June 16, 2024
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Miscellaneous Words of Interest

I received a lot of positive feedback after my last “miscellaneous words” column, so I decided to do one again:

אציל: This word means “nobleman” and is only found at Ex. 24:11. The basic meaning of the word אצל is “beside, in proximity to.” One possible explanation for the “nobleman” meaning is that, in a figurative way, a nobleman is one who is at the side of someone else and supports him. See, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs.

אשׁנב: This is a word for window. It appears only at Judges 5:28 and Prov. 7:6. But what is its root? There is no root שׁנב in Tanach. One interesting suggestion is that the root is נשׁב and we have an example of a metathesis. נשׁב means “blow,” and opening a window enables the wind to blow. (נשׁב is the root of “mashiv” in our well-known phrase “mashiv ha-ruach.” The first word should be understood as if it is spelled מנשיב =causes the wind to blow. Also, in a well-known passage in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we have “ruach noshavet.”) Not coincidentally, our English word “window” derives from the word “wind.”

גשׁם: In the Hebrew portion of Tanach, this root means “rain.” In the Aramaic portion of Tanach, in the book of Daniel, this root means “body.” Almost certainly, there is no connection between the two root meanings. (The latter root expanded into meanings like: substance, matter, carry out, and concretize.)

חשׁמל: This word appears only at Yechezkel 1:4, 1:27 and 8:2. From the contexts, it seems to mean something radiant. H. Tawil notes an Akkadian word “elmeshu,” and claims that this is the Akkadian cognate to חשׁמל. According to Tawil, “elmeshu” refers to a “precious stone with the characteristic sparkle and brilliancy of fire.” See his An Akkadian Lexicon Companion for Biblical Hebrew.

The Talmud discusses the meaning of חשׁמל at Hag. 13b. Two interpretations are given. In both, חשׁמל is an abbreviated form of other words. See also Rashi to Ezek. 1:4 who uses the word מלאך.

When the book of Yechezkel was translated into Greek, the word “elektron” was used for חשׁמל. “Elektron” referred to an alloy of gold and silver. In modern Hebrew, in part due to this Greek translation, it was decided to use חשׁמל as the word for electricity. There were many who opposed this secular use of the word חשׁמל.

Tawil also equates the word חלמישׁ with “elmeshu.” (Others have suggested that the ש is not a root letter here and that the root is חלם with its meaning “strong.” חלם has this meaning in two places in Tanach: Job 39:4 and Isa.38:16. The meaning of חלמישׁ would then be “strong rock.”)

מונית: The word “taxi” is short for “taximeter,” a car with a meter that calculates the cost of the ride. Initially the word “taxi” was used in modern Hebrew. But in 1948, the word מונית was introduced, named for the מונה (meter) inside the car. At that time the public was asked to start using this word and stop using the foreign word “taxi.”

נכר: This root means both “strange” and “recognize.” (Please trust me that it is the root of הכיר=recognize. The word should be understood as if it was written הנכיר.) How can this be? R. Hirsch is one who understands. See his commentary on Gen. 42:7. Here Yosef recognizes his brothers and then makes himself strange to them. R. Hirsch points out that when you recognize something, what you are doing initially is understanding its strangeness and uniqueness. He writes: “The more signs of difference we see in an object, the more specially do we recognize it. With every such sign, we ‘estrange’ it from all other spheres…”

I suspect that the reason הכיר is in the hiphil is that when you are recognizing something you are causing the object to stand out in your mind.

סהר: “Beit Ha-Sohar,” a term for prison, appears eight times in Tanach, but only in Genesis chapters 39-40. (In the Nach, the term for prison is “Beit כלא.”) “Beit Ha-Sohar” may have originated based on a round shape of original prisons. (See, e.g., Radak, Sefer Ha-Shorashim.) Or perhaps the term originated because prisons are typically surrounded by walls. (The word “surrounded” obviously derives from the word “round.”)

The word סהר is found at Shir HaShirim 7:3 (“agan ha-sahar,” describing a navel). It either means “round” or “moon” there. The “round” meaning of the word may have originally meant “to be round like the moon.”

In rabbinic Hebrew and in Aramaic, we have words like סהר (sahar) as an enclosure for cattle, and סהרא and סהרה as “moonlight.” See Jastrow, p. 960.

At Judges 8:21 and 8:26 and Isa. 3:18, we have שׂהרנים (saharonim), which probably refers to ornaments in the shape of the moon or a crescent.

Finally, in modern Hebrew, a סהרורי is a word for a lunatic and for a sleepwalker.

רווק (ravak): This is a word for a single man in the Mishnah and thereafter. Many believe it derives from the root רוק with its meaning “empty.” The reason would be that a single man is one whose home is empty of wife and children.

תמונה: The root of this word is מין, which has the meaning “species” in Tanach. The Biblical noun תמונה meant “likeness, form.”

Post-Biblically מין took on the meaning “Jewish sect,” since a sect was a species/type of Judaism. The word took on the connotation of a “heretical sect.” The word מינים is found in many of the versions of the 12th blessing of the Amidah (“la-malshinim”). See B.S. Jacobson, The Weekday Siddur, pp. 194-95.

At Sukkot time, floating around the internet is a poster with a picture of seven heretics with the caption “Shivat Ha-Minim”: Elishah ben Avuyah, Baruch Spinoza, Shabbetai Tzvi, Jacob Frank, Benjamin Disraeli and two female heretics.

The female heretics are Sarah-Theodora and Leila Murad. The former was the second wife of Tsar Ivan Alexander, who ruled Bulgaria from 1331-1371. Sarah converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and accepted the name Theodora. She was known for her fierce support of her new religion and was one of the instigators of a church council against the Jews. She restored many churches and built many monasteries. Murad achieved fame as an Egyptian singer. She converted to Islam. Her father had been a chazzan. She died in 1995.

Quarantine: This word originally referred to a period of 40 days that a ship suspected of carrying contagious diseases was isolated in port in 14th-century Italy.

Commute: This word means “change,” as in “commute a sentence.” (I learned this last year from The Jewish Link column of Joseph Rotenberg, z”l.) Of course, to most of us (pre-pandemic), “commute” was a word associated with our daily unchanging travel ritual.

“Mutare” means to “change” in Latin. Unfortunately, these days we all know the word “mutation.”

Perhaps when we (or at least some of us) start leaving our homes again, we might newly appreciate the meaning of the word “commute”!


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He is an attorney who mutates periodically into a Jewish history scholar. He often works at home now, reducing his commute.

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