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Thursday, May 19, 2022
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fEveryone agrees that the root עגל fundamentally means “round” in Tanach. (See, e.g., “agol” at I Kings 7:23.)

But an issue in this root is the word עגל (calf). Is it just a coincidence that this animal has this name? Or can we say that it is called this because of its “rolling and circling about”? So suggests the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon. Similar is the etymological work of M. Clark: “frolicking animal.” I have also seen the suggestion that it is called this because of its shape, the equivalent of calling it a “roundy” or “fatty.”

At Judges 3:17, עגלון, king of Moab, is described as a very fat man (בריא). Is his name with root עגל merely a coincidence?

What about עגלה, a word for a fast-moving chariot, carriage or cart? I have seen the suggestion that this type of vehicle has a round shape. Most others suggest it is called this because it moves on wheels.

But I saw another scholar suggest a different approach to עגל and עגלה . We all know the Aramaic word עגלא that means “speed.” It is recited in the Kaddish prayer. Arabic too has a word from this root that means “hurried.” This scholar suggests that perhaps Hebrew once had a word עגל with a meaning like “speed” (likely derived from the “circle, wheel” meaning). Then we can look at the עגל animal and suggest that it is called this because it is speedy and that the עגלה is called this because of its speed. (It is only because we lost that meaning in Hebrew that we were forced to suggest those other weaker derivations.)

I saw this suggestion on balashon.com in his post of Oct. 28, 2019. He adds that from his experience working in the dairy farm of a kibbutz, he knows that calves are speedy!

In contrast, the essay in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament takes the position that עגל with its animal meaning is “in all likelihood a primary noun” and is not related to the “round” meaning or the “speed” meaning.

Biblical Hebrew does not have any verb עגל. It only has nouns and the adjective “agol”=round.

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“Maagal” is a word that means a type of path in Tanach. See Ps. 23:3 and elsewhere. The root of this word is עגל, which means “round.” But isn’t a path supposed to be straight? The explanation is that מעגל refers to a straight path, made by the wheels of a wagon! See, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs (“wagon-track”) and the Soncino comm. to Prov. 2:9. (But M. Clark suggests: “circular path.” This is very farfetched.)

(Also, I cannot resist quoting the explanation of Rav S.R. Hirsch at Ps. 23:3. “Ma’aglei tzedek are those ways of life circumscribed by law… Anything outside that ‘circle’ is [an] עברה, wrong, transgressing the bounds of righteousness.”)

I have also seen the suggestion that “maagal” can mean “defensive circle of wagons.”

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At Jeremiah 46:20 we have the phrase: “Mitzrayim is a very fair eglah.” Most take the view that “eglah” symbolizes beauty. Perhaps the reference in this verse is to the beauty of the land or its produce. (Daat Mikra cites Judges 14:18 where Samson referred to his wife as “eglati.”) It is also interesting to note Rashi’s comment at 2 Sam. 3:5, where the verse refers to a wife of David named “Eglah.” Rashi writes that this is a reference to Michal who was beloved to David.

With that background, what is the meaning of the name רבקה? Many see in the name רבקה a connection with מרבק, a word that appears four times in Tanach. The root of this word is רבק. It literally means a “tying place.” It is a place where cattle are stalled and fed. The implication of the name Rivkah may be, affectionately, “a well-fed cow”!

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In modern Hebrew, “maagal” is the circumference of the circle, and “igul” is its area.

In a future column I will address the name of Choni המעגל. How to pronounce it and what does it mean?

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Even though we are all taught that Hebrew has roots of three letters, the truth is more complicated. As one scholar has written: “It is hardly possible that the Hebrew language began with this enormously regular tri-consonantal system, that all Hebrew words were born with three bright and shining letters. Scholars are fairly convinced that back of these three-lettered roots lie old primitive two-lettered syllables… This can never be proven absolutely…because the original Semitic language is lost beyond all recovery. What seems to have happened is this. The language of the primitive Semites, ancestors of the Hebrews, began with a few two-letter words, each of which carried a large and rather general, often vague, meaning. Early life was simple, full of fear and hunger. A limited number of words of one syllable, helped out with plenty of gestures, was all that was then needed. But when they settled in one spot and planted seed to harvest grain, life became for them a more complicated affair. Civilization began to develop… The small number of two-lettered syllables began to be highly inadequate. In order to obtain additional words they would add a third letter to the primitive two-lettered root… This new word would generally have a sharper, more specialized sense than the primitive root.” See E. Horowitz, “How the Hebrew Language Grew,” p. 299-300.

With that background, let us observe that Hebrew has a verb גלל that means “to roll.” Is this merely coincidence? Or perhaps the fundamental two-letter root for “round” was גל, and this expanded into גלל (roll) and עגל (be round). Horowitz mentions this suggestion. It is made by many.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] He and his family have always been fascinated by the number π. He will always remember being shocked when he learned that that “e” raised to the πi power equals negative one! He also remembers learning: How I wish I could recollect of circle round the exact relation Archimede unwound. (Please count the number of letters in each word: 3,1,4,…)

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