Wednesday, August 30, 2023

"Kohelet - A Map to Eden" is now available in Israel!

My book, Kohelet - A Map to Eden is now fully available in Israel!

It is available in many of the book stores in Israel that carry Judaica books in English, as well as on the Koren website:

Through that website you can also see a preview of the first 30 pages. For more information about the book, see my post where I first announced its release

I hope you enjoy the book, and looking forward to your feedback!

Sunday, August 20, 2023

takif and tekufa

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 that only appears in Kohelet is the adjective takif תַּקִּיף:

מַה־שֶּׁהָיָה כְּבָר נִקְרָא שְׁמוֹ וְנוֹדָע אֲשֶׁר־הוּא אָדָם וְלֹא־יוּכַל לָדִין עִם (שהתקיף) [שֶׁתַּקִּיף] מִמֶּנּוּ׃ 

"Whatever happens, it was designated long ago and it was known that it would happen; as for man, he cannot contend with what is stronger than he." (Kohelet 6:10)

(The kri reading - takif - is preferred over the ketiv התקיף. And while this concordance considers the ketiv as a verb, most scholars see it as an adjective as well - either as a compound of שהוא תקיף or as Gordis suggests, a conflation of עם התקיף  and עם שתקיף - "with the One mightier than he." See Gordis, p. 263).

The biblical meaning of takif as "strong, mighty, powerful," is recalled in its modern sense as "decisive, resolute, tough."

The word comes from the root תקף, which only appears a few other times in the Tanakh, all in books featuring later Biblical Hebrew. It appears once more in Kohelet as a verb (4:12) meaning "to attack." In Iyov 14:20 and 15:24, the verb means "to overpower." It also appears as a noun, tokef תֹּקֶף in Daniel 11:17 and Esther 9:29 & 10:2, meaning "strength, might, power". This noun later took on the more specific meaning of "authority" in Rabbinic Hebrew, and today also means "validity, legality."

All of these together - the adjectives, verbs, and nouns - express a sense of strength and power. And there is consensus among linguists that the few Hebrew mentions in the Tanakh were borrowed from or influenced by Aramaic (and in the Aramaic sections of the Tanakh it appears as well.)

Klein expands on this in his etymology:

BAram. תְּקַף (= was strong), Aram.–Syr. תְּקֵף (= was strong, prevailed), which is related to Nab. תקף (= authority). Many scholars connect Aram.–Syr. תּֽקֵף with Arab. thaqafa (= he attained to, overtook, overpowered). However, in this case the base would be שׁקף in Hebrew (Arab. th corresponds to Heb. שׁ). Haupt connects this base with Akka. pashqu (= arduous), pushqu (= hardship, necessity).

His rejection of the connection to Arabic thaqafa is earlier found in the Ben Yehuda dictionary. Despite the standing of those sources, I found others who do maintain a connection (Even-Shoshan and BDB for example.) 

The Arabic cognate root means "to be clever, smart" or "to educate." I think the best parallel in English would be the word "mastery," which means "to be in control, dominant" over both places and people (which is how the root תקף is expressed in Hebrew) and over a a realm of knowledge (in the Arabic sense.)

The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon provides another interesting cognate in Arabic. In the entry for the Aramaic root tqp  - "to be strong" many Biblical and post-Biblical occurrences (such as in the Talmud and translations in the Targum) of תקף are cited. The end of the entry contains this note:

Not in Old Aramaic, where the original etymon yqp (=Arabic wqf, "to stand, withstand") still occurs. This accounts for the later form אתוקף, from which the simplified root tqp developed.

This would make takif cognate with the Arabic waqf. That term is known in Israel as the Jordanian organization that manages the Islamic sites on the Temple mount. But more generally, a waqf is an endowment made by a Muslim to a religious cause, and literally means "stoppage, immobilization," since the donated money or property cannot move from that dedication (similar to the Jewish hekdesh).

