Some Are Harder Than Others

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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).

In two previous notes (Sept. 20, 2011 and Oct. 11, 2011) we wrote about the class of unique words in the Bible, each appearing only once (‘hapax legomenon’). The Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem has named such a word מִלָּה יְחִידָאִית , from ‘single’=יָחִיד. We noted there the challenge and difficulties in getting at the meaning of such a word, since there is only the one context within which it appears.

Here, we classify broadly the degrees of difficulties for this task:

  1. The word is easily traceable through its root letters. Example:
    “וַיָקָם וַיֹּאכַל וַיִּשְתֶּה וַיֵּלֶךְ בְֹּכֹחַ הָאֲכִילָה הַהִיא… ” מל”א יט 8
    Here, אֲכִילָה is a ‘hapax’, luckily preceded by the verb whose root א-כ-ל is easily detected. Gerunds like ‘eating’ = אכילה are of the general form פְּעִילָה, e.g. שְמִיטָה, סְלִיחָה , הֲלִיכָה , which is fairly common.
  2. The word has apparent root letters, but its meaning is either derived by extension, figuratively, or by דְּרָש. Example:
    “… וְאֵין מַכְלִים דָּבָר בָּאָרֶץ יוֹרֵש עֶצֶר…” שופ’ יח 7
    Here, the ‘hapax’ is עֶצֶר. The JPS (Jewish Publications Society) renders this sentence as “…with no one in the land to
    molest them and with no hereditary ruler.” A footnote to ‘with no hereditary ruler’ reads, ‘meaning of Hebrew uncertain.’
    The first, albeit minor, difficulty is the lack of a second וְאֵין to justify the English “and with no…”. Radak points out that the first וְאֵין applies also here.
    The second difficulty is with the root ע-צ-ר . In the simple stem, עָצַר means ‘prevent’, ‘stop’, and two of our commentators make use of this meaning to interpret also the verse
    “…זֶה יַעְצֹר בְּעַמִּי.” שמ”א ט 17
    as, “This one (Saul) will stop my people from scattering in the battle field and from doing evil,”(Rashi); or, “ (Saul) will prevent the Philistines from fighting with Israel,” (Radak); in other words, he will rule as a king. In both cases, a bit of figurative דְּרָש is used.
    As noted in the earlier article, יוֹרֵש עֶצֶר has come to mean ‘heir to the throne’.
  3. The word has no apparent root in Hebrew, and we must rely on similar words in ancient languages. Here is an example rife with such ‘hapaxes’:
    “זָכַרְנוּ אֶת… הַקִּשֻּאִים וְאֶת הָאֲבַטִּחִים וְאֶת הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת–הַבְּצָלִים וְאֶת-הַשּוּמִים.” במד’ יא5
    Except for חָצִיר , all the other desired edibles are not found elsewhere in the Bible! Let us take them, one at a time:
    Rashi regales us with medieval French, “concombres,” ‘cucumbers’, for קִשֻּאִים . In Syriac it is ‘kashuta’; in Akkadian – ‘kishshu’ [1] .In modern Hebrew it is ‘squash’, or ‘zuchini’.
    אֲבַטִּיחַ has its root in Arabic (battikh), as noted by Ibn Ezra, and it means ‘watermelon.’
    בָּצָל comes from the Syriac ‘betzla’, and the Arabic ‘bassal’, meaning probably ‘a peeling (plant)’. Compare with the Hebrew פִּצֵּל= ‘to peel off the bark’ (Gen. 30:37-38). Its meaning today is ‘onion’.
    שוּם, ‘garlic’, is ‘tuma’ in Syriac, ‘tum’ in Arabic, and ‘shumu’ in Ahkkadian [1].
  4. The word is of unknown origin. Such a word is often described by the adjectives קָשָה = ‘hard’, ‘difficult’, or סְתוּמָה= ‘vague’.
    חַשְמַל, as cited in a previous article, is found in Ezekiel three times (Ezek. 1:4, 1:27, and 8:2); strictly, it is not a ‘hapax’ — a single time — but, still, its meaning is difficult, vague. Assumptions as to its original meaning include ‘amber’, ‘glow’, ‘electrum’ (alloy of gold and silver). In modern Hebrew it means ‘electricity’.
    חַשְמַן, found in Ps. 68:32 in its plural form, is assumed to have meant ‘name of a tribe’, ‘knight’, or ‘nobleman’. In our literature from the Middle Ages onwards, it means ‘cardinal’ in the Catholic church.

[1]. Ernst Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the
Hebrew Language. N.Y.: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987.

About Shlomo Karni


  1. That leaves one to wonder how Rashi knew…

    Another example is the supposedly-mythical tahash. Check the Arabic; a sea cow.

    The more I hear about Ernest Klein, the more impressed I am. Why isn’t he better known?

  2. Nachum:

    Re: “Tachash” – check Prof. Tawil’s Akkadian lexicon; he cites a study arguing pretty convincingly that “Tachash” is not an animal at all, but a reference to decorated leather.

  3. Yechezkel says shoes are made of it, which is something Arabs do, though. But interesting.

  4. There is a difficulty with Tachash = ‘decorated leather’, because in 12/14 cases where Tachash is mentioned , it is together with ‘or’ = leather’, i.e., ‘or tachahs’, ‘or techashim’- a double leather?

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