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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Part I

Dat (1:8) (dalet-tav): “The drinking was according to dat.” This word only appears in the books of Esther, Daniel and Ezra. It is a Persian word. It means “decree, law, usage.”

It is important to realize that D-T only appears in the late books of Tanach because at Deut. 33:2 we have the following word: aleph-shin-dalet-tav (“mi-yemino esh-dat lamo”). There is a ketiv/kri notation here. The “kri” tell us to read these four letters as two separate words. Thus they are usually translated as “fire” and “law.” But now that we know that “dat” is a Persian word and occurs only in the late books of Tanach, we realize that this interpretation is very unlikely.

What are our other choices? We could follow the ketiv and treat the word as one word. There are words in Tanach with the letters A-Sh-D-T that mean something like “slope of a mountain” or “waterfall.” But these meanings do not seem to fit here. Another approach was suggested by Dr. Richard Steiner, a professor at Yeshiva University for many years. Steiner wanted to maintain the ancient tradition that these were two separate words. He postulated that dalet-tav was a shortened form of dalet-aleph-tav. This word, a verb, would mean “flew.” The meaning of the entire phrase would be “from his right, fire flew to them.” See his brief article in Journal of Biblical Literature 115/4 (1996). (This way, we at least would have a verb in the phrase.)

Of course, it is interesting that those who observe Jewish law today are called “datiyim.” The Persian origin of this word perhaps implies that we are observing ancient Persian law! (“Datiyim” is at least easier to say than “halachiyim,” which might have been an alternative!)

Ones (1:8) (aleph-nun-samech): “The drinking was according to law/custom/usage, no one was “ones” (=compelled). If you look at the main section of the Mandelkern concordance, you will see that this seems to be the only time this word appears in all of Tanach. However, it also appears at Daniel 4:6, in the Aramaic section of the Tanach. Mandelkern does indeed list this word in his separate Aramaic section. But this is a reminder that when using the Mandelkern concordance, one must always check both the Hebrew section and the tiny Aramaic section (spanning certain sections of the books of Daniel and Ezra). If you look at the entry for the word in Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, p. 41, he says this word is “a hapax legomenon [=one time word] in the Bible, occurring Est. 1:8.” I suspect that he forgot to check Mandelkern’s Aramaic section!

It is of course ironic that this word, so common in discussions of Halacha, only appears two times in Tanach.

With regard to the meaning of the “ein ones,”one interpretation is that no one was forced to drink more than they wished. Another interpretation is the opposite: no one was forced to stop! Everyone was allowed to drink as much as they wished!

Ha-achashtranim bnei ha-ramachim (8:10): Here we have two one-time words. This is a well-known phrase because an amora in the Talmud (at Megillah 18a) seems to admit that even the Amoraic sages did not know the meaning of the phrase. But “ramachim” is found in Mishnah Kilayim 8:5, and is a kind of horse, so perhaps the Amoraic statement was really focused on the first word. The solution to the first word was found in the mid-19th century, when ancient Persian cuneiform was deciphered. The word means “royal/governmental.” See Ernest Klein, p. 18, and Z. Ron, The Jewish Bible Quarterly 36:1 (2008), pp. 33-38.

Goral (3:7) lot. This word appears many times in Tanach. But what is its origin? The original meaning of the word seems to have been “small stone.” Scholars deduce this from Arabic, which has a similar-sounding word for “small stone.” Many scholars think that the English word “coral” ultimately derives from this Semitic root. See Klein, p. 95. I also saw a suggestion in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (vol. 2, p. 450) that related our English word “gravel” to this Semitic root, but others disagree.

There is a word in Mishnaic Hebrew for “lot:” payis (=peh-yod-samech). What is its origin? Klein writes (p. 506) that this word is related to an Aramaic root peh-samech-samech, which means “a broken piece,” and that peh-samech-samech is a collateral form of the Hebrew root peh-tzade-tzade, which means “break.” We are learning from all of the above that stones and broken pieces were what were originally used for lotteries.

Hodu: This is the Biblical term for India. The references to Hodu at Esther 1:1 and 8:9 are the only references to India in Tanach. The name derives from the Persian name Hindu. But as often happens in Hebrew, the nun drops. (The dagesh in the dalet reflects the fact that there was once a preceding nun.)

This area called Hodu in the Tanach refers to the region near the Indus River. Modern scholars point out that this is in today’s Pakistan.

The Hebrew word for turkey is tarnegol hodu. This means “Indian chicken.” Something like this is the name for the bird in many European languages. That led to the emergence of this name in Hebrew as well. But turkey originated in North America. Why did Europe associate it with India? The explanation seems to be that the first Europeans who reached the Western Hemisphere thought they were in India, so the people in Europe thought that this new bird was from India. This also explains the name “Indians” for our native peoples in America. (When people wrote that former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has “Indian” roots, I was initially confused as to which of these two meanings was being used. I eventually learned that the meaning was “from India,” not “ from American Indians.”)

I also read that the English name “turkey” comes from an incorrect identification of the bird with an African guinea-fowl that entered Europe through Turkey.

An interesting coincidence is that we eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and a common biblical Hebrew term for “give thanks!” is hodu. (This word hodu is from the root yod-dalet-he; a hand motion was originally involved in giving thanks).

Finally, if there are people out there who think that Achashverosh reigned from “Turkey” to “Kush” (I know at least one person who thought this), I hope that this column serves to eliminate that thought! (As to Kush, this is probably “Ethiopia.”)

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First wants to start a new custom to travel to India on Purim and eat turkey there. Until he leaves, he can be reached at [email protected]

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.