Therefore, according to the theory suggested in the CAL above, the root ykp - "to stand, withstand", eventually came to be tkp - "to be strong." 

If this is the case, then takif may have another Hebrew cognate. In his entry for the root נקף, meaning "to go round," Klein provides the following etymology:

Aram. אַקִּיף (= he surrounded), Syr. נְקֵף (= he clung to, stuck to, was joined), Arab. waqafa (= he stood still).

Stahl makes a similar argument in his Arabic etymological dictionary in his entry for וקף, citing Yeshaya 29:1 חַגִּים יִנְקֹפוּ - "the festivals circling round." He goes on to compare this concept of the holidays to another term used for them in Tanakh - atzeret, which like waqf, also means "stoppage." (I must concede that I don't fully understand Stahl's explanation which seems to link "stopping" with "circling", and says that both were likely originally dancing terms. Perhaps he means that instead of moving forward, the root indicated assembling together, surrounding one spot, and stopping.)

Among the Hebrew words deriving from נקף include hakafa הַקָּפָה - "encirclement" (and the dancing done on Simchat Torah, i.e., Shemini Atzeret) and hekef הֶקֵּף - "perimeter, circumference." 

And perhaps most surprisingly, Klein also links נקף to tekufa תְּקוּפָה. Originally meaning "circuit, revolution", since it was applied to the revolution of the sun, it came later to mean "season," and then "period, epoch, era." 

Looking at takif and tekufa in Hebrew - תקיף and תקופה, it might appear that they come from the same root: תקף. That is certainly not the case - the latter comes from נקף, not תקף. But a little digging has shown us that while not siblings, takif and tekufa may indeed be cousins. 

Monday, August 14, 2023

pesher and efshar

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.

 The eighth chapter of Kohelet opens with this verse:

מִי כְּהֶחָכָם וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ פֵּשֶׁר דָּבָר חׇכְמַת אָדָם תָּאִיר פָּנָיו וְעֹז פָּנָיו יְשֻׁנֶּא׃

"Who is like the wise man, and who knows the meaning of the adage: 'A man’s wisdom lights up his face,
So that his deep discontent is dissembled'?" (Kohelet 8:1)

The word translated here as "meaning" is the Hebrew pesher פֵּשֶׁר. Other translations render it as "solution", "explanation," or "interpretation."

In his commentary, Alter notes:

Pesher, “solution,” occurs only here in the Bible, though it is common in later Hebrew. It is cognate with patar, the verb used for Joseph’s solving the enigma of dreams, and would seem to suggest laying open a hidden meaning.

Klein also notes that pesher "is related to base פתר" (patar). Patar is generally translated today as "to solve", and is the root of pitaron פִּתְרוֹן - "solution." This is different from pesher which still is defined as "meaning, explanation", but is more commonly used in contexts where the meaning is unknown or lacking, as in "what is the pesher" or "there is no pesher."

Klein also connects pesher to two other uses of the root פשר - "to compromise, reconcile" and "to thaw, melt." Here's his full entry:

פשׁר to melt, dissolve; to be or become lukewarm; to solve, interpret.
Qal - פָּשַׁר 1 melted, was dissolved; 2 was or became lukewarm; 3 he interpreted.
 Pi. - פִּשֵּׁר PBH 1 he disengaged, freed; PBH 2 he arbitrated, compromised; NH 3 he explained.
Hiph. - הִפֽשִׁיר PBH 1 he caused to melt; PBH 2 he made lukewarm; MH 3 he compromised.

BAram. פְּשַׁר (= he interpreted a dream), Aram. פְּשַׁר (= it melted, was dissolved; he interpreted a dream, solved a riddle), פַּשֵּׁר (= he disengaged; he interpreted a dream, solved a riddle), Syr. פּֽשַׁר (= it melted, was dissolved; he interpreted a dream, solved a riddle), פַּשֵּׁר (= he melted, solved, liquefied; he interpreted a dream), Akka. pashāru (= to solve, to interpret dreams). Arab. fassara (= he explained), is prob. a Syr. loan word.

