What does shidah mean here? Why is the singular shida followed by the plural shidot?  Even the punctuation is hard to place properly, but I'll leave that aside for now. 

All we can really say is that it's something (or a set of things) that a king would list among his treasured possessions.

This question did not escape the Sages. In the Talmud (Gittin 68b), two interpretations are offered:

שִׁדָּה וְשִׁדּוֹת הָכָא תַּרְגִּימוּ שֵׁידָה וְשֵׁידְתִין בְּמַעְרְבָא אָמְרִי שִׁידְּתָא

I'll translate the passage as follows:

"Here [in Babylonia] they interpreted the phrase as follows: 'male and female demons' [shedim]. In the West [= in the Land of Israel], they said it means shiddeta."

Let's put aside the "demon" translation. As Rav Hai Gaon (quoted by the Arukh) noted, this is a drash, and not the plain meaning of the verse in Kohelet. But what about the "Western" translation? I once again haven't translated it into English!

Well, if you look at the English translations, they say that in the Land of Israel they translated shidah and shidot as "carriages." This is clearly due to the influence of Rashi, the preeminent Talmudic commentator, who writes here that shiddeta (and shidah) refer to carriages for women and nobles: שידתא - שידה עגלה למרכבת נשים ושרים.

But with all due respect to Rashi, I'm not convinced that this is the only (or best) interpretation of the Talmudic passage, and as a result, the meaning of the verse in Kohelet.

The term shidah appears repeatedly throughout the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmuds. It frequently is part of a set, a shidah, a teiva, and a migdal - שִׁדָּה תֵּבָה וּמִגְדָּל. All of these are types of furniture. The Steinsaltz English translation renders them, for example in Mishna Shabbat 16:5, as "a box, a chest, and a closet." (The Ben Yehuda dictionary says the difference between these types of boxes is not clear). These identifications, or something similar to them, are offered by most translators, including Rambam. Rashi is the exception, who in almost all cases associates shidah with carriages (see the examples brought here). 

Why does he do that? I couldn't find any obvious examples in the Talmudic or Midrashic literature where shidah means carriage. There is mention of a shidah having wheels (Mishna Kelim 18:1-2), but this doesn't appear to be referring to carriages intended for nobles.

(The only possible exception is a midrash quoted by Torah Temimah on Kohelet 2:8, but I couldn't find the midrash anywhere, and in his commentary on the midrash he quotes Rashi. So something strange is going on.)

I assume the topic has been researched, and it's very likely I simply haven't seen more established theories. But here's my suggestion. I think that Rashi was trying to be consistent across all of his commentaries when he was defining words (this is something that Avineri discusses in his Heichal Rashi). In his commentary on Kohelet 2:8, Rashi writes:

שִׁדָּה וְשִׁדּוֹת. מַרְכְּבוֹת נוֹי, עֶגְלוֹת צָב, וּבִלְשׁוֹן גְּמָרָא יֵשׁ: שִׁדָּה, תֵּיבָה וּמִגְדָּל:

This is translated as:

Beautiful coaches, covered wagons, a term used in the Gemara, "a coach [shidah], a chest and a closet."

So once again, Rashi is willing to interpret the shidah in the furniture set as a carriage (or coach). I think that this may be the source of the rest of his explanations. Why would a king boast about having a box or a closet? However, a particular kind of container, a carriage, does have royal associations. (See for example the apriyon, "litter", mentioned with King Shlomo in Shir HaShirim 3:9). So to explain Kohelet, Rashi extends his understanding of the word to other contexts, even when they don't fit as well. 

