In the spirit of Purim: some antics with Semitic semantics.

In the spirit of Purim: some antics with Semitic semantics.

By Dr. Jeremy Benstein, HATC Senior Advisor


1. Shikker House Rules

In Yiddish, “drunk” is shikker, from the Hebrew shikor. You get shikor from liquor, that is, shekhar (Hebrew “k” and “kh” alternate). Shekhar in the Tanakh is usually paired with wine, but its Latin translators didn’t know exactly what sort of drink it was, so they just transliterated it as sicera. That entered Old French as cisdre, and finally came into English as “cider.”

So even if you prefer beer, know that cider is the real He-brew.

2. Purim Unmasked

Another interesting English-Hebrew Purim connection is the word for “mask,” maseikhah. Now masks are daily de rigueur, but once, only Purim had a “mask mandate.” They sound so similar you might think the English word is derived from an ancient Hebrew root . . . but it isn’t.

The modern Hebrew maseikhah comes from the biblical root נ-ס-כ (n-s-k), which means “liquify” or “pour.” This root gives us words like nasikh, “prince,” close cousin to the “messiah,” mashi’akh, both of whom were regally anointed with oil. In Exodus 32:4 maseikhah refers to the formation of the Golden Calf, with molten metal cast in a mold.

With the modernization of Hebrew, many new terms had to be coined. In this case, however, an old word was pressed into service with a new meaning, simply because it sounded similar.

That’s how maseikhah was chosen to mean “mask,” because of the phonetic similarity with mask, masque, maske, maska, etc. (Likewise, the older Hebrew word m’khonah, which was chosen to mean “machine,” because of its similar sound).

3. Come as You (Really) Are

Purim masks are part of getting dressed up to “masquerade,” or in Hebrew, l’hitchapes. Here’s a little grammar to understand why this is such a cool word.

The root is ח-פ-ש (ch-p-s), which means to “search” or “look for,” in a form that describes something you do to yourself. For instance, from the root ל-ב-ש (l-b-sh), “dress, wear,” we get lilbosh, “to wear,” and l’hitlabesh, “to dress oneself” (get dressed).

So l’hitchapes, “to disguise oneself,” hyper-literally means “to look for oneself.” Instead of coming as someone or something else, you’re “coming out” as who you might be if you could. Whether it’s a superhero or celebrity, we express some aspirational part of ourselves through role-playing.

So whether you’ll be inebriating, masquerading, or just plain celebrating, enjoy it while it lasts. Soon enough, we’ll take off the masks, sober up, and start getting ready for Passover.

In other words: eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we clean.

You Think Identity Politics Is Controversial? Try Identity Linguistics

What should be so contentious about the Hebrew language? Why did linguist Prof. Ghil’ad Zuckerman receive death threats in response to his last book? Have verb conjugations suddenly become divisive? In their Sicha talk of June 7 (From Ivory Tower to Colloquial Use, Historical Text to Contemporary Slang: Hebrew’s Internal Tension as Living Language) Profs. Shmuel Bolozky & Ghil’ad Zuckerman spoke about the deep-seated arguments in the world of Hebrew linguistics – and essentially why those are about a lot more than just language. They themselves also, unsurprisingly, disagreed.

One can get the gist of Zuckermann’s argument from the title of his book, Yisraelit: Safah Yafah  – Israeli Is A Beautiful Language. I would say that the book is only out in Hebrew at this point – except he would disagree. It was written in Israeli. Yes that language we all call Hebrew, at least the version of it spoken in Israel – he urges us to call Israeli. Hebrew is a historical language, in which the texts of many major Jewish religious documents – The Tanach, the siddur (prayer book), the Haggadah, medieval poetry, etc. – were written. It is over 3000 years old. Israeli, on the other hand, is the spoken and written language of the citizens of the State of Israel, and it is less than 150 years old.

So the first thing that Zuckermann and Bolozky argued about is whether this characterization is accurate – Is Hebrew one language or two? Is it the product of evolution – or of a revolution? To use Zuckermann’s clever image:  is Hebrew Mosaic, or a mosaic?

But why is that important? Because it’s not about language, but about identity.  If unity of peoplehood requires, or is even just symbolized by, unity of language, then proving the disunity of Hebrew could signal a break in the unity of the Jewish people—tantamount to saying that we are not one people, with one history, with special connections to one particular land. Zuckermann’s linguistics have been branded both post-Zionist, and even anti-Jewish-peoplehood, since it implies that the Jewish people are no longer connected through threads of a common tongue.

What are their claims, pro and con? Watch the talk. That is far from the only thing they speak – and argue – about (should there be a Hebrew language academy? How much have other languages influenced, or should influence Hebrew?), and there are many more interesting issues raised, large and small.

But we want to hear what you think! Write your comments here about how you see the nature of Hebrew from ancient to modern, and the relationship of Jews everywhere to each other and to Israel, in the realm of language.