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May 26, 2024
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Miscellaneous Insights Into English and Hebrew Words and Jewish History

Periodically, I come across insights that do not warrant an entire column, but that I would like to share:

Cereal: This word derives from “Ceres,” who was the Roman goddess of agriculture and grain crops.

Loving-kindness: This word was coined in 1535, when Myles Coverdale was doing a translation of the Bible and could not think of an English word that precisely captured the meaning of the Hebrew word “chesed,” in many of its occurrences. For these, he chose “loving-kindness,” combining those two words. (P.S. at Leviticus 20:17, where “chesed” is used in a negative way, he was smart enough to write “wicked thing!”)

Rex: king. From a prior post by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein: “The word ‘reggio/rex’ in Latin means ‘king.’ It is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root ‘reg’—thus, making it a cognate of the German word ‘reich’ (‘kingdom/empire’) and a whole bevy of English words, including raj, royal, regal, regius, reign, regent, rector, director and prerogative. It is also the etymological basis of such names as, ‘Regina, Reginald, Reinhold, Ronald, Rhona, Richard, Heinrich, Hendrik, Aldrich, Rodriguez, Patrick, Derek, Fredrich, Imre and Emmerich.’ The last … has a famous Italian equivalent—the name borne by ‘Amerigo Vespucci (1451—1512),’ who is the namesake of the continents of America.”

Salary: This word derives from the Latin “salarium:” an allowance that a soldier received for the purchase of salt.

Statue and statute: When I was young, I learned about statues. But once I got to law school, I was constantly learning about “statutes.” It never occurred to me that there was a connection. Only recently did I learn that they both come from a proto-Indo-European root that means “to be firm.” (I thank Elan Rieser for this insight.)

התנצל: This is the word in modern Hebrew for “to apologize.” How did this happen? The root נצל means “to remove” and in the hitpael, it means “removing something from oneself.” The probable explanation for the idiom lies in the story at Exodus 33:6, which is the only time the word appears in Tanach in the hitpael. There we are told that, after the sin of the golden calf, Bnei Yisrael removed from themselves their ornaments.

The verse uses the word ויתנצלו. From the context, it is evident that this was part of their apology. Eventually, this became the verb for “apologize!” (Exactly what century that started needs to be tracked. I did not see this meaning in Jastrow. It is possibly post-Talmudic.) When one is הציל (meaning “saves”) someone, the root is נצל and the נ dropped. It means “cause a removal” (i.e., from a dangerous situation). I thank Nancy Friedman for getting me interested in this root.

לבלר: scribe. From a post by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein: “Scholars agree that the word ‘lavlar’ actually derives from the Late Latin word ‘libellarius’ (‘scribe’), which, in turn, is derived from the Latin word ‘libellus.’ That word ‘libellus’ is itself a diminutive of the Latin word ‘liber/libri’ (‘book’) … These words have etymological relatives in English that are still familiar to us nowadays: the word libel originally meant ‘small book,’ before it, eventually, came to mean a libelous or accusatory statement. The English word ‘library’ derives from the Latin ‘librarius,’ which itself is a derivative of ‘liber.’ Finally, the English word leaf as ‘page of a book’ also relates to these Greek and Latin words.” Rabbi Klein explains further that “lavlar” is a mistaken vocalization. The original pronunciation of this word was certainly “livlar.” This is how it is vocalized in the Kaufmann manuscript of the mishna and Jastrow lists it in this form.

Certification of Coca-Cola by the OU: Rabbi Julius Berman: “When Coca-Cola was seeking OU certification in 1990, we faced a unique problem. We asked the company, as we request from all companies, for a list of ingredients. Coca-Cola was reluctant. “We can’t give out our recipe,” they claimed. “It’s a $2 billion investment!” We told them we can’t certify a product, if we can’t review all of the ingredients and be assured of their kashrut. We then came up with a novel idea: the company would give us a list with more ingredients than they actually use … And so, we were able to resolve the issue.” (Jewish Action, Winter 2022).

Rabbi Chizkiyah Chizkuni (13th century): He usually does not cite his sources. I thought this was odd and wondered why (and never bothered to read his preface). Here is his explanation, as stated in his preface: “He found many students who prejudge the words of the commentators, passing over those whom they consider inferior scholars and dwelling only on what is quoted in the name of those whom they regard as wealthy in Torah knowledge. Seeing this attitude … (he) elected to omit the names so that his readers would not ‘look at the barrel, but at the wine poured from it.’ ” See ArtScroll’s “The Rishonim,” page 173). A noteworthy exception is his citation of Rashi by name.

Henry Kissinger: Born in Germany in 1923, he came to Washington Heights with his family, in 1938. He was Orthodox as a child. Some minutes from Washington Heights, a Pirchei group from the 1930s have survived. They show “a young Kissinger arguing passionately that Yidden are not allowed to govern in Eretz Yisrael if it will not be run according to halacha. The files also contain a dvar Torah that Kissinger said on the subject of muktzeh machmas mius.” (Mishpacha magazine, June 29 2022).

History of Israel: Daniel Pipes: “So far as I know, only one country was purchased rather than conquered. Ironically, that country is also the one most accused of having “stolen” the land it now controls. That country is Israel. The making of the Jewish state represents perhaps history’s most peaceable in-migration and state creation. Zionist efforts long ago had a near-exclusively mercantile, not military, quality. Jews lacked the power to fight the Ottoman or British empires, so they purchased the land—acre by acre—in voluntary transactions. Only when the British withdrew from Palestine in 1948, followed immediately by an all-out attempt by Arab states to crush the nascent Israel, did Israelis take up the sword in self-defense and go on to win land through military conquest.” (Wall Street Journal, 6/21/22)


Concluding Matters

  1. Olam Haba: “There is an old joke about a Jew who considered himself a shomer Torah u’mitzvot, albeit one who fulfilled his obligations bedieved—in a manner that might count after the fact, but hardly in an ideal way. After his time in this world was up, he entered the heavenly realm, expecting to be escorted to an upscale apartment in the Olam Haemes. To his great disappointment, he was ushered into a tiny closet and was told that this was his portion in the next world. Horrified, he asked how that could possibly be, if—after all—he had fulfilled all of the mitzvos. A heavenly voice called out and answered: ‘Bedieved, this too, is also called ‘Olam Haba.’” (Rabbi Honoch Plotnik, Mishpacha, December 21, 2022)
  2. Death: There is a saying that you die twice. Once when you stop breathing, and the second time, when someone mentions your name for the last time.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. With regard to my last comment, I have authored five books (so far), so I am doing well in that regard.

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