In the previous article in this series I noted some differences between Hebrew and English—differences that are not surprising since the two are from different language families. And yet, at the same time, in large part via the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew has considerably influenced English.
As this informative article notes:
Both because of a desire to read the Bible in its original tongue and a belief in Hebrew as “The Mother of Languages,” it figured prominently in the Puritan movement in England…. English Puritan emigrants were also instrumental in promoting Hebrew as part of the curriculum in such prominent American universities as Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Brown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth and Pennsylvania (Yale, Columbia and Dartmouth still bear Hebrew inscriptions on their seals). In Harvard’s early years, more time was devoted to the study of Hebrew than Latin or Greek.
It makes sense, then, that not a few common English words originate in Hebrew—and the following, of course, are just examples.
The word camel comes from the Hebrew gamal (גמל). Camels—or gamalim (plural)—were a common sight in biblical times, and these days tourists still take camel rides in Jerusalem, in the Negev desert, and elsewhere in Israel.
Camels are especially common in the Book of Genesis. For instance, when Isaac (Gen. 24:63) “went out to meditate in the field at the eventide,” he looked up and—“behold, the camels were coming.” Among the riders on these beasts was Rebekah, arrived from a different land and soon to be his wife.
The English word behemoth comes originally from a more mythological beast than camels. In today’s Hebrew, behema (בהמה) means “wild animal” (behemoth in plural). But in Job 40:15-24, God describes behemoth (in singular) as an immense, awesome creature that “eateth grass as an ox,” “moveth his tail like a cedar,” has “bones…like bars of iron,” and so on.
These days, when you say “He’s a real behemoth,” that’s where it comes from.
And one more biblical beast: the word leviathan comes from the biblical leviatan (לוויתן). In the Bible leviatan is usually a sea monster, huge and menacing (as described at length in Job 41:1-34), though in Psalm 104 the word seems simply to refer to a whale. As for the “great fish” that swallows Jonah, whatever it is, it’s not a leviatan.
“Leviathan” as a great whale figures prominently, of course, in Moby Dick—a book whose alleged greatness has always eluded me. Whereas in today’s English a leviathan is still a sea monster, in today’s Hebrew a leviatan is simply a whale.
And now, from animals to a plant: the word scallion comes—not directly via the Bible but via Latin or Greek, or both—from Ashkelon (אשקלון), the town in the Bible where Samson fought the Philistines. It’s in this region along the Mediterranean coast that scallions—about three thousand years ago—were first grown, and became an export commodity.
Today scallions are still around, and so is Ashkelon—now an Israeli town of over 100,000 just north of Gaza. Not surprisingly, Ashkelon has been heavily bombarded in some of the recent hostilities.
And while we’re with plants, there’s the word “shibboleth.” What does a shibboleth have to do with a plant? The word comes from the Hebrew shibolet (שיבולת), which is an ear of corn or stalk of grain. In the biblical Book of Judges, chapter 12, the way to distinguish the Ephraimites from the Gileadites is that the former can’t pronounce the sh and so say “sibolet.” Hence the English meaning of shibboleth as a way to distinguish members of groups.
In today’s Israel “Shibolet ba’Sadeh” (A Stalk in the Field) is a very well-known song connected to the Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) harvest festival.
Satan comes from the biblical Satan (שטן) (a’s as in Bach). In the Hebrew Bible, Satan usually refers to an adversary or an accuser. Apart from a brief appearance in Zechariah 3:1-2, it’s only in the Book of Job that Satan is a specific being, a sardonic angel who tests Job’s faith by taking from him all the good things that he had. Satan does so, though, with God’s consent, and in the end Job passes the test.
Satan plays a much bigger role in the New Testament, and of course Satan as a concept and character is now widespread and familiar.
Staying with negative phenomena, the word sodomy goes all the way back to the Book of Genesis and the town of Sodom ((סדוםjust north of the Dead Sea. Pronounced “S’dome” in Hebrew, Sodom is the place whose inhabitants were “wicked and sinners” (Gen. 13:13), and in the end God destroys it (and its sister-city Gomorrah) with “brimstone and fire” (Gen. 19:24), having allowed only Lot and his family to escape.
Today there are towns in the U.S., Canada, Scotland, Wales, and Britain that call themselves Sodom, and in Israel there is still a Mount Sodom along the Dead Sea.
Chutzpah became an English word via Yiddish, but it came to Yiddish from Hebrew (חוצפה). It never appears in the Bible; instead it first appears in the Mishnah, a codex of Jewish law that was redacted around 200 CE and became the foundation of the Talmud.
In today’s English usage, chutzpah is generally an admirable quality of daring and defiance. In today’s Hebrew, though, it’s actually quite a negative quality of impudence or arrogance. When someone says “Eizeh chutzpah!” (What chutzpah!), they don’t like what you’ve done at all and aren’t giving you a citation for bravery.
The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew Shabbat (שבת). A central component of Judaism, originating in God’s resting from his labor of creation on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2-3), Shabbat is mentioned often in the Hebrew Bible, and “remembering Shabbat” is one of the Ten Commandments.
Shabbat, which falls on Friday evening and Saturday, is also the origin of the Christian Sabbath and the Muslim Sabbath (which falls on Friday). For Jews, a difference between life in the Diaspora and in Israel is that in Israel, Shabbat is the weekly day of rest for the whole country, and is experienced as such—albeit in different ways—by both observant and less observant Jews.
Having progressed from animals and plants through some negative phenomena to a more exalted one like Shabbat, a good place to end this article is with the concept of the Messiah—which stems from the biblical Mashiach (משיח). The word literally means “anointed” in Hebrew, and in the Hebrew Bible Mashiach is a human figure—a political leader who will be anointed with oil, will come from King David’s line, and will rule the Jewish people in the Messianic Age, bringing peace to the world.
There are always good reasons why this is a fervent hope, and our time is no exception.