Sunday, July 23, 2023

takana and tikun

This post is part of a series about words from Kohelet, in honor of the release of my new book, Kohelet - A Map to Eden. For more information about the book, and how to get a discount for your purchase, see this Balashon entry.

In the Tanakh, the Hebrew root תקן appears only in Kohelet (1:15, 7:13, 12:9). As Klein notes, it means "to be or become straight", as in its first appearance in Kohelet:

מְעֻוָּת לֹא־יוּכַל לִתְקֹן וְחֶסְרוֹן לֹא־יוּכַל לְהִמָּנוֹת׃

 "That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered." (Kohelet 1:15)

It also appears once in the Aramaic section of Daniel, with the meaning "to establish":

... וְעַל־מַלְכוּתִי הׇתְקְנַת ...
"And I was [re]established over my kingdom." (Daniel 4:33).

As we've noted before, Kohelet uses words that appear more frequently in Rabbinic Hebrew, and were often borrowed from Aramaic. That is the case here as well. The verb has a number of related meanings:

  • to become straight
  • to repair
  • to prepare
  • to arrange
  • to establish
  • to amend
Klein provides this etymology:

Borrowed from JAram. תַּקֵּן (= he fixed, arranged, prepared), which is related to BAram. הָתְקְנֵת (= I was established), Arab. ’atkana (= he confirmed, perfected, brought to perfection), Akka. taqānu (= to be well ordered).

He then suggests comparing תקן to the root תכן.  Despite that suggestion, in that entry he surprisingly says (following Ben-Yehuda):

Usually connected with, but prob. not related to base כון or base תקן.

The root תכן originally meant (according to Klein) "to weight, examine, estimate", and only in Modern Hebrew came to mean "to regulate, arrange, fix" (which would be parallel to תקן). But the root כון (as we discussed here) always meant "to set up, establish" and also has many of the other meanings that we listed for תקן (including "to straighten"). Daat Mikra on the verse in Daniel writes that תקן is the Aramaic version of כון, although without making an etymological association. 

However, earlier researchers such as Gesenius, and more recent ones like Kaddari (in his Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew) do imply a common origin to תקן and תכן. They both emphasize more the Akkadian etymology (over the Aramaic one that Klein mentioned). While Akkadian was a Semitic language, it did not use the Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet. So there are times where two Hebrew words/roots, with different spellings, both derived from Akkadian - in a similar fashion to how foreign words are imported into Hebrew today.

The root תקן has many applications today. In addition to the ones mentioned above, we have the verb hitkin  התקין - "to install" (as in software) and the adjective takin תקין - "intact, in order, proper,"

There are also a number of nouns. Two of the most common are takana תקנה and tikun תיקון.

Takkanah originally meant "arrangement, ordinance, ruling", and today means "rule", usually as set by a legislative or executive body. It is the source of the related takanon תקנון - "set of rules, bylaws."

Tikkun has many more meanings. In a different book, The Medieval Heritage of Modern Hebrew Usage [Hebrew], Kaddari devoted an entire essay to the development of the word (pp. 91-106). I will try to summarize some of the most common usages and their histories.

As a gerund of תקן, tikun can mean "correction, fixing, improvement, emendation, regulation." But it has taken on many more specific meanings over time:

  • tikun soferim תיקון סופרים: This phrase has two meanings. Recalling the sense of תקן as "to prepare," it refers to the book scribes would use to prepare when writing a Torah scroll. A version of this for those preparing the reading of the Torah is known as a tikun korim תיקון קוראים.
    But the other meaning of תקן - "to correct" or "to amend" - gives us a different meaning of tikun soferim. In this other sense, it refers to corrections or emendations to a text that the scribes themselves made (see for example, Midrash Tanchuma, Beshalach 16)
  • A tikun can also refer to a set of readings proscribed by kabbalistic practice to be recited at certain special times. These include tikun chatzot תיקון חצות (read at midnight) and Tikun Leil Shavuot תיקון ליל שבועות (according to the original practice recited/read on Shavuot night, and now extended to any learning done that night). According to Kaddari, these tikunim got their names because of their ability to enact repairs in the "Higher Worlds".
  • Tikkun Olam תיקון עולם - Literally meaning "repairing", "improving" or "establishing" the world, it has been adopted for different purposes over the centuries. The Wikipedia entry divides them as follows:
    • In Rabbinic literature, it referred to "legal enactments intended to preserve the social order" (for example, Mishna Gittin 4:2-9)
    • In the Aleinu prayer, it refers to "the eradication of idolatry."
    • In Kabbalistic uses, it has mystical connotations - "to return the sparks of Divine light to their source by means of ritual performance."
    • In modern times, it has come to mean "the pursuit of social justice."
Yet to bring us back to our earlier discussion, there are scholars who claim that the original version of Aleinu was לתכן עולם, not לתקן עולם. (See, for example, Mitchell First's essay, "Aleinu: Obligation to Fix the World or the Text?") However, as we noted above, perhaps there isn't such a clear distinction between the roots תכן and תקן. In that case, the text might not need fixing.

