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.”
- Word of the Day / Shavar et hakelim: Broken dishes and disregarded rules
- Word of the day / Herzl: Simon says found a state
- Word of the Day / Mishkan: The biblical portable temple's modern legacy
- Katav: How Hebrew struggled to find a word for reporter
- Word of the Day / Rahit: Making a word part of the furniture
- Word of the Day / Hitbareg: The word that doesn't mean to screw oneself
- Word of the Day / Traktor: The word that doesn't always mean tractor
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.”