Word of the Day / Shkedim: From Soup to Nuts

This word is used for crunchy foods like almonds and soup nuts, and also for the almond-shaped anatomical part that's sometimes removed.

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One of the first trees to bloom in Israel is the shkediya, the almond tree, whose pink and white flowers herald the spring. Although shkedim, or almonds, are not one of the seven species described in the Bible as growing in Israel, they do make an appearance in Genesis, as Jacob prepares his sons for a trip to Egypt to bring food to famine-ravaged Canaan: “And their father Israel said unto them: 'If it be so now, do this: take of the choice fruits of the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spicery and ladanum, nuts, and almonds [shkedim]’” (43:11).

When Israelis talk about shkedim in the kitchen, though, they’re not necessarily talking about this high-calcium nut.

Mandelakh, a Yiddish word that comes from mandel, meaning “almond,” are Ashkenazi soup accompaniments similar to their better-known cousins kneidelakh, or matzah balls. (One mandelakh recipe calls for the doughy mix of flour, eggs, sugar and other ingredients to be rolled into a sausage shape, after which the cook is instructed to “circumcise” it by cutting off pieces of the required size.)

In Israel, these mandelakh have evolved (or devolved, some would say) into shkedei marak, meaning “soup almonds,” which are small, crunchy yellow squares made of flour, oil and salt that manage to be kind of tasteless yet curiously addictive.

But shkedim are not just a food; they are also a body part, specifically the almond-shaped tonsils. This association between almonds and tonsils is not unique to Hebrew, though. In English the word amygdala means “an almond-shaped part, as a tonsil,” as well as almond-shaped groups of nuclei in the brain that are involved in the emotions of fear and aggression. The Greek amygdale, a 12th-century word meaning “almond,” developed into the medieval Latin amygdales to describe the tonsils.

The change came by way of the Arabic, according to Online Etymology Dictionary: “The anatomical use is as a direct translation of Arab al-lauzatani ‘the two tonsils,’ literally ‘the two almonds,’ so called by the Arabic physicians for fