December 8, 2023
December 8, 2023

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The Origin of the Words ‘Tirosh’ and ‘Yayin’

The word “tirosh” appears 38 times in Tanach. What exactly does it mean? In order to understand it, we must understand the winemaking process. The first stage was crushing the grapes. The resulting juice included the skins, seeds and stems. These were then separated out and the juice that remained was transferred to vessels which were placed in a cool place until the juice was completely fermented (by the action of the yeast in the juice). When the fermentation process was complete, the result was “yayin.”

In English, “must” is the term for wine before it has completely fermented. A mainstream view is that tirosh is something like the Biblical term for “must.” In this view, tirosh would include both unfermented must, and must that has only begun to ferment (early wine). For example, the Soncino commentary defines tirosh as “grape juice in its fresh state which has not become completely fermented.” See their comm. to Mishlei 3:10. Similar is Y. Feliks, Olam Ha-Tzomeach Ha-Mikrai, p. 24.

Tirosh is often mentioned in Tanach in connection with dagan (grain) and yitzhar (oil in its pre-processed state) as in the second paragraph of Shema. From the parallels to dagan and yitzhar, it seems evident that the reference to tirosh is a reference to a product in a simple state, before its processing. (It bears pointing out that the process of turning yitzhar into shemen was not a simple one and had several stages.)

Michah 6:15 has the following: “ata tidroch zayit ve-lo tasuch shemen, ve-tirosh ve-lo tishteh yayin”= “you will tread olives but shall not anoint with oil, [you shall tread] tirosh but not drink wine.” The import is that just like the treading of olives is the preparatory stage to producing oil, the treading of tirosh is the preparatory stage to producing wine. Here tirosh seems to mean grapes, prior to trading.

On the other hand, in Hoshea 4:11, we have the following: “zenut ve-yayin ve-tirosh yikach lev” =Harlotry, yayin and tirosh take away the heart. (The Soncino commentary explains here: “‘lev’ means more than heart; it is also the seat of the intellect.”) Here tirosh is given the ability to take away the heart. This verse suggests that tirosh is substantially similar to wine, or perhaps an archaic or poetic term for wine.

In the Hittite language (which is not a Semitic one, and which is attested to from the 16th-13th centuries BCE), there is a word “tuwarsa” that means vine. See C. Rabin, Orientalia 32 (1963), p. 137. Accordingly, Rabin believes that both yayin and tirosh mean wine in the Tanach. Also, the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 7:1) takes the position that yayin and tirosh have the same meaning in “lashon Torah,” even though they did not mean the same thing in the “lashon bnei adam” of its time.

But looking at all the Biblical verses, especially all those references to tirosh in the context of dagan and yitzhar, the verses overwhelmingly points to tirosh meaning something significantly less than completely fermented wine. Therefore, the statement in the Jerusalem Talmud that equates them should perhaps not be taken so literally.

Both the ArtScroll Stone Chumash and the Hertz Chumash translate tirosh as wine in all 10 occasions that it appears in the Torah. (Finally, they agree on something!) But the ArtScroll work may have done this because of the passage in the Jerusalem Talmud. As to the Hertz Chumash, it utilized the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation as its translation. This translation was largely based on the King James translation of 300 years earlier.

Everyone agrees that the meaning of tirosh had evolved by the time of the Sages. For example (as discussed in the above passage in the Jerusalem Talmud), if someone takes a neder forbidding tirosh on himself, there is a disagreement about whether we should interpret his neder as following lashon Torah or lashon bnei adam. In the former, wine would be prohibited. In the latter, it would not, as tirosh was not the equivalent of yayin in the period of the Sages. It developed a different meaning: “kol minei metikah.” See J. Talmud, Ned. 7:1. See also J. Talmud Nazir 2:1.

For those who believe that tirosh is a Semitic word and means something like “must,” the etymology is much discussed. The simplest view connects it to the Hebrew root Y-R-Sh. This root has meanings like “take possession of” and “inherit.” But in the hiphil (=“horish”), it frequently seems to have the meaning “drive out,” since this is the first step in taking possession. See, e.g., Deut. 4:38. “Tirosh” is the juice that was driven out of the grapes.

But there are those who think that horish never means “drive out.” Rather, it means “destroy someone so that someone else can possess his property.” See The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 6, p. 374. (This word “horish” may be derived from a different root, Resh-Vav-Shin, or Resh-Yod-Shin. These roots mean something like “to be poor.”) If there is no “drive out” meaning, then one needs a new etymology for a Semitic “tirosh.” Many have been suggested and they are usually farfetched.

With regard to the word yayin, there is a Hebrew root Y-N-H which means “oppress.” (See, e.g., Ex. 22:20: “ve-ger lo toneh.”) Perhaps this derived from a more concrete root “press” and would be an explanation for yayin. But this is just speculation.

The Greek word for wine is “oinos.” The Latin word for wine is “vinum.” These Greek and Latin words bear a close similarity to the Hebrew yayin and to the similar word for wine in many of the other Semitic languages. Scholars have noticed these similarities.

There are three main possibilities. One is that the Indo-European languages borrowed the word from the Semitic languages. Another is that the Semitic languages borrowed the word from the Indo-European languages. The third is argued by Rabin in the article cited above: Both borrowed it from the Hittite language, an early Indo-European language. The Hittite word for wine is “wa(i)ana.” (The Hittites were centered in a region of modern-day Turkey.)

Finally, it is important to point out that Nevi’im and Ketuvim are composed of many books spread over about 1,000 years and authored in different regions of ancient Israel. This helps explain why we cannot get a uniform picture of tirosh within Nach. ———————————————-

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Unfortunately, he is not a wine drinker but a grape juice drinker. For more of his articles, please visit his website at He would like to acknowledge Herb Edelman who asked about “tirosh” and inspired this column.

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