Klein's etymologies often follow those offered in Ben Yehuda's dictionary. In the notes for שרש in that dictionary, it says that the basic meaning of the root פשר is "the release/loosening of a concrete or abstract thing." 

So this would apply to the physical dissolving of a solid in the process of melting or thawing, and the abstract release of a problem when it is solved, or a dispute when a compromise (פְּשָׁרָה peshara) is reached. This is similar to the relationship in English between the words "solve" and "dissolve." The Online Etymology provides this origin for "solve":

late 14c., solven, "to disperse, dissipate, loosen," from Latin solvere "to loosen, dissolve; untie, release, detach; depart; unlock; scatter; dismiss; accomplish, fulfill; explain; remove," [...]  The meaning "explain, clear up, answer" is attested from 1530s.

And dissolve similarly originally meant:

"to loosen up, break apart," from dis- "apart"  + solvere "to loosen, untie"

Klein connects פשר to two more possible roots. One is שבר shever. It can also mean "interpretation (of a dream)", as in Shoftim 7:15. Since the root שבר generally means "to break", Klein writes that it probably means a "solution (i.e., 'breaking') of a dream." But he also quotes the linguist Jacob Barth, who connects this meaning of shever to pesher, presumably through metathesis.

The other word he sort of connects to pesher is efshar אֶפְשָׁר, usually translated as "possible/possibly", "permitted." or "perhaps." In his entry for פשר, he adds "compare to אפשר." But in the entry for אפשר, he writes:

Of uncertain origin. The usual connection with פָּשַׁר (= it melted, dissolved), must be rejected for semantic reasons.
This also is a case where Klein follows the Ben Yehuda dictionary, which notes the pesher - efshar connection is suggested by Levy, Kohut, and Jastrow, but remains unconvincing. 

However, Even-Shoshan writes in the entry for efshar that maybe it comes from פשר. It does sound reasonable - efshar is something possible, "released" from the realm of impossibility. 

Let's leave it as a possible solution - pesher efshari...

Sunday, August 06, 2023


Taking a quick break from the series of Kohelet posts, for an investigation of a special word: sandak סַנְדָּק. Our daughter just gave birth to our first grandchild, and this past Shabbat, I had the privilege of being the sandak at his brit milah - meaning he was placed on my lap during the ceremony. 

It was one of the most special moments of my life, so I thought it deserved a post. 

The word sandak doesn't look Hebrew, and indeed isn't. Here are Klein's definition and etymology:

סַנְדָּק m.n. MH    ‘sandak’, godfather, one who holds the child on his knees for circumcision).  [Either from Gk. synteknos (= foster brother; lit.: ‘a child growing up with another’), or from Gk. syndikos (= one who helps in a court of justice, advocate).

These are certainly the most popular etymologies I found online. The second theory he presents, that sandak  is an advocate, is easily recognized from the origin of the English word "syndicate" ( a "council or body of representatives"). It comes from an earlier word, "syndic", with this origin:

c. 1600, "a civil magistrate, especially in Geneva," from French syndic "chief representative" (14c.), from Late Latin syndicus "representative of a group or town," from Greek syndikos "public advocate," as an adjective, "belonging jointly to," from syn- "together"  + dike "judgment, justice, usage, custom" 
The first theory that Klein offers actually fits the meaning of sandak somewhat better. It doesn't have  obvious English cognates. Like syndicate, it is comprised of syn ("together"), but the second half is téknon - Greek for "child." (The closest cognate to an English word - and this is pretty distant is "thane", but I had never heard of it before.) So synteknos  would be translated as "companion of (literally, "with") a child." 