Sunday, July 16, 2023


This post is part of a series about words from Kohelet, in honor of the release of my new book, Kohelet - A Map to Eden. For more information about the book, and how to get a discount for your purchase, see this Balashon entry.

At the end of Kohelet (12:1-8), there are verses that Fox, in his JPS commentary, calls "the most difficult section of the book. Its Hebrew is difficult, sometimes obscure, and its imagery is enigmatic."

In that section, there's a word I'd like to discuss. It's beyond the scope of this post to discuss the verse (12:3) in its wider context, so we'll just look at the phrase in which it appears:

וּבָטְלוּ הַטֹּחֲנוֹת כִּי מִעֵטוּ

The word of interest is וּבָטְלוּ - this is the only time the root בטל appears in Biblical Hebrew. Its different meanings are reflected in these two translations.

The JPS translates the phrase as:

"And the maids that grind, grown few, are idle"

Gordis ("Koheleth - the man and his world") offers: "The grinding maidens cease, for they are few."

Both of those translations are plausible, since the root בטל can mean both "to cease" and "to be idle." However, as Gordis notes, this word is an "Aramaism" (i.e., borrowed from Aramaic), and so looking at the Aramaic appearances should give us an idea of its earlier meaning.

It appears six times in the book of Ezra, and there it always means "to cease". But when an object or person ceases to act, they become idle, so that sense development is not surprising.

While the Hebrew בטל only appears once in Biblical Hebrew, it is very common in Rabbinic Hebrew. There it takes on a number of meanings, all depending on the context (which is frequently a halakhic discussion). These include "to be void", "to abolish", "to suspend", "to cancel", "to undo," "to neglect", and "to nullify".

The adjective batel בָּטֵל  can mean "worthless, valueless, invalid, void", and the related mevutal מְבֻטָּל is "cancelled, insignificant, negligible."

One interesting word deriving from the root is batlan בַּטְלָן. As Stahl notes in his Arabic dictionary (p. 80), in Rabbinic Hebrew, a batlan was one who didn't work, not necessarily one who did not want to work (i.e., a lazy person). So those batlanim who couldn't or didn't work, for example the elderly, were important members of the community, particularly for things like making a minyan. Zuckermann here complained about how in Modern Hebrew, the word batlan transitioned into "a loafer, an idler, a lazy person." To me this just seems like the natural way a language changes. As an example of that, note the word avtala אַבְטָלָה. As Klein points out, in Rabbinic Hebrew it meant "idleness", but in Modern Hebrew it means "unemployment." So sometimes the use of בטל is more judgmental, and sometimes less so.

What about the etymology of בטל? Earlier linguists attempted to find other Hebrew roots that might be related. 

Steinberg proposed that בטל is related to the roots בדל (to depart, be detached) and בתל (to separate). Since he defines בטל as "to cease," this would seem to imply that the root could be understood as "to detach" or "to separate" from work.

Gesenius suggested that בטל was related to בטן (as in beten בֶּטֶן - "belly"). As such, he says that the original meaning of בטל was "to be empty, vacant", whereas בטן meant "to be empty, hollow."  From there בטל meant "to be free from labor", and then later "to cease."

This is somewhat similar to Klein's etymology:

Related to Aram. and BAram. בְּטֵל, Arab. baṭala, Ethiop. baṭála (= he was vain, was futile), Akka. baṭalu (= to cease).

But notably, Klein does not offer any Hebrew cognates, and it seems to me that those of Steinberg and Gesenius remain as conjecture.

Sunday, July 09, 2023

bitachon and avatiach

This post is part of a series about words from Kohelet, in honor of the release of my new book, Kohelet - A Map to Eden. For more information about the book, and how to get a discount for your purchase, see this Balashon entry.

A word common in Hebrew today, but rare in Biblical Hebrew, is bitachon בִּטָּחוֹן. It appears in Kohelet:

כִּי־מִי אֲשֶׁר (יבחר) [יְחֻבַּר] אֶל כׇּל־הַחַיִּים יֵשׁ בִּטָּחוֹן כִּי־לְכֶלֶב חַי הוּא טוֹב מִן־הָאַרְיֵה הַמֵּת׃

"For he who is attached to the living has something to trust in: that a live dog is better than a dead lion." (Kohelet 9:4)

Here the word bitachon is translated as "something to trust in." 

The other occurrences of the word are in two parallel verses (Melachim II 18:19 and Yeshayahu 36:4), quoting the Assyrian commander Ravshakeh's words to the Judean king Chizkiyahu:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם רַבְשָׁקֵה אִמְרוּ־נָא אֶל־חִזְקִיָּהוּ כֹּה־אָמַר הַמֶּלֶךְ הַגָּדוֹל מֶלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר מָה הַבִּטָּחוֹן הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בָּטָחְתָּ׃

And Ravshakeh said to them, "You tell Chizkiyahu: Thus said the great king, the king of Assyria: 'What is this confidence in which you place trust?'"

Here, bitachon is identified as "confidence." The same verse(s) also include the verb בטח - "to place trust", which of course is the root of bitachon. 

That root appears much more frequently - 120 times throughout the Tanakh. It generally means "to trust, rely, depend upon." 

