Word of the Day / Agartal: The Baffling Origin of the Word for Vase

One theory is that it came from a portmanteau of three ancient Sumerian words. Maybe. Maybe not.

The Hebrew word for vase, that thing you put flowers in, is a-gar-TAL. But while it describes an object that is quite ordinary, its origins are shrouded in mystery.

There are 304,901 words in the Hebrew Bible. Of these, 1,480 are hapax legomena, words appearing only once in the text.

Agartal is one of these. It appears in a list of objects stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians (that the Persians later returned to the Jews).

But what exactly is agartal? That depends who you ask.

“And this is the number of them: thirty chargers of gold, a thousand chargers of silver, nine and twenty knives” (Ezra 1:9). In this the King James Bible passage the translator decided to render agartal “charger”.

In its translation of the Bible into Greek, the Septuagint translated the word as psykter, wine cooler. But the translation into the Latin, the Vulgate, decided on phiala, a platter.

On the other hand, the French rabbi and great commentator on the Bible, Rashi, just described these mysterious agartalim as “various dishes”, but his contemporary Jonah ibn Janah, explained that they were “vessels used to wash ones hands.”

In the 19th century, a new field of study was born, which gave way to new ways to interpret unclear biblical words: philology. At roughly the same time, an army of archaeologists started digging up the Middle East and sending home artifacts.

Some of these were inscribed with ancient languages, which were deciphered by philologists. They not only learned how to read these ancient tongues, but also learned of the languages' relationships to one another. The evolution of philology led to new theories about the origin of the world agartal and what it might mean.

If Sumerian had such a word

Philologists began to think that agartal was borrowed from a different language - but which? A 19th century scholar of Sumerian by the name of Simon Landersdorfer suggested that it was taken from Sumerian, coming from a word agardal.

It isn't that Sumerian actually had such a word, but it could have, Landersdorfer hypothesized; and if it did, the word meant vessel, based on its supposed components: ah – water, gar – keeper, and dal - wide. Could be, could be.

Another researcher, Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius, suggested that the word was borrowed from Greek - from the word kartalos, meaning basket, though it bears saying that nowhere are golden baskets mentioned in connection to the worship at the temple.

Yet another researcher posited that the word came from the Hittite word kurtal, which meant giant basket. And yet another researcher said that it could be a Hebrew portmanteau of agar - to hold (as in store), and tal - dew.

Whatever it is, the word agartal wasn’t used until the modern period, except for one exception: a poem by Saadia Gaon, written in the 10th century, though it is not at all clear what he meant by it.

The way agartal entered Hebrew in the modern times with its current sense is as mysterious as how it came to enter the Bible. It suddenly appears at the end of the 19th century in a number of Hebrew newspapers, with no explanation of where it came from. Perhaps we’ll never know.

Bloomberg
Daniel Tchetchik