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.

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!

Sunday, March 27, 2022

ghoul and gorilla

The English word "ghoul" derives from Arabic. Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for ghoul:

1786, goul, in the English translation of William Beckford's Orientalist novel "Vathek" (which was written in French), from Arabic ghul, an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses, from ghala "he seized."

The Arabic ghul as "demon" also gives us the name of the star Algol which is also known as the "Demon Star." The full name in Arabic is raʾs al-ghūl  - "the head of the demon" (because as part of the constellation of Perseus, it is the head of Medusa that Perseus is holding.) This name entered more modern mythology as a villain in the Batman comic books -  Ra's al Ghul.

Stahl, in his etymological dictionary of Arabic, quotes the historian and linguist Isaac Yahuda as saying that the word "gorilla" may have the same origin. While there is consensus on how "gorilla" entered English, its earlier history is unclear. For example, here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry:

1847, applied to a species of large apes (Troglodytes gorilla) by U.S. missionary Thomas Savage, from Greek gorillai, plural of name given to wild, hairy beings (now supposed to have been chimpanzees) in a Greek translation of Carthaginian navigator Hanno's account of his voyage along the northwest coast of Africa, c. 500 B.C.E. Allegedly an African word.

In his book Mishley Arav ("Proverbs of Arabia") Yahuda identifies ghul with "gorilla". I don't know how likely it is that Hanno would have encountered Arabic speakers in that part of Africa, but perhaps this was a cognate in a different Semitic, or Afroasiatic language. Or maybe Arabic speakers later conflated their ghul demon with the scary gorilla. (See here for another example of that association in Arabic).

Yahuda also claims that gilul גלול - the Biblical Hebrew word for idols - is also cognate with ghul. Presumably, he's referring to the ancient practice of worshiping demons, which the Bible prohibits and denigrates. 

However, I couldn't find any other source that makes that claim. The popular view is Klein's position, that gilul refers to rolled (גלל) dung:

גִּלּוּל m.n. idol. [According to some scholars related to גָּלָל (= dung); according to Baudissin and to others גִּלּוּלִים derives from גלל (= to roll), and orig. meant ‘rolled blocks’. cp. BAram. אֶבֶן גְּלָל (= square stones), and see גּֽלָל. The form גִּלּוּל was influenced by שִׁקּוּץ (= abomination).] 

I'm still curious if ghul has a more solid Hebrew cognate. I didn't see anyone who made this connection, but Klein does discuss the root עול - "to give suck" (like a nursing mother), and says that it is "related to Arabic ghālat (= she gave suck)." Could ghala ("he seized") perhaps be related to ghālat? A nursing baby latches on to, "seizes", the mother. Maybe? If so, it would provide us with the words עוּל and עולל, meaning "baby, infant." 

Sunday, March 20, 2022


Last week on Purim we read the book of Esther, and next week we start the month of April. It turns out that Esther and April have more in common than just sharing the same few weeks.

One of my first posts on Balashon was about the etymology of the name Esther. Here's what I wrote then:
The name Esther - אסתר - is connected to the Babylonian deity Ishtar (yes, the same name as the notoriously unsuccessful movie.) They both derive from the Indo-European root ster, and the related Semitic root ʿṯtr which gave us the Greek goddess Aphrodite and the Phoenician goddess Astarte עשתרת. That same root gives us the English words star, astral, stellar and disaster (not in the stars.)

I briefly mentioned Aphrodite, but didn't focus any further on that name. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides this origin:

Greek goddess of love and beauty, personification of female grace, 1650s; the ancients derived her name from Greek aphros "foam," from the story of her birth, but the word is perhaps rather from Phoenician Ashtaroth (Assyrian Ishtar). Beekes writes, "As the goddess seems to be of oriental origin ..., the name probably comes from the East too. .... It may have entered Greek via another language." He concludes, "[I]t seems possible that the name came from the one languages [sic] which on historical grounds we should expect to be relevant: Cypriot Phoenician." 

Klein agrees that the idea that the name derives from aphros ("foam") is a folk etymology, but does suggest that perhaps her association with foam caused the change in pronunciation from Ashtoreth to Aphrodite. He gives other examples of "sh" turning into "f." He points out that garlic in Hebrew is שום shum, but in Arabic it is either thum or fum. Similarly, the Russian name Feodor derives from the Greek Theodore.

From Aphrodite, according to some theories, we get the name of the month of April. Klein writes that April, in Latin Aprilis, comes from Greek Ap(h)ro, a short form of Aphrodite, and so was "the month of Aphrodite." The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests (among other possibilities), an Etruscan origin, but still coming from Aphrodite. 