However, there are some verses where the root appears to mean something else. This Safa-Ivrit essay does a good job of explaining why, and I'll try to summarize it and provide some additional understandings. 

The author notes that in Arabic, the similar root bataha means "to knock down, throw on the ground." He believes this is cognate with the Hebrew בטח, and writes that this can explain those verses where the meaning "to trust" seems difficult to accept.

He first cites Yirmiyahu 12:5- 

כִּי אֶת־רַגְלִים  רַצְתָּה וַיַּלְאוּךָ וְאֵיךְ תְּתַחֲרֶה אֶת־הַסּוּסִים וּבְאֶרֶץ שָׁלוֹם אַתָּה בוֹטֵחַ וְאֵיךְ תַּעֲשֶׂה בִּגְאוֹן הַיַּרְדֵּן׃

His suggested translation would be something like:

"If you race with the foot-runners and they exhaust you, how then can you compete with horses? If you tumble [boteach] in a tranquil land, how will you fare in the jungle of the Jordan?"

He then quotes Mishlei 14:16 - 

חָכָם יָרֵא וְסָר מֵרָע וּכְסִיל מִתְעַבֵּר וּבוֹטֵחַ׃

And again he offers a translation that adopts the meaning found in Arabic:

"A wise man fears, and departs from evil: but the fool rages, and slips [boteach]."

This explanation is also offered by Rashi in his commentary, who quotes the verse from Yirmiyahu as support.

The author then suggests that we should understand the root בטח as "to lean on something, be supported by something, place your weight on something." When you lean on something, it may indeed descend to the ground. 

This helps explain one further difficult verse, Tehilim 22:10 -

כִּי־אַתָּה גֹחִי מִבָּטֶן מַבְטִיחִי עַל־שְׁדֵי אִמִּי׃

Some translations try to explain the word מַבְטִיחִי as relating to trust:

"You took me from the womb, you made me trust at my mother's breast."

But the Safa-Ivrit essay says this can be better explained by utilizing the Arabic cognate, and could be translated as "you lean me [or lay me] on my mother's breast." Of course, in the abstract sense, this does imply as well the trust that the child has in the mother.

That meaning of "trust" finds itself in other related Hebrew words. The biblical nouns בֶּטַח and בִּטְחָה mean "safety, security." We also find the hifil form in a few verses. The meaning isn't always entirely clear, and seems to mean more literally "make someone trust you." In later Hebrew this develops into the more common meaning "to promise."

In Modern Hebrew, we find many nouns deriving from בטח with specialized meanings that represent much more recent concepts:

  • ביטוח bituach - "insurance"
  • בטיחות betichut - "safety"
  • אבטחה avtacha - "protection, security" (usually used for protecting people, property, data)
  • בטחון bitachon - from the biblical sense of "something to trust in" or "confidence", it later took on the more religious sense of confidence or faith (for example in God), and today has a more secular meaning as self-confidence, as well as security in the military sense, as in שר הבטחון Sar HaBitachon - "Defense Minister."
We also find the more colloquial term בטח betach, meaning "sure thing, definitely." Starting in the 1930s, the Israeli linguist Yitzhak Avineri railed against its use, saying it was a foreign borrowing, with no earlier Hebrew usage. However, this use is very much part of Hebrew today, and has even developed an opposite, sarcastic meaning of "no way!" or "fat chance!".

One potential cognate of בטח is אבטיח avatiach - "watermelon." It only appears once in the Tanakh, in the list of Egyptian foods in Bemidbar 11:5. It has cognates in the Aramaic אֲבַטִּיחָא and the Arabic batich. In Arabic culture, watermelons were so ubiquitous and cheap, that they were part of a slang expression that later entered Hebrew:  “lo <something>, v’lo batich” ולא בטיח – meaning “I didn’t get X, and I didn’t get watermelon,” i.e., I got nothing. 

As noted here, the Arabic baṭṭīḫ is the source of the "Spanish budieca, Portuguese pateca and French pateque, the modern French pastèque."

There are at least two theories of how avatiach might be connected to בטח. The Safa Ivrit article mentioned above suggests that perhaps it is due to the nature of watermelons to grow sprawling on the ground, since as noted, בטח can also indicate being on the ground.

The TDOT quotes the linguist Ludwig Kohler as claiming that the Semitic root means "to be plump, taut" (the first of which applies to watermelons) and also "to be firm, tight" (the first of which implies security and trust.)

Both theories are plausible, and certainly interesting. However, I can't help but end with the very true reservation offered by the TDOT: 

"Indeed, in Hebrew homonymous roots are nothing uncommon." 



Tuesday, July 04, 2023

email subscriptions have been migrated

Hello everyone - 

Just a quick maintenance note: All existing email subscribers have been migrated to a new service,

Frustratingly, I've had to switch email services for Balashon several times in the past few years. Hopefully this will be the last switch. 

If any readers would like to subscribe by email, to the right of the main text there's an option for Get new posts by email. Just fill in your email address there, follow any subsequent directions and you'll start getting email notifications about new posts.

I wanted to get this in order before I start my new series about Kohelet words, in honor of the launch of my new book. Since it seems this is now resolved, I should be able to put out those posts soon!