These Are A Few Of My Favorite ‘Hapaxes’

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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).

Of the some 1,500 ‘hapax legomena’ in the Tanach, here are but a few. Each entry lists the word (in Hebrew), followed by the source (in Hebrew); the English translation of King James’ Version (AV); the English translation of the Jewish Publications Society Of America, 1967 (JPS); the current meaning(s) in Hebrew, with appropriate comments.

“אֶל גִּנַּת אֱגוֹז יָרַדְתִּי” שיר השירים 6:11
AV:” I went down into the garden of nuts”
JPS: “I went down to the nut grove”
Today: A ‘nut’ in its common usage, including a song and a folkdance to these words.
Special meanings: ‘Walnut’ = אֱגוֹז מֶלֶךְ ; ‘Peanut’ = אֱגוֹז אֲדָמָה, בֹּטֶן
We can say that this ‘hapax’ was not such ‘a tough nut to crack’ קָשֶה לְפַצֵחַ= אֱגוֹז

נִתְעַלְסָה בָּאֳהָבִים” משלי 7:18

AV: “ Let us take our fill of love”
JPS:” Let us drink our fill of love”
This is a beautiful expression, instead of today’s colloquial לַעֲשֹות אַהֲבָה which is a literal – and poor – translation of “to make love.” Equally poor is the English expression “to make life”, a literal translation of the modern Hebrew expression לַעֲשֹות חַיִּים ; better say “to have fun”.

The point? Each language has its own unique idioms which seldom translate literally into another language.

Bonus: the verb נִתְעַלְסָה (root letters ע-ל-ס, in the ‘reflexive’ stem הִתְפַּעֵל, future, first person plural) is also a ‘hapax.’ Two successive ‘hapaxes’ – the rarest of the rare!

Although it appears 3 times, it is still a ‘hapax’ (wrapped in an enigma…); all three times are in Ezekiel, all in the same combination of words: “…וּמִתּוֹכָה כְּעֵין הַחַשְמַל…” יחזקאל 1:4
AV: “…and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber…”
JPS: “…and in the center of it…a gleam as of amber…”
וָאֵרֶא כְּעֵין חַשְמַל” יחזקאל 1:27
AV: “…and I saw a gleam as of amber…”
JPS: “…I saw a gleam as of amber…”
“כְּעֵין הַחַשְמַלָה” יחזקאל 8:2
AV: “As the colour of amber”
JPS: “The color of amber”

In all these instances, reference is made to the gleam, color, or appearance of חַשְמַל, but what exactly is it? The Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Bible (3rd century BCE), as well as the Vulgate (Latin) one (4th century CE) render it a ‘electrum’, an amber-colored alloy of gold and silver. So do several of our classical Bible commentators. S. Mandelkern, in his concordance, admits that there are “endless guesses” to the meaning, while A. Even-Shoshan, in his concordance, simply writes “a gleam(?)”.

Today, חַשְמַל is ‘electricity’, with an obvious nod to the ancient ‘electrum’ and ‘electron’. There are those who believe that Ezekiel was in a hallucinatory trance when he saw such vivid, colorful images.
Young David is preparing to fight Goliath, and he picks five smooth stones: “…וַיִבְחַר לוֹ חֲמִשָּה חַלֻקֵי אֲבָנִים… וַיָשֶׂם אׂתָם בִּכְלִי-הָרֹעִים אֲשֶר לוֹ וּבַיַּלְקוּט…”
שמואל א 17:40
AV: “… and he chose him five smooth stones…and he put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had, even in a scrip…”
JPS: “… [He]…picked a few (lit.: “five”) smooth stones…, put them in the pocket of his shepherd’s bag…” (note how the JPS evades the ‘hapax’ altogether).

This word is clearly derived from the verb root ל-ק-ט , ‘gather’, ‘collect’.

Today, it has two meanings: (1) a school backpack (satchel), and (2) an anthology, a collection (remember the root) of writings. In the latter meaning, it has been found since medieval times, e.g., יַלְקוּט שִמְעוֹנִי . Currently, the official gazette of the government of Israel is יַלְקוּט הַפִּרְסוּמִים , ‘the collection of publications’. In the mid 50’s, an extremely popular book in Israel was called יַלְקוּט הַכְּזָבִים, an anthology of tall tales from the lore of the Palmach.

Moses orders Aaron
“… קַח צִנְצֶנֶת אַחַת וְתֶן שָמָּה מְלֹא הָעֹמֶר מָן…” שמות 16:33

AV: “…Take a pot and put an omer full of manna therein…”
JPS: “…Take a jar, put one omer of manna in it…”

It can be safely said that this ‘hapax’ meant a jar, or some other closed vessel. Too bad that it and its contents were lost; we might have learned then what exactly it and manna were.

Today, the meaning ‘jar’ is freely used. Additionally, in Hebrew slang, we say, “If such and such is true, then I am a צנצנת; in English, it is, “If such and such is true, then I’ll eat my hat.”

In the description of the mighty leviathan, we read

“כְּקַש נֶחְשְבוּ תוֹתָח…” איוב 41:21
AV: “Darts are counted as stubble…”
JPS: “Clubs are regarded as stubble…”

And we have a puzzling ‘hapax.’ From the contents, the leviathan is stronger than any weapon. Our classical commentators attempted to explain it as‘a weapon’ (Rashi, Ibn Ezra); ‘an instrument with pointed tips to catch fish’ (Ralbag), ‘catapult’ (Ralbag, Metsudat Zion).

Today, it means ‘canon’, an artillery gun, probably based on the ancient function of the catapult. In slang, תותח is an important person (compare with ‘big shot’ in English); it also means ‘hashish.’

About Shlomo Karni


  1. If you don’t have it, you would be interested in Professors Ariel and Chana Bloch’s translation of Shir ha’Shirim with an introduction and commentary by Professor Robert Alter. See, for example, p.29:

  2. A delightful post! And very informative..thanks

  3. If you have to put words like ‘hapax legomena’ in quotes, as the author does, that usually means that the words ought to be defined. But the author doesn’t define this peculiar phrase. Is it so common that everyone knows what it means? If so, then why put it in quotes?

  4. it means a word or phrase that only appears once in the whole tanach.

  5. To IH

    Thanks for that reference. You might also enjoy: Marcia Falk, “LOVE
    LYRICS FROM THE BIBLE: A Translation an Literary Study of the Song of Songs.” Sheffield (England), The Almond Press, 1982.

  6. How about “seder”, that is, “tsalmavet velo sedarim” of Sefer Iyyov. It is perhaps the most very common word in (later) Hebrew that –surprisingly– appears exactly once in Tanakh.

    But your site is called “hirhurim”, so why not mention also the appearance of “hirhur” (the Aramaic equivalent thereof) in sefer Daniyyel, also a hapax legomena (unless I am totally mistaken, which is possible, I don’t have reference sources in front of me to check).

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