April 14, 2024
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Words Related to Purim

Words In the Megillah

והאחשׁדרפנים (9:3): This word has 11 Hebrew letters. This makes it one of the three longest words in Tanach. There are two other words with 11 letters. See Ezek. 16:47 and 20:44.

The original Persian word here is khshatrapanan. The meaning is “satrap,” which comes from the Greek shortening of the Persian. The Megillah added an initial aleph to the Persian.

Something similar happened in the case of the name אחשׁורושׁ. His name in Persian was written as Khshayarsha, and the Megillah added an initial aleph. Interestingly, in Elamite cuneiform, the name was written with an initial “i” sound, and in Akkadian cuneiform, the name was usually written with an initial “a” sound. So the Megillah was not doing anything so unusual here by adding that initial aleph to the name of the king.

אמן (2:7): We are told that Mordechai was “omein” to Esther. How should we translate this word?

Of course, we all know this root אמן. Usually it means “trust/believe.” But one time in Tanach, at Shir Ha-Shirim 7:2, it means “craftsman.” The “trust/believe” meaning and the “craftsman” meaning are not related, as the latter comes from Akkadian (borrowed from Sumerian, a non-Semitic language).

OK, so what did Mordechai do for Esther? And what did Naomi do for Ruth’s baby? (She is described as an “omenet” at Ruth 4:16.) Were they teaching their children crafts?

Many translate the word at Ruth 4:16 and elsewhere (e.g., Num. 11:12) as “nurse.” But the application of this word to Mordechai (and other men, see, e.g., 2 Kings 10:1) is difficult!

Daat Mikra, in the case of Mordechai, offers מגדל and מחנך (raise and educate). But we would prefer not to invent new meanings for the root.

Here is the better approach. A fundamental meaning of the root אמן is “trust.” The omein and omenet were individuals who were entrusted with the child and trusted with its care. See Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 1, p. 294. In this explanation, there is no reason to postulate a “nurse” meaning.

Because “omein” has been commonly thought to mean “nurse,” the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation (included in the Pentateuch of Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz) was forced into the following translation at Num. 11:12: “as a nursing-father carries the suckling child”! The word “omein” is, of course, male, unlike “omenet.”

פתגם: This word means “decree.” (It literally means “that which has arrived.”) It derives from the Persian word “patigama.” This word appears at Esther 1:20 and Kohelet 8:11. It also appears in the Aramaic sections of Tanach: twice in Daniel and four times in Ezra.

שכך: This word means to “decrease.” It appears at Esther 7:10: the king’s anger decreased. It also appears with the same meaning at 2:1. Outside of the Megillah, it appears only three times. At Gen. 8:1 it refers to the waters of the flood going down (וישכו). It also appears at Num. 17:20 and Jer. 5:26. Aside from 7:10, in all the other occasions the second כ has dropped.


It is important to point out that there are no words of Greek origin in the Megillah. This helps confirm that the Megillah was written in the Persian period. In contrast, the Book of Daniel, in its Aramaic section, includes four words of Greek origin (some of the musical instruments included in Chapter 3). In the Hebrew portion of Tanach, “aperion” at Shir Ha-Shirim 3:9 may be of Greek origin. (The main period when Greek began to influence Hebrew and Aramaic began around 332 B.C.E. when Alexander’s army took control of Eretz Yisrael.)


Words Outside the Megillah

מסכה: This is the word for “mask” in modern Hebrew. It seems that the word arose in Hebrew in the early 20th century, influenced by the English word “mask” and the French word “masque.” It was accepted by the Academy for the Hebrew Language in a word list they published in 1940. It seems that one of the reasons the Academy accepted the word was that there is a word מסכה with a “covering” meaning in Tanach, at Isa. 25:7, 28:20 and 30:1. This word is from the root נסך with its meaning “weave.”

(The word מסכת for a tractate of the Talmud also derives from this נסך=weave meaning.)

There is another word מסכה in Tanach that means metal that was heated and fashioned into a shape. This word derives from the root נסך with a different meaning, “pour.” Molten metal is called this because metal heated to high temperatures becomes liquidy and pourable.

The word for “mask” or “veil” in Tanach is מסוה. This word appears three times in Exodus 34. Its root is סוה. The word סותה at Gen. 49:11 also likely derives from this root.

The earliest halachic authorities who mention the custom of wearing a mask on Purim refer to the practice as wearing פרצופים. See, e.g., Rema to Orach Chayim 696:8. This word derives from the Greek word “prosopon.” “Pros” means “toward” and “ops” means “eye, face.” (Note the word “optometrist.”) So “prosopon” originally meant “that which is toward the eyes or face.” (I thank Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein and his Feb. 24, 2021, post for teaching me about this word.) פרצוף already appears in the Mishnah, at Yevamot 16:3.

נס: This noun appears 21 times in Tanach in various forms. In the view of the Daat Mikra (comm. on Ex. 17:15), in none of these times does it mean “very wondrous sign” or “miracle.” Its main meaning is “flag, pole, sign.” Daat Mikra is following modern scholars here, and disagreeing with Rashi and several other Rishonim. Rashi and several other Rishonim do give it the “very wondrous sign” or “miracle” meaning in a few places in Tanach. (They are not in agreement on each of the places. For example, at Ex. 17:15, Rashi is one who gives it the “very wondrous sign” or “miracle” meaning. At Deut. 4:34, The Living Torah gives it the “miracle” meaning two times.)

If we follow the approach of the Daat Mikra, נס developed the “very wondrous sign” and “miracle” meanings at some point after Tanach, as an expansion from its initial meaning. It has these new meanings in the Mishnah. See, e.g., Ber. 9:1 (makom she-ne’esu bo nissim le-Yisrael). The expanded meaning developed in Aramaic as well. It also often has these new meanings in passages in the liturgy that date from Tannaitic times and thereafter. See, e.g., the passage in the מודים paragraph in the Amidah.

Harem: Part of a house reserved for women. This comes from the Turkish word “harem,” which is derived from an Arabic word that meant “something forbidden.” This is related to the Hebrew חרם with its meaning “forbidden.” See, e.g., Josh. 7:1 and many other places.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Is it a נס that he is able to write this column weekly? The truth is that Rabbi Moshe Schapiro, in his role as librarian at Yeshiva University, regularly assists him by responding to his research requests.

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