Erev and boker are words that are well-known to us. But exactly how did they develop the meanings of “evening” and “morning”?
The verb ayin-resh-bet (henceforth “ARB”) has several meanings; one of them is “mix.” See, e.g., Ps. 106:35: va-yitarvu va-goyim. The “mix” meaning very likely lies behind the term erev rav (the mixed multitude that lacked a common identity and left Egypt with the Israelites). The “mix” meaning is also likely the basis for the word ARB in connection with weaving, as there is a combination of both vertical and horizontal directions in the weaving. The “mix” meaning also likely underlies the plague of arov, a mixture of wild animals or of very small harmful creatures (although you may remember that, a few weeks ago, I mentioned an alternative approach to the plague).
I had always thought that the “mix” meaning was the explanation for erev/evening as well. Indeed, two such explanations are often presented in traditional Jewish sources. One is that erev is the time when there is a mixing/confusion of objects to the human eye due to the lack of light. (This is in contrast to boker, where items can be inspected and distinguished.) The other is that erev is the time when the conditions of light and dark begin to mix. For these suggestions, see e.g., the concordance of S. Mandelkern, p. 912, and the commentaries of Ibn Ezra, Radak, Rav S.R. Hirsch and S. D. Luzzatto to Gen. 1:5.
But I am now surprised to learn that modern scholars take a different approach. They observe that in Akkadian (a Semitic language that was the language of Assyria and Babylonia) the root ARB means “to enter.” They believe that erev is called this because it is the time when the sun has set and early man viewed it as having entered into its resting location.
This “set/enter” meaning also explains the related word maarav (west). The maarav is the place where the sun sets. (This is in contrast to mizrach, the place where the sun begins to shine, derived from the root Z-R-Ch.) The “set/enter” meaning of the verb ARB is perhaps seen in the Tanach at Prov. 7:9 and Judges 19:9. (It may be implicit in the ARB of “weaving” as well.)
On the subject of ARB, these letters have many other meanings in Tanach. For example, an arava is a desolate, wilderness area. (This word could derive from charava, with a chet.) Also, an arava is a willow, and an orev is a raven. I have seen the speculation that orev for raven derives from it being a bird of the arava/wilderness, or from being a dark bird, from the “evening/dark” meaning of erev. Alternatively, the name may derive from the sound that the bird makes. Also, an unusual use of the root ARB is found at Psalms 68:5 (and in the song “baruch kel elyon,”) where God is described as a rochev ba-aravot. This will merit its own article!
The verb ARB also means to be a surety/guarantor (see, e.g., Gen. 43:9: anochi e’ervenu). There are also related nouns, eravon and aruba, which mean “pledge.” Scholars believe that all these meanings likely come from the “enter” meaning. For example, the one who pledges enters into the authority of another.
To conclude this section on a positive note, we recite the word ve-arva in the last sentence of the Amida (ve-arva...minchat yehuda vi-Yerushalayim). Arva here means “pleasant or sweet.” Many have suggested that this originated from the ARB/mix meaning and originally meant “mixed well.”
Hopefully, I have not mixed you up too much so far, as now it is time to deal with boker.
The verb BKR only appears a few times in Tanach. It generally has a meaning of “inspect” or “investigate.” As mentioned earlier, a standard view in our commentaries (e.g., Ibn Ezra and Radak) is that boker is the time where items can be inspected (unlike erev, where they are mixed and hard to distinguish).
However, two other approaches to the origin of boker deserve mention. One is the approach of S.D. Luzzatto (comm. to Gen. 1:5) who notes that BKA (bet-kuf-ayin) means “split” or “break.” Luzzatto then suggests that boker is simply a contraction of baka or (the light broke through). To support his position, he cites Is. 58:8: az yibaka ka-shachar orecha.
The other approach to boker is one supported by many modern scholars. This approach observes that in Arabic, baqara means “to split” or “to open.” The suggestion is that this was the original meaning of BKR in Hebrew as well. “Inspect/investigate” was just a later expansion, since this is what you do after you split something open (e.g., after you split open a sacrificial animal). If the original meaning of BKR was “split,” then boker can be the time when the light first breaks through. (A parallel is our English word “daybreak.”) Moreover, under the assumption that the original meaning of BKR was “split” or “open,” we can suggest why bakar are called by this name. It may be because these animals plow, thereby making openings in the ground.
Finally, I will make a point about another time-related word, shachar (the morning light). We all know that shachor, with the same three root letters, means “black”! To explain this anomaly, some have suggested that shachar really means “the blackness just before the dawn.” Others have suggested that shachor/black derives originally from a different root, chet-resh-resh, which means “burn.” But both of these suggestions are farfetched. Most likely, the two opposite shin-chet-resh meanings are just coincidence.
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected] His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy” (Kodesh Press, 2015). He does his best writing in the very early morning before boker and shacharit.