I admire Rashi's consistency here, but I don't know if it's required in this case. As I mentioned, it's incredibly hard to interpret shidah veshidot in Kohelet, and it simply might not be related to the shidah found in the Talmud. That certainly appears to be the opinion of Ibn Ezra, who writes in his commentary to Kohelet:

וענין שדה ושדות. הם הנשים ויורה עליו ותענוגות בני האדם ועוד שהזכיר דברי כל תאוות העולם מבנין ונטיעה ומקנה וסגולה ושמוע שירים ואין זכרון לנשים ונחלקו המפרשים במלת שדה והטוב שבכולם שהוא מן שדד הנשים השדודות הנלקחות בחזקה בשוד ושביה שיבחר מהן כפי תאותו וענין שדה ושדות אחת ורבות כמו רחם רחמתים לראש גבר בעלת רחם אשה אחת ושתים והענין שלא תאמר אחת לבדה כי יש מי שתפש שתים:

To summarize his comment, he says that shida and shidot means "women." His evidence is that the verse earlier mentions the "pleasures of people" and the earlier verses relate to all kinds of other desires, but don't mention women, which would be expected. He derives shidah from the root שדד, "to plunder", indicating women taken as captives. 

Ibn Ezra's explanation is accepted by a number of modern scholars as well, who also find support in an Ugaritic cognate meaning "woman" (see Daat Mikra on Kohelet, and Kaddari's dictionary).

But there are many more suggestions for the meaning of shidah in Kohelet, as well as the etymology of the word. Here are a few:

  • chests (Artscroll), coffers (New JPS)  - these translations (and others) are like Rashi in that they try to find consistency between shidah in Kohelet, and the appearances in later Rabbinic Hebrew. By translating the phrase as "chests and chests of them", it indicates an impressive quantity of the pleasures mentioned earlier, which they translate as "luxuries." That could indeed be fit for a king. As far as etymology, one theory that I've seen, connects shidah to shed שד, "breast." I think it is noteworthy that in English as well, "chest" can refer to both a box and to the breast, both holding something (in the latter case, the heart.)
  • wine, cup bearer, goblets - These renderings are found in the ancient Septuagint, Peshitta and Vulgate translations. BDB says these may be related to the Aramaic שדא - "to pour out."
  • musical instruments - this is the suggestion of Ralbag, who says they were shaped like boxes. This would fit with the previous phrase, "male and female singers."
Perhaps most the most audacious suggestion comes from Shadal, who suggests the verse in Kohelet should have a different vocalization, and says it should be read as sadeh שדה - "field." While that is certainly an interesting idea, I generally feel that such emendations should only be a last resort.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

kodesh and kadosh

 A reader asked me to write about the Hebrew words kadosh קדוש and kodesh קודש - generally translated as "holy" and "holiness," respectively. It's taken me a few months to get to the request, because while I agree that the root קדש deserves examination, the word is so loaded with religious meaning and pervasive in Jewish liturgy and culture that I found it somewhat intimidating to tackle. 

For example, here are just a few of the important terms that derive from the root קדש:

  • kiddush קידוש - the prayer and blessing over wine inaugurating Shabbat or holidays
  • kedusha קדושה - the section of the repeated Amida prayer which emulates the praise angels give to God
  • kaddish קדיש - the Aramaic praise of God, which is part of all prayer services, and whose recitation is part of the mourning rituals
  • kiddushin קידושין - betrothal - the first step of the marriage process
  • hekdesh הקדש - property consecrated to the Temple
  • mikdash מקדש - the Holy Temple
And looking in the Bible, there are over 800 words deriving from the root. Daunting, no?

But that doesn't mean I shouldn't try. So I'm acknowledging that I won't touch on every aspect of the words, and perhaps I'll update this post or write another one in the future with additional insights.

Let's start by looking at the forms of the verb.