So we've shown connections between Esther and April, but one word I was surprised to discover isn't related is Easter, which usually falls in this time period as well. However, here is Easter's etymology:

Old English Easterdæg, from Eastre (Northumbrian Eostre), from Proto-Germanic *austron-, "dawn," also the name of a goddess of fertility and spring, perhaps originally of sunrise, whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox, from *aust- "east, toward the sunrise" (compare east), from PIE root *aus- (1) "to shine," especially of the dawn.

I guess that connection wasn't in the stars... 


Tuesday, March 15, 2022


Several years ago, I wrote about the root gazar גזר - "to cut". After pointing out that it's not related to gezer גֶּזֶר - "carrot", I pointed out a number of Hebrew and Arabic words that likely derive from the root and its cognates.

Well, I recently discovered another word that may have גזר as its etymology: gizzard.

Admittedly, the Online Etymology Dictionary doesn't offer a Semitic origin:

"stomach of a bird," late 14c., from Old French gisier "entrails, giblets (of a bird)" (13c., Modern French gésier), probably from Vulgar Latin *gicerium, a dissimilation of Latin gigeria (neuter plural) "cooked entrails of a fowl," a delicacy in ancient Rome, from PIE *yekwr- "liver" (see hepatitis). The unetymological -d was added 1500s (perhaps on analogy of -ard words). 

However, Klein, in his CEDEL entry, does offer one. He also writes that the English derives from the French, but from there offers a different Latin one:

From Latin gizeria, 'cooked entrails of poultry', which is probably a Punic-Phoenician-Hebrew loan word. Compare Hebrew gezarim, construct state gizrei, 'pieces of sacrificed animals', plural of gezer, 'anything cut, a piece,' from the stem of gazar, 'he cut, divided'.

I assume that Klein's inspiration for gezarim being "pieces of sacrificed animals" comes from the story of the Covenant of the Pieces, where God tells Abraham to sacrifice a number of animals, and then after Abraham prophesized,

וַיְהִי הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ בָּאָה וַעֲלָטָה הָיָה וְהִנֵּה תַנּוּר עָשָׁן וְלַפִּיד אֵשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָבַר בֵּין הַגְּזָרִים הָאֵלֶּה׃ 

When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces [ha-gezarim]. (Bereshit 15:17)

That is the only mention of gezer indicating a sacrifice in the Bible.

You may have noticed that Etymonline has the Latin gigeria, and Klein has gizeria. That is also addressed in his CEDEL:

In Latin, gigeria, a collateral from of gizeria, z has been assimilated to the preceding g.

From searching through Google Books (see here, here, and here), it seems that it's not clear which word Latin used - gigeria or gizeria - so that may have added to the confusion over the etymology.

Monday, March 07, 2022

ikar, akar and akeret bayit

Let's take a look at the Hebrew root עקר. As a verb, in the kal form it means "to uproot, extract, displace" and in the piel form means "to neuter, spay, sterilize."  The adjective עקר akar, or in the feminine akara עקרה means "infertile, barren." And the noun ikar (spelled either עִקָּר or עיקר) means "essence, main thing/part, gist", with the associated adjective ikari עיקרי meaning "essential, fundamental, major" and the related ikaron עקרון - "principle" and ekroni עקרוני - "of principle, basic."

What is the connection between these various meanings?

They all derive from the sense of "root." That is the original meaning of ikar. That sense isn't found in Biblical Hebrew (although a related word, eker - "offshoot", appears in Vayikra 25:47), but is common in Aramaic, and can be found as such in the Aramaic sections of Daniel (4:12,20,23). Those verses all have the phrase עִקַּר שׇׁרְשׁוֹהִי, which is generally translated as "the stump with its roots." But since both words mean root in Aramaic, perhaps a more precise translation would be "root of the roots" or "the main root." From Aramaic, ikar entered rabbinic Hebrew, where it has the literal meaning of root (for example in Mishna Maasrot 3:10) and the more metaphorical sense of the "important thing" (as in Mishna Avot 1:17). 

English relates to the word "root" similarly, with it also having the meaning "the cause, source or origin of something." And just as in English, the verb "to root" means "to pull up by the roots, to uproot", so too does the Hebrew verb akar mean "to extract, uproot" (see for example Tzefania 2:4 and Kohelet 3:2). This is an example of a contronym (a homonym which is also an antonym, and we've seen them before).

From here we get to the words related to "barrenness." Klein says that they are "probably a special sense development" from the meaning "to pluck, root up, remove." Gesenius implies that this may derive from an original sense of "castration." (He makes a similar connection between shoresh שורש - "root" and saris סריס - "eunuch.")

