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.

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