However, there's a problem with both of these suggestions. The term sandak doesn't appear in rabbinic Hebrew until the Middle Ages, which is strange for a role in such an important religious ceremony. Philologos in this 2006 column after quoting both theories that Klein mentioned, notes:

Although circumcision is probably the most ancient of all the Jewish rites that are practiced today, neither of these two words is anywhere near as venerable. The older of the two, sandak, is a Hebrew loan word from Greek, as easily can be seen from its earliest appearance in Jewish sources in the 13th-century midrashic anthology Yalkut Shimoni, where it occurs as sandakos, with the Greek first-declension, nominative-case singular ending. This is curious, since nearly all Greek borrowings in old Hebrew date to the pre-Islamic period, when Greek was the spoken language of the eastern Mediterranean world.

Presumably, then, sandakos was in use among Jews for hundreds of years before this but simply left no record.

He goes on to focus more about the origin of kvater, a Yiddish word also associated with the brit milah. Today it means one of the people carrying the baby from the mother to the sandak. But originally it simply meant "godfather" and was may have been synonymous with the sandak. (In fact, kvater is simply a Yiddish version of the German gevatter, which like the Latin parallel compater meant "joint father". While the sources I found say that godfather comes from God+father in English, I can't help but wonder if it really just derived from the Old English version of gevatter - gefædera - and the later spelling Godfather was just the result of a folk etymology to give it religious meaning. But let's get back to sandak...)

It's noteworthy that Philologos wrote his column in 2006. In the following year, Prof. Hillel Newman of the University of Haifa, published an essay in the Jewish Quarterly Review entitled, "Sandak and Godparent in Midrash and Medieval Practice." (Thank you to Elon Gilad who shared that article with me, along with his Hebrew summary published two years ago in HaAretz.)

Newman presents the two etymologies we've discussed, along with others, but doesn't feel comfortable with any of them. The article goes very deep into the history, and it's worth a read. But to summarize, he points to the the midrashic origin of the term sandak in Midrash Tehillim (also quoted in a slightly different form in Yalkut Shimoni). It's a beautiful midrash, showing how all parts of the body are used to serve God. The relevant line for our purposes describes the knees:

בברכיי אני נעשה סינדיקנוס לילדים הנימולים על ברכיי

"With my knees I become a syndikenos for the children circumcised on my knees."

After much deliberation, with extensive comparison of various sources in midrash and Medieval Jewish literature, Newman ends up convinced that the correct version of the midrash should not be "I become a a sandak" but rather "I make a sandak" (relying on versions that use the verb עושה instead of נעשה).

Based on this, he suggests that we shouldn't be looking at the original meaning of sandak as a type of person, but rather a thing that the person makes. He offers the Greek word σάνδυξ ("sandux"), meaning "chest, casket, box." He writes:

As it turns out, it is not difficult to find a satisfactory lexical solution to the problem if we unburden ourselves of our old semantic prejudice. To put it simply, we are looking for a word, probably Greek, which could be transcribed into Hebrew as סנדיקוס and which satisfies the sense of the passage: a word for something which one might either do or form with one’s knees or lap to facilitate a child’s circumcision. [....] it is σάνδυξ  of Hesychius which is phonetically the closest to סנדיקוס of Yalkut Shim‘oni. The resulting image is of the body objectified, a picture of an adult cradling the infant on his or her lap during the circumcision in the manner of a vessel intended for holding one’s precious personal possessions. In this way, yet another part of the body is enlisted in performing the commandments.

This word meaning "crate, box" has cognates in an astonishing number of languages, including: Arabic sanduk (which has entered Hebrew slang with the same meaning as well), Russian sunduk, Persian sanduq, and many more. Almost all theories point to an ultimate Greek origin. The Arabic Etymological Dictionary says it comes from the Greek syndocheion (perhaps related to synecdoche - "receiving together"?). Others suggest suntíthēmi - "to place or put together", which would make it cognate with "synthesis."