One phrase that doesn't appear to be connected to any of the above is akeret bayit עקרת בית - "homemaker, housewife." The phrase originates from a biblical verse, Tehillim 113:9:

מוֹשִׁיבִי עֲקֶרֶת הַבַּיִת אֵם־הַבָּנִים שְׂמֵחָה הַלְלוּ־יָהּ

This is a difficult verse to translate. The new Koren translation offers:

"He sets the childless woman in her home as a joyous mother of children. Hallelujah."

Meaning that the phrase akeret habayit means "the barren woman in the house", and (as Ibn Ezra writes) it's not a conjunctive phrase at all. Others see akeret habayit as one phrase, meaning "the barren one of the house." Even if more translations today suggest the first possibility, the latter one seems to be more popularly accepted. (The grammatical structure does seem to suggest semichut, so I can see why). 

From this understanding of the phrase, a drasha developed, saying that this/the woman is not barren, but rather the ikar - the essence - of the home. For example, Bereshit 29:31 says that Rachel was barren (akara). The midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 71:2) reinterprets the verse to say that Rachel was the ikar, the main part of the household: וְרָחֵל עֲקָרָה, רָחֵל הָיְתָה עִקָּרוֹ שֶׁל בַּיִת.

It's not exactly clear when the phrase came to mean "housewife," (for a more detailed history see here) but it was very likely influenced by this  midrash and others like it (see also Bamidbar Rabba 14:8). However, instead of saying that the essence of the home was the wife, the meaning shifted to "the main part of the (this) woman is in the home." An early example of this is Rashi's commentary on Gittin 52a. The Talmud there mentions that Rabbi Yosei never called his wife "his wife" but rather "his home." Rashi explains his reasoning because "all the needs of the home are taken care of by her hands, and she is the essence of the home."

Monday, January 31, 2022


The Hebrew word naar נער has a number of meanings - two verbs and a noun. Let's look and see if they are related.

One verb means "to shake" or "to shake out." It appears 11 times with that meaning in the Bible. Sometimes the meaning is more than the simple "shake" as in Shemot 14:27, where it says that God "hurled" וַיְנַעֵר the Egyptians into the sea.

Here's Klein's entry for that meaning:

shake, shake out, shake off, stir.
    — Qal - נָעַר he shook, shook out, shook off, stirred.
    — Niph. - נִנְעַר 1 he shook himself free. 2 was shaken out; PBH 3 he bestirred himself; PBH 4 was poured out, was emptied.
    — Pi. - נִעֵר 1 he shook out; 2 he stirred up.
    — Pu. - נֻעַר NH 1 was shaken; PBH 2 was stirred; PBH 3 was emptied.
    — Hith. - הִתְנַעֵר 1 he shook himself; NH 2 he bestirred himself.
    — Hiph. - הִנְעִיר he encouraged. [Aram. נְעַר (= he shook, stirred), Syr. נְעַר (= he poured out), whence נָעוֹרָא (= waterwheel). Arab. nā‘ūra (= waterwheel with buckets, noria), is a Syr. loan word. cp. Arab. na‘ara (= it spurted, gushed forth — said of the blood of a vein), na‘āra (= earthen jug, pot).

Klein doesn't include it (perhaps it wasn't common in his time), but the hitpael form התנער hitnaer today means "to shirk" or "to renounce responsibility."

The other verb means "to bray, roar, growl" and only appears once in the Bible:

יַחְדָּו כַּכְּפִרִים יִשְׁאָגוּ נָעֲרוּ כְּגוֹרֵי אֲרָיוֹת

"Like lions, they roar together, they growl [na'aru] like lion cubs. (Yirmiyahu 51:38). 

While in this verse the metaphor is for the growl of a lion, in Rabbinic Hebrew the verb was designated for the bray of a donkey, and so it continues today. 

And here's what Klein writes about this meaning:

Aram.-Syr. נְעַר (= roared, growled, brayed), Arab. na‘ara (= rattled), Akka. nēru (= to growl), nā’iru (= roaring)

But by far the most common appearance of naar in the Bible is as a noun, meaning "boy, lad, youth", with sometimes the more specific sense of "servant" or "soldier." There are 240 occurrences with this meaning, and another 63 for the female form נערה na'ara (girl, maiden, servant.) Related words in Hebrew are noar נוער - "youth" and neurim נעורים - "adolescence."

So are any of these meanings related to each other? Klein does not connect the two verbs, but presents two theories as to the origin of the noun. 