  • קָדַשׁ kadash: The kal form of the verb is not commonly used today, but it does appear a number of times in the Bible. According to Klein it can either mean "was set apart, consecrated" or "was forbidden." It is interesting to note that in the two verses quoted in the Even-Shoshan dictionary for this form (Shemot 29:37 and Devarim 22:9), קדש has a negative connotation, referring to something forbidden.
  • נקדש nikdash: The nifal form, the passive of the kal, is more commonly found. Klein offers "was hallowed, was sanctified" and "was consecrated, was dedicated." The former is found in Biblical Hebrew (only used to refer to God), and the latter meaning seems to have begun in the Rabbinic period.
  • קִדֵּשׁ kidesh and קֻדַּשׁ kudash: The piel (active) and pual (passive) forms also mean both "to sanctify" (or be sanctified) and "to dedicate" (or was dedicated). Other meanings associated with this root are "to cleanse, purify" (as in Shemot 19:10), and then in Rabbinic Hebrew, to sanctify the Shabbat and holidays (i.e., kiddush) and to betroth (i.e., kiddushin). 
  • הקדיש hikdish and הוקדש hukdash: The hifil (active) and hufal (passive) forms in Modern Hebrew mean "to dedicate, allocate, designate, devote" - with either religious or secular connotations. But in earlier periods, it could mean "was set apart as holy, regarded as holy."
  • התקדש hitkadesh: In the hitpael (reflexive) form, the root means "to keep (oneself) separated" or "purified (oneself)." It can also mean "to become sanctified," and this is how it used in the Kaddish prayer, when we pray that God's name become sanctified.
We can see from these various definitions, that the root קדש has two primary connotations.

1) "to be holy", in the sense of "lofty, exalted", even "perfect", and perhaps closer to divine. This is captured well by the English word "holy" (and the related "hallow") which derive from an earlier root meaning "whole, uninjured" (and is ultimately cognate with "whole" as well.)

2) "to set apart, separate." Perhaps this meaning could better be expressed with the adjective "sacred," and the verb "sanctify", both of which derive from roots indicating separation or consecration.

There are certainly occasions where that sense overlaps with the "exalted, holy" sense. Something dedicated to God has an exalted status, and anything holy would be separate and distinct from an object without that position. But when there is no such overlap, it allows for the "forbidden" meaning in Biblical Hebrew, and the "designated" meaning in Modern Hebrew.

According to Klein's etymology, the second connotation is the original one:

Related to Ugar. qdsh (= sanctuary), Phoen. קדש (= holy), מקדש (= sanctuary, holy place), Aram.-Syr. קַדֵּשׁ (= he hallowed, sanctified, consecrated), Palm. קדש (= to sanctify, consecrate), Arab. qadusa (= was holy, was pure), quaddasa (= he hallowed, sanctified, consecrated; he went to Jerusalem), quds (= purity, holiness), al-quds (= Jerusalem; lit.: ‘the holy place’), Akka. quddushu (= to cleanse, to hallow, sanctify,), Aram.–Syr. קְדָשָׁא (= ear or nose ring; orig. ‘holy thing’). The orig. meaning of this base prob. was ‘to separate’.
This is also the view of the BDB dictionary, who writes that the original idea behind the root may have been "separation, withdrawal" and translates kodesh as "apartness, sacredness."

However, others, such as Gesenius, claim that the original meaning was connotation 1, noting that the kal form of the verb (presumably the most basic one), meant "to be pure, clean, prop. used of physical purity and cleanliness." This approach does find support in the cognates found in other Semitic languages (as quoted by Klein above.)

I'd like to end with a quote from the philosopher and theologian Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits. He wrote a lengthy essay entitled "The Concept of Holiness" in his book "Man and God: Studies in Biblical Theology." I can't review the entire essay here (I do recommend reading it), but I think the last paragraph is very profound:

In our own analysis, interest was concentrated on the meaning of the term as it is applied to God and man, but we have not lost sight of its purely ritualistic significance either. We have found that the word, holy, does not stand for divine nature in whatever way that nature is understood, it is not a mere “otiose epithet” of God; but it is a specific attribute of the deity and it is consistently used all through the Bible in that specific sense. Rather than indicating transcendence, it seems to be inseparable from the idea of immanence. Far from meaning inaccessibility, it reveals closeness and association. It is not the mysterium tremendum; if anything, it is its very opposite. 

