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."