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What does the “pur” in Purim really mean?

March 18, 2011 4 comments

Pur in PurimSoon we will bake hamentaschen, dress up in costume, and read the Book of Esther (“The Megillah”) to celebrate the joyous holiday of Purim. According to verse 9:26 of that very book, we get the name “Purim” from the pur that was cast: “Therefore, they called these days `Purim’ after `pur.'” But while purim is the Hebrew plural of pur, pur itself is not a Hebrew word. For this reason, twice before in Esther, when pur is mentioned, we are told, “…pur, that is, the goral.” So a pur is a goral, but what is a goral?

In all likelihood, goral originally referred to a bunch of small pebbles or similar objects used to make decisions by chance: they would be cast down on the ground or put in a vessel of some sort, from which one would be drawn at random. (A similar practice, in which stones were placed in a helmet, is clearly documented from Homeric Greece. The Greek verb for casting these objects was ballo, from which we get our English word “ballot.”)

For example, in Leviticus 16, Aaron takes “two goats,” “a goral for God” and a “goral for Azazel.” Then the goat that God’s goral lands on is God’s goat, and the goat that Azazel’s goral lands on is Azazel’s goat; this latter goat is sent “to Azazel” in atonement. (Based on an ancient misunderstanding of the Hebrew “to Azazel,” a 1530 translation reads “to scape” instead of “to Azazel,” giving us the English phrase “scapegoat.”)
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Some planets need Hebrew names, and you can help – Haaretz – Israel News

October 22, 2009 1 comment

By way of Haaretz:

For more than 1,000 years, when Hebrew speakers looked at the sky, they saw five planets — Hama (Mercury), Noga (Venus), Maadim (Mars), Tsedek (Jupiter) and Shabtai (Saturn). The five planets closest to earth all have ancient Hebrew names, some of them dating back to the time of the Talmud.

On the other hand, the two planets that are further away — Uranus and Neptune — were not known in ancient times, and are therefore referred to by these names in Hebrew, too. Now the Hebrew Language Academy is inviting the public to help choose Hebrew names for the solar system’s farthest flung planets.

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Categories: Hebrew Grammar

Count On It

September 11, 2009 1 comment

[Reposted from my The Glamour of the Grammar column for the Jerusalem Post]

Numbers pop up in the most amazing places. Today we’ll look at a few. And we’ll start with one of the Hebrew words for “few,” because almost paradoxically it’s the plural of the word for “one.” One way to say “a few words” is milim ahadot, literally, “words ones.” While in the singular, “one” means “one,” in the plural it means “some.” Leave it to Hebrew to have a plural for “one.”

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Categories: Hebrew Grammar

Side by Side

August 30, 2009 1 comment

[Reposted from my The Glamour of the Grammar column for the Jerusalem Post]

What do apples, oranges and tomatoes have in common in Hebrew, as opposed to mangoes, bananas and carrots? Let’s find out. (Here’s a hint that won’t surprise you: The difference between the two groups has nothing to do with the foods themselves; it’s a matter of grammar.)

To get started, we look at a construction called smichut in Hebrew – literally, “closeness” – translated as “the construct” in English (creating the unfortunately alliterative phrase “construct construction”).

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Categories: Hebrew Grammar

It’s The Little Things

August 26, 2009 Leave a comment

[Reposted from my The Glamour of the Grammar column for the Jerusalem Post]

It is not unusual to hear Israelis yelling “die!” at each other. That’s because, in Hebrew, dai literally means “enough,” and it’s a common way of telling someone “that’s enough already; now please quit it.” (Two American parents took their children to Israel for the year. One day the five-year-old daughter came home from her new Israeli school and reported that she’d learned a Hebrew word: dai. She reported “it means ‘stop fighting.'”)….

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Categories: Hebrew Grammar