According to Rabbi Berkovits, even if kadosh does refer to separateness, that does not mean that God is distant from us, but rather shows just how closely involved God is with humanity.

Monday, April 11, 2022


After writing about words deriving from the root פלג, a reader asked if there was a connection to the word pilegesh פילגש - "concubine." 

My first instinct was to consult Klein's Hebrew etymology dictionary, which did not make a connection to פלג, but had an interesting story nonetheless:

cp. Aram. פַלְקְתָא, Syr. פלקא (= concubine). cp. also Greek pallake, pallakis (= concubine). Avestic pairika (= beautiful women seducing pious men). All these words are certainly related, but it is difficult to establish the degree of their relationship to one another.

He also suggests a possible connection to the post-biblical Hebrew word palgas פלגס - which means "a sheep thirteen months old," and says that it derives from the Greek pallax, "youth, girl", which is a cognate of the Greek words pallake, pallakis that he mentioned in the pilegesh entry. 

In his CEDEL entry for "Pallas" (another name for the Greek goddess Athene), he expands on this further. He says the name of the goddess comes from the Greek pallados, "maiden" which is cognate with pallake, pallakis - "concubine."  After quoting some other Greek forms of the word, and the Avestic parika (quoted above), he mentions the Persian pari ("fairy", usually rendered as "peri" in English), and then suggests comparing with "Hebrew pileghesh, Aramaic pilaqta, 'concubine', and Arabic Bilqis, name of the queen of Sheba." And like his Hebrew entry, he isn't sure about how exactly these words are related. He notes that "the above cited Indo-European words are possibly Semitic loan words." 

Whether Hebrew borrowed from the Greek, or if the Greek borrowed from a Semitic language, that would make pilegesh cognate with the metallic element palladium, which was named after the asteroid Pallas, which in turn was named for the Greek goddess.

Other suggest additional languages as the source of pilegesh. BDB mentions a possible Hittite origin, and in the footnotes of the Ben Yehuda dictionary, Tur-Sinai writes that it's possible that Egyptian is the source. Egyptian is also mentioned in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT), which also quotes Chaim Rabin as concluding that the word is Philistine in origin (which could certainly have Greek influences.)

But surprisingly (at least to me) is that TDOT also proposes a connection to פלג:

We can give no satisfactory explanation for the origin of pileges (Greek pallax, pallakis; Latin pellex; Jewish-Aramaic palqeta; Syriac palqa; Arabic in the feminine proper name bilqis). Scholars have sought its home in both the Semitic and the Indo-European language families and have put forward many conjectures about mutual influence. Suggested etymologies include the Hebrew root plg, "divide, cleave," or a back-formation from Greek pallakis, pallake, pallax, originally "youth" or "girl," or from the same source plgs, "marriageable."

 Gesenius, after quoting the same Greek and Latin words, writes:

The etymology is obscure, but the origin may be sought with some appearance of truth in the idea of softness and pleasure, with the Phoenicio-Shemitic roots פלג, פלק. 

I don't really follow what he's writing here. First of all, I'm not familiar with the root פלק, and he doesn't include it in his dictionary, so maybe that was a typo. But I also don't see how to connect פלג with "softness and pleasure." And I don't see any mention of those terms in his entry for פלג, so I don't know where to go from there.

I took at look at Steinberg's Milon HaTanakh, who is usually happy to come up with a Hebrew origin for potentially foreign words, but he wasn't very helpful either. He does write that the Greek and Latin words we've mentioned were borrowed, via the Phoenicians, from Hebrew. But aside from rejecting Levita's idea that pilegesh comes from פלג-אשה (I guess "split-wife, half-wife"?), because it is "against the spirit of the language", he doesn't make a proposal of his own.

So to answer the initial question, I think that it doesn't seem too likely that pilegesh comes from peleg, but if it does, I'd need a better explanation (not just a guess) as to why.