The first says that the noun, meaning "youth," comes from the verb meaning "to shake", which he extends to the sense "to throw":

 נַֽעַר would lit. mean ‘that which is brought forth, young’; compare Ger. werfen, ‘to throw’, in the sense ‘to bring forth, young’

The other theory connects it to the braying and roaring usage, as an "allusion to the roughness of the voice at the beginning of puberty."

One word that is nearly certainly unrelated to any of these is the Yiddish nar meaning "fool" (the source of the familiar Yiddish word narishkeit - "foolishness."  The Yiddish nar derives from the German narr of the same meaning. The etymology of narr (or the related narre or narro) isn't clear. Some say it comes from the Latin naris, meaning "nose" (ultimately the source of the English "nasal"), developing from "sneering (with the nose)" to "mocking, jeering" to "fool." In any case, this word has been in German for a long time - which means that it's much more likely that Yiddish borrowed it from German instead of German borrowing it from Yiddish.

Our youth might need education, but we don't need to make them the source of all foolishness...

Sunday, January 23, 2022

yashfeh and diaper

In Shemot 28:15-20, there is a description of the breastplate of the high priest - the choshen mishpat. The breastplate contained 12 stones, in four rows of three. 

The identities of many of the stones listed are highly debated. It's very difficult to find two translations that render each of the stones in the same way. But one stone almost always gets the same translation, the yashfeh יָשְׁפֵה of Shemot 28:20. All the English translations I consulted had it as "jasper."

This should not be surprising, as the English word "jasper" very likely derives from yashfeh or a cognate Semitic word. Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for jasper:

precious stone, c. 1300, from Anglo-French jaspre, Old French jaspre, with unetymological -r-, a variant of jaspe (12c.), from Latin iaspidem (nominative iaspis), from Greek iaspis "jasper," via an Oriental language (compare Hebrew yashpeh, Akkadian yashupu).

Klein has a similar entry for yashfeh:

Probably borrowed from yashupū (also ashpū), whence also Syriac יָשְׁפֵה, יַשֽׁפָא, Persian yashm, whence Arabic  yashb (= jasper). Greek. iaspis, whence Latin iaspis, is a Sem. loan word.

All of this isn't so surprising. Gems were rare, and so it makes sense that they would retain the name from where they came. However, the next development surprised me.

In Klein's CEDEL, he has the following entry for the word "diaper":

Middle English diaper, diapery from Old French diapre, from earlier diaspre (whence French diapre, 'diapered, variegated'), from Middle Latin diasprum (whence also Italian diaspro, Old Provencal diaspre, Spanish diaspero, Portugese diaspero, diaspro), 'jasper', from Latin iaspis, from Greek iaspis, 'jasper', ultimately from Hebrew yashpheh

I suppose I can see how the words are similar (although he doesn't explain where the added "d" comes from), but what is the connection between the meanings of "jasper" and "diaper"?

This site, quoting Webster's New World College dictionary, provides a possible explanation:

ME < OFr diapre, diaspre, kind of ornamented cloth < ML diasprum, flowered cloth, altered (after dia-, dia-, because of ML pronun. of initial j-) < jaspis < L iaspis, jasper

So it seems that the connection here is that just like jasper is an ornamental gem, diapers were originally ornamental cloth. A different gem actually appears in the first (archaic) definition that dictionary provides:

a.  Archaic: cloth or fabric with a woven pattern of repeated small figures, such as diamonds
b. a napkin, towel, etc. of such cloth
c. such a pattern, as in art
a. a soft, absorbent cloth folded and arranged between the legs and around the waist of a baby to absorb and contain excretions
b. a piece of absorbent material with a waterproof outer layer, having the same function but intended to be discarded after a single use

It's interesting to see how the meaning of diaper progressed to an item of less and less value - from a fancy ornamented cloth, to a cloth in general, to a cloth used to wrap around babies, to the disposable kind popular today.

I'm just still not sure I understand why it begins with "d." For that, perhaps its worth looking at the Online Etymology entry for diaper. While they don't accept the "jasper" connection, they do say that the prefix "dia-" meant "thoroughly, interspersed", which could apply to the gem shapes (jasper) as much to the "white" that they suggest:

mid-14c., "costly silken fabric of one color having a repeated pattern of the same color woven into it," from Old French diapre, diaspre "ornamental cloth; flowered, patterned silk cloth," perhaps via Medieval Latin diasprum from Medieval Greek diaspros "thoroughly white," or perhaps "white interspersed with other colors," from dia "thoroughly" (see dia-) + aspros "white."

Now while the choshen was in fact a fancy woven cloth with stones interspersed, I don't recommend you call it a "diaper" unless you're willing to face some serious questions...