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Akkadian Words in the Tanach

Although we are used to thinking of the Tanach as entirely Hebrew, sometimes words from other languages creep in. One of the languages that sometimes creeps in is Akkadian. Akkadian was the language of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians.

A few years ago, the scholar Hayim Tawil published a book, “An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew.” (It is usually available at the YU seforim sale.) This book helps us with some of those Akkadian words. It also helps with Hebrew words in cases where the Hebrew words did not occur often enough in Tanach to deduce their meaning, since we now have some of these words in Akkadian sources. Akkadian is considered one of the Semitic languages (like Arabic, Aramaic and several others). It is undeniably related to Hebrew, even though it was written in cuneiform.

There are a lot of profound insights in this book. But because it is organized in alphabetical order like a dictionary, and not by parsha, you have to slowly go through the entries to find the pearls of wisdom. (An idea for a new book is for someone to go through this book and present something on each parsha!) I have done some of the digging and will present some of my findings:

Heichal (hei, yod, kaf, lamed): From the many times this word appears in Tanach, it is evident that it means something like a palace or temple. Some might see the root of this word as the Hebrew yod, kaf, lamed (yachol, to be able to.) In this view, a heichal originally would have been a “place of ability/power.” But this seems farfetched. Rather, Tawil points out that Akkadian has a word ekallu, which means “big house” or “palace.” Most likely, this is the source for the Biblical heichal.

Ov (aleph, vav, bet): This term and its plural ovot appear many times in Tanach, usually parallel to yid’oni. A yid’oni (from the Hebrew yod, dalet, ayin) is a soothsayer, someone who claims to know the future. So how does aleph, vav, bet come to mean something like this? In Akkadian, the word apu means “pit.” Tawil writes that the similar word, aleph, vav, bet, “is an ancient term employed in most Near Eastern languages for a ritual pit through which mortals communicated with chthonic deities.” (“Chthonic” deities are those who dwell under the earth. Surely, you knew that!) So from an original meaning of “pit,” ov evolved into a reference to someone who communicates with underworld deities in a pit! Tawil suggests that we can see the “pit” meaning of ov in Tanach at Is. 29:4.

Hasket (hei, samech, kaf, tav): At Deut. 27:9, Moshe declares, “Hasket u-shema Yisrael.” If the root is samech, kaf, tav, this root only occurs here. The Targum, Rashi and Radak suggest that hasket means something like “listen, pay attention.” This is also the view implicit at Brachot 16a. Ibn Ezra points out that this root “has no friends.” (This is his way of describing unique roots!) Tawil points out that in Akkadian the root samech, kaf, tav means “be silent.”

Elul: “Uullulu” means “to purify or consecrate a deity.” In ancient Assyrian times, their goddesses had their annual cleansing in the river in this month.

Areshet (aleph, resh, shin, tav): This word appears only once in Tanach, at Psalms 21:3: va-areshet sefatav. We all know it from the Rosh Hashanah Musaf, where the phrase areshet sefateinu is recited. (It appears that the authors of the High Holiday prayers enjoyed utilizing difficult, rarely-appearing words! There are many examples of this: e.g., dibarnu dofi. The latter word also appears only one time.)

The ArtScroll machzor translates areshet as “utterance.” They are here following the view of Rashi and most Rishonim. But Tawil points out that there is an Akkadian verb ereshu= to desire, and a noun erishtu=the desire. Therefore, most likely, the word in Psalms means “the desires of.” Indeed, the “desire” meaning is confirmed by the parallel phrase in the earlier part of the verse in Psalms 21:3: ta’avat libo. (Finding a parallel word in a verse is the best method of determining the meaning of a rare word in Tanach.)

The ArtScroll commentary on the areshet of Psalms 21:3 includes the following passage: “This ‘utterance’ expresses a deep wish or desire. The word may be related to erusin, the initial act of marriage.” So ArtScroll came to the correct conclusion here, not by parallelism (ta’avat libo) and not through the use of Akkadian, but by suggesting a similarity to erusin, even though erusin in Tanach has the dot on the left, indicating the letter sin, not shin. Nevertheless, ArtScroll’s suggestion of a relation between areshet and erusin is probably correct. See Ernest Klein, “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language,” entry A-R-S, betroth, p. 57.

Finally, even though areshet is generally considered a word that appears only one time in Tanach, Tawil also sees it as underlying the word yerushat at Psalms 61:6, where “inheritance” does not fit the context.

Shegal (shin, gimmel, lamed): This root appears as a verb four times in Tanach. Each time, there is a ketiv/kri, as the word is viewed as so offensive that it cannot be read. What is read is something from the root shin, caf, bet. It is evident that the root shin, gimmel, lamed is an offensive word for sexual relations, which is then ameliorated by the kri, where the more neutral term “lie with” is used. We are all familiar with one of the four occurrences of this ketiv/kri. It is in the curses of Deut. 28:30.

Now, if shin, gimmel, lamed is such a sexual and offensive term, how come it is used as the term for the queen at Nehemiah 2:6: ve-ha-shegal yoshevet etzlo (=next to the Persian king)? Some attempt to get around the problem by claiming that the reference at Nehemiah is not to the queen, but to the chief concubine. But let us look at the other instance of this noun in Tanach, Psalms 45:10. Here, the verse reads: “Kings’ daughters are among your favorites; at your right hand stands the shegal in gold of Ophir.” A shegal in the choicest of gold sounds more like a queen than a chief concubine! Also, the parallel to king’s daughters sounds like we are talking about a queen. What is going on here? Are we reciting offensive words in Psalms? And did the ancient Persians routinely refer to their king’s wife in a sexual and offensive manner?

It was mentioned earlier that the word for “palace” in Akkadian is ekallu. Tawil suggests that the Biblical noun shegal is not related to the offensive Biblical verb shin, gimmel, lamed. Rather, it derives from the Akkadian “sha ekalli,” which means “the one of the palace,” and which was used in Akkadian for the “queen.” Admittedly, Tawil seems to be only conjecturing, but this is a reasonable attempt at a solution to this vexing problem.

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy” (Kodesh Press, 2015). He can be reached at [email protected].


For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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