Word of the Day / Riba - How a Lexicographer Misread a Copying Error to Make Jam

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda coined the Hebrew word for preserves in 1888, but it seems his choice was based on an error - a fact that made Israel's Nobel prizewinner in literature titter.

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Jam today – made with sweet cherry tomatoes.
Jam today – made with sweet cherry tomatoes.Credit: Dan Peretz; Styling by Nurit Kariv

The Hebrew word for jam is ri-BA. It was coined by Eliezer Ben Yehuda in 1888, when he presented it to the readers of his newspaper HaZvi in an article titled “A new word that is old.”

In the article Ben-Yehuda set out to show how he found the word riba in the Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim 7:9) in a passage concerning the frying of a dish call tofini. What exactly this tofini is is not at all clear, but that’s besides the point. We find a bunch of rabbis seemingly debating the recipe, when one of them says tofinei riba. Ben-Yehuda acknowledges that commentators wrote that this was a copying error and that originally the text said raka, which means “soft” - meaning that the dough was half done.

Ben-Yehuda concludes that the word riba comes from the root r-b-b and that this root means, as it means in Arabic, something condensed by heating. It's a root that gave Arabic the word murabab - jam. “Thus, we gained a new word that is old for a kind of sweets, for the kinds of fruit cooked in sugar, in honey, and it is riba,” Ben-Yehuda concluded.

This caused quite a bit of snickering among Jerusalemites and other detractors of Ben-Yehuda, who weren’t happy about this crazy foreigner who had just come from Paris and was trying to get everyone to speak Hebrew: How dare he have the audacity to make up words in the holy tongue! In fact, Ben-Yehuda was wrong and in this case his detractors were right: The word was a copying error. But still riba entered Hebrew and despite the snickering it is used by all to this day.

The author S. Y. Agnon actually mocked Ben-Yehuda on this very subject in one of his novels - Shevuat Emunim - in which he wrote “There was a scholar making fun of a lexicographer who made a mistake when interpreting words and called a confection of fruit, riba.”

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