Guest post by Prof. Shlomo Karni
Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).
As slaves in Egypt, did the children of Israel enjoy watermelons? Did young David go into a decisive battle carrying a school bag? Was there electricity in ancient Babylonia, during the exile and the time of the prophet Ezekiel? Curious? Read on.
Scholars of the Hebrew language discovered that some 80% of Modern Hebrew is based on biblical Hebrew. Imagine, for a moment, that a time- machine could transport King David to today’s Jerusalem — a time span of some 3,000 years. He would manage quite well, thank you, with his Hebrew.
On the other hand, Shakespeare, with a time span of merely 400 years, will be totally lost: nobody will understand him today in Jerusalem! But, seriously: even in today’s London, Shakespeare would be lost with his English. By comparison with other languages, Hebrew has preserved its origins quite well, even as it evolved through the ages.
“OK,” you say, “it is obvious that such words as
אִיש , גוֹרָל , נְדָבָה , שְמוּעָה , תּוֹשָב
are biblical.” Right? Well, here is a question for you: Which of the following words is NOT biblical in origin?
אֲבַטִּיחַ, גִּזְבָּר, הֲפוּגָה, חַשְמַל, יַלְקוּט, לַהֲקָה, סִירָה, עֲזָאזֵל, פְּלָדָה, פִּרְחַח, צִנְצֶנֶת, קִבּוּץ, רְאִי, שְבִיל, שוֹטֵר, תַּהֲלוּכָה, תּוֹתָח
The surprising answer is that they all appear in the Bible, either in the same meaning as today, or a different one.
What about the remaining 20% of Modern Hebrew? Obviously, words like
טֶלֶפוֹן, מַחְשֵׁב , מָטוֹס
are not biblical. The amazing fact, though, is that a word like אֲבַטִּיחַ rare as it is in the Bible, is very common today and we don’t give much thought to its origin.
The rarest word of all is one which appears only once in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars and linguists call such a word ‘hapax legomenon’ (“something said only once”, in Greek).
A ‘hapax legomenon’ can be both the great passion and a nightmare for the lover of Hebrew. After all, there is nothing to compare it with in the Bible– so what is its meaning? Only suppositions, guesses, or comparisons with other sources and languages are available to try and unearth its meaning.
Perhaps the best example of such a ‘hapax legomenon’ is חַשְׁמַל, found in the book of Ezekiel. Today, it means ‘electricity’, quite simply. Or, how about a mysterious ‘hapax legomenon’ like חַשְׁמַן in Psalms? What does it mean there? Only the author of Psalms knew for sure. Today, חַשְׁמַן is ‘cardinal’ in the Catholic church. Period.
And what, exactly, is עֶצֶר in the expression יוֹרֵשׁ עָצָר? Today, this expression means ‘heir to the throne’, and while יוֹרֵשׁ is ‘heir’, to be sure, the ‘hapax legomenon’ עֶצֶר remains elusive, mysterious, and haunting.
There is a total of some 1,500 ‘hapax legomena’ in the Hebrew Bible , . Their greatest concentration is in the books of Isaiah, Job, and Psalms.
In the next notes, we shall meet several of those, offer their
possible original meanings, along with their current usage and comments.
References: A listing of these can be found, e.g., here: link  אליהו ציפר, “המלים החד-פעמיות בתנ”ך”. הוצאת חצב, תשס”ב
Contains, in tabular form, the word (in Hebrew), its probable
meaning in the text (Hebrew), book, chapter and verse (in