July 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

By Mitchell First

I previously wrote a column on this topic in 2017 and in my “Roots and Rituals” book (2018), I was basing myself at the time on an important list (with discussion) from 1953, by Thomas Lambdin. Lambdin was a professor of Semitic Languages at Harvard for many years. (His textbook on Hebrew was often used at Yeshiva University.)

Recently, I discovered a new list prepared by Benjamin Noonan of Columbia University in an article in James K. Hoffmeier, et al, “Did I Not Bring Israel out of Egypt?” (2016). Noonan is the author of “Non-Semitic Loanwords in the Hebrew Bible,” (2019). The purpose of this column is to present Noonan’s findings. (Noonan’s article can be found online; see its title below.)

As further background:

Identifying Egyptian loanwords in Tanach is not an exact science. The goal is to identify words that are definitely, or most probably, of Egyptian origin (and not ones for which an Egyptian origin is, merely, a suggested possibility).

Egyptian is not a Semitic language.

One of the common reasons for word “borrowing” is a lack of a word for the specific term in the native language.

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Here are words that I included in my original article that Noonan agrees to:

אבנט: “Girdle or sash.”

אברך: This word appears only at Genesis 41:43 (“vayikreu lefanav ‘avrech’”). It most likely means, “Pay attention!”

אח: “Fireplace.” This word appears only two times, at Jeremiah 36:22-23.

אחו: “Grass or reed (as food for cattle).”

אחלמה: This word only appears at Exodus 28:19 and 39:12. If we substitute an Egyptian “n” for the Hebrew “l,” it is similar to an Egyptian word which is the name of a precious stone. “N” and “l” commonly substitute for one another. (See, similarly, לשם below.)

אטון: “Red linen.” This word appears only in Proverbs 7:16.

איפה: “A measure.”

בהט: “A type of stone.” This word appears only in Esther 1:6 (“Floors made of bahat and shesh … ”).

בחן: “Castle or fortress.” This word (“vachan”) appears in Isaiah 32:14. See also Isaiah 23:13.

בחן: “A type of rock.” (“Bochan,” see Isaiah 28:16).

גמא: “Reeds.” We all know this word from Exodus 2:3. But it also appears twice in Isaiah and once in Job.

הובנים: “Ebony.” This word only appears at Ezekiel 27:15.

הין: “A liquid measure.”

זרת: “A measure.” In Egyptian, it is related to “hand” or “handful.”

חרטמים: This word is found in Genesis, Exodus and Daniel. It is always in the plural.

חותם: “Seal,” “signet ring” and the verb derived from it: חתם meaning “to seal.”

טבעת: “Signet ring,” “seal.”

טנא: “Basket.” This word only appears in Deuteronomy (four times).

יאור: Originally, this was the word for “the Nile.” Later, the meaning became “a river.”

לשׁם: This word occurs only at Exodus 28:19 and 39:12. If we substitute an Egyptian “n” for the Hebrew “l,” it is similar to an Egyptian word that is a type of precious stone.

נפך and פוך: The latter is a shorter variant of the former. Each appears a few times. The meaning is “turquoise” or “malachite stone.”

נתר: This word appears two times, at Proverbs 25:20 and Jeremiah 2:22. The meaning is “natron,” which is a natural soda, consisting essentially of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate.

סוף: “Fresh-water reed,” “seaweed.”

פח: “Trap used to trap chickens.”

פח: “Thin sheet of metal.”

פרעה: This word originally meant “great house.” “Great House” eventually became a way of referring to the king. (Similarly, in the United States, we might say, “The White House” announced today …)

צי: “Ship.” This word appears only four times in Tanach.

קוף: “Ape,” “monkey.” This word only appears two times in Tanach (both in the plural).

קלחת: “pot,” “kettle.” This word only appears two times in Tanach. The Egyptian original is “k-r-ch-t.”

קסת: “An ink vessel.” This word appears only three times in Tanach; all in Ezekiel, chapter 9.

שׁושׁן: “A type of flower.” (I had always thought—like some others—that the word was Hebrew and originated as a “flower with six petals.”)

שׁטה (almost always in the plural, “shitim”): “Acacia.”

שׂכיות: “Ships.” This word only appears at Isaiah 2:16. Those assuming it was Hebrew thought it came from the root שׂכה—“look,” with a meaning like “objects to be looked at” or “images.” But at Isaiah 2:16, it is parallel to אניות (“ships”). Thus, the Egyptian etymology fits better.

שיש: “White marble.” It appears in Chronicles 1, 29:2. The same word in a different form, שׁשׁ—appears twice at Esther 1:6 and once in Song of Songs. The Egyptian word meant “alabaster.”

שׁשׁ: “Fine linen.” This word appears many times in Tanach.

תחרא: This word appears in Exodus 28:32 and 39:23. It is a leather vest.

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Here are words that I had originally included based on Lambdin’s article, but that Noonan no longer includes: אביון, בוץ, חניכיו (Genesis 14:14), כתם, שעטנז, אי, מרח, and שׁסה.

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Here are additional Egyptian words included by Noonan:

בד: “Pole.”

בד: “Linen.”

גביע: “Cup,” “candleholder.”

דיו: “Ink,” (Jeremiah 36:18).

זפת: “Pitch.”

חרי: “Cake,” (Genesis 40:16).

כלי: “Ship,” (Isaiah 18:2).

משי: “Fine garment,” (two times in Ezekiel, chapter 16).

פאר: “Headwrap.”

פטדה: “A type of precious stone (peridot).”

קב: “A measure.”

קיקיון: “Castor tree,” (only in the book of Yonah).

שנהב: “Ivory.”

תבה: “Box.”

תחש: “Egyptian leather.”

תכי: “African ape.”

Noonan includes two more as well.

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Now, if anyone asks you how many Egyptian words there are in the Tanach, you know that there are about five dozen. (Unless you count the repetitions as added examples. Then there are over 800. פרעה—for example—appears 274 times.)

Neither Lambdin nor Noonan included פענח צפנת in their articles. I am sure it is Egyptian. Their articles were dealing with loanwords, not names. Its meaning seems to be: “The god has said: he will live!” See the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon, page 1049. This is roughly one of the three interpretations offered by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in “The Living Torah.”

—————

Here is the title of Noonan’s article in the Hoffmeier book: “Egyptian Loanwords as Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus and Wilderness Traditions.” As you see from this title, Noonan argues that the many Egyptian loanwords in Hebrew are evidence that the ancient Israelites spent time there as slaves.

But, recently, I saw an article by the well-known word columnist, Philologos, that rejects this argument. Philologos explains: “For much of the second millennium BCE … Egypt was an imperial power that controlled its small next-door neighbor of Canaan and Canaan’s proto-Hebrew speaking population. Egyptian garrisons were stationed in Canaan, Egyptian merchants did business there, and Egyptian officials dealt with their Canaanite vessels—and many Canaanites (the Hebrews possibly among them) lived and worked in Egypt, whether as slaves or free men. Egyptian words had many paths by which to enter the language of Canaan … residence in Egypt was but one.”

I would like to thank Rabbi Alvin Reinstein for pointing me to Noonan’s article.


Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He was once able to (barely) read ancient Persian cuneiform. He admits he cannot read Egyptian hieroglyphs. Perhaps his friend, Meylekh, will teach him.

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