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.

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

folk, pelach and peleg

I recently finished reading John McWhorter's book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. Throughout the book, he claims that English arrived at its current state through the influence of other languages. Much of the book talks about how the Celtic languages influenced the grammar of English. But at the end of the book, he builds on a theory by the German linguist Theo Vennemann, which argues that the Germanic languages (including English) are different from the other Indo-European languages because of interaction with speakers of a Semitic language - probably seafaring Phoenicians or Punics from Carthage.

I won't go into the whole argument, but it does bring up some interesting questions, and I don't think the theory is entirely unreasonable. One particular example that caught my eye was this one (from page 184):

... folk started in Germanic as a word referring to a division of an army, and only later morphed into meaning a tribe or a nation. The Proto-Germanic word was fukla; the early Semitic root for divide -- i.e., as in making a division -- was p-l-kh:


In the early Semitic language Assyrian, that root was used to mean district (i.e., a division of land), with the kh softening into a g (puluggu). In Hebrew today, a detachment is a plaga. Maybe in Northern Europe, that root came out as fulka in the same meaning.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has a different theory about the origin of "folk":

Old English folc "common people, laity; men; people, nation, tribe; multitude; troop, army," from Proto-Germanic *fulka- (source also of Old Saxon folc, Old Frisian folk, Middle Dutch volc, Dutch volk, Old High German folc, German Volk "people"). Perhaps originally "host of warriors:" Compare Old Norse folk "people," also "army, detachment;" and Lithuanian pulkas "crowd," Old Church Slavonic pluku "division of an army" (hence Russian polk "regiment"), both believed to have been borrowed from Proto-Germanic. Old English folcstede could mean both "dwelling-place" and "battlefield." According to Watkins, from PIE *ple-go-, suffixed form of root *pele- (1) "to fill," which would make it cognate with Greek plethos "people, multitude," and Latin plebes, "the populace, the common people." Boutkan thinks both the Germanic and Balto-Slavic could be a common borrowing from a substrate language.

The entry makes no mention of a Semitic connection. However, it does keep most of the cognate words to "folk" in the Germanic language family, and after quoting Watkins' theory about a connection to plethos and plebes (a theory which Klein rejects in his CEDEL, presumably because "people" and "multitude" were not the same as a division of warriors), there is mention of a "substrate language." That term refers to a language that influences another language by contact - which is exactly what McWhorter and Vennemann are saying that a Semitic language was in this case.

Whether or not they are the source of "folk", the two related Semitic roots that McWhorter mentioned - פלח (p-l-kh) and פלג (p-l-g) - gave us many Hebrew words.

The root פלח originally meant "to cleave, split", as McWhorter mentioned. That meaning is maintained in Hebrew in the word פֶּלַח pelach, meaning "section, slice of fruit."  But from there it developed into the specific sense of "to plow, till the ground." Arabic has a cognate to this meaning, falahah, which led to fallah "plowman", the source of the word for peasant, "fellah", which has entered into English. (No connection to "fellow", though.)

From working and serving the land, פלח expanded to a more religious meaning of divine worship, similar to how the root עבד can indicate both working the land and worshipping God (or "cultivate" and "cult" in English). This sense is most commonly seen in the word (originally from Aramaic) פולחן pulchan - "service." Pulchan originally was any kind of service, then became religious service / divine worship, but in Modern Hebrew it has returned to a more secular meaning, of any kind of ritual indicating extreme admiration and devotion (like a cult).

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"
  • התפלג hitpaleg - "to split"
  • פֶּלֶג peleg - "section, faction", also "brook, tributary" 
  • פְּלֻגָּה pluga - "army division" specifically a "company"
  • פְּלֻגְתָּא plugta - "disagreement, argument". This is from Aramaic, and has a literary connotation, and is commonly found in the phrase בַּר-פְּלֻגְתָּא bar plugta - "scholarly opponent."
  • מִפְלָגָה miflaga - "political party"
So what we have seen here is how many Hebrew words might be related to the English word "folk". And that's no folk etymology!