Whatever the ultimate Greek etymology, I found the meaning "to make a cradle" for the baby incredibly moving (and this was certainly influenced by having finished reading his essay shortly before the brit.) In the past, I had used many of my body parts to perform the mitzvot as described in the midrash. But I had never used my knees in such a way. What an honor to do so for my beloved grandson.

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

holelut and hallel

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.

The word holelut (or holelot) הוללות appears in Kohelet, and only in Kohelet (1:17, 2:12, 7:25, 9:3, 10:13). It is an abstract noun, and Gordis notes that it means "madness, mad revelry, wickedness." Alter expands on this idea and writes:

The common rendering of holelut as “madness” (for which in biblical Hebrew, as in the modern language, the primary term would be shigaʿon) confuses this idea; holelut suggests a wild and unruly indulgence of the senses in which lucidity is lost—hence “revelry.”

A different version, הולל holel (but always in the plural הוללים holelim) appears in Tehilim (5:6, 73:3, 75:5).  This has a different meaning. It refers to the wanton, to evildoers. For example:

לֹא־יִתְיַצְּבוּ הוֹלְלִים לְנֶגֶד עֵינֶיךָ שָׂנֵאתָ כׇּל־פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן׃

"Wanton men cannot endure in Your sight, You detest all evildoers" (5:6)

There is also the verb הלל, which means to "act foolishly". This appears 13 times, in the books of Shmuel I, Yeshaya, Yirmiya, Nachum, Tehilim, Iyov, and Kohelet. It seems that the negative connotations of this verb affected the nouns we saw earlier. Acting foolishly can lead to both madness/revelry, as well as wantonness. 

I imagine that by now you're wondering how this unfavorable root is so similar to the very positive root הלל - "to praise." This is a much more common root in Biblical Hebrew. The verb הלל with this meaning appears nearly 150 times in the Tanakh, and in Rabbinic Hebrew we find the noun Hallel הלל indicating particular sections of Tehilim that are used for praise in our prayers.

So why would הלל mean both to act foolishly, and to praise (frequently to praise God)?

Before we answer that question, it's important to note that there is one more meaning of הלל. It only 
appears in four verses (Yeshaya 13:10; Iyov 29:3, 31:26, 41:10), and means "to shine." 

Gesenius suggests the following development: From the initial meaning "to be clear, be brilliant", came the meaning "to be bright." Another path led to "to make a show". From this came the sense of being boastful and arrogant  (which both Gesenius and BDB say apply to many of the negative meanings we quoted above.). This led to "be foolish", for as he writes, "the more anyone boasts, the more he is regarded as being foolish." But this same sense of "make a show," when referring not to one's self but to others, is considered praise. 

TDOT (4:411) quotes a few different theories, including:

  • a parallel to the Akkadian alalu meaning "shout, sing, rejoice, boast" which would apply to both the "boasting" and "praise" senses of הלל.
  • going to the root meaning "to shine", the foolish holelim should be considered "moonstruck". (This doesn't address a possible connection to "praise," however.
Of course some linguists don't make no connection between any of the three meanings of הלל (for an example of that approach, see this column.) Personally, I do find the idea that boasting about oneself would be considered negative, but would be viewed positively if praising others (and certainly praising God.) But a) I know from experience that not every comfortable theory is necessarily the correct one, and b) this requires identifying the various negative words we mentioned above as referring to arrogance and not revelry, wickedness, or foolishness.

Regardless of the ultimate etymology, if the negative uses do mean "boasting", I think we might have an example of what we've referred to previously as a contronym - where a word (or its homonym) also means its opposite. Other terms used to refer to these words include "auto-antonym" and Janus word (after the Roman deity with two faces).

In light of this, I'd like to dedicate this post to the memory of Gene Schramm, professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan. I didn't know Gene personally, but he's the father of my friend Rivky Schramm Krestt. Rivky delivered a moving tribute to her father last week, and mentioned that he was one of the first scholars to describe this phenomenon in Biblical Hebrew (see here for example of a citation). I hope to share more of his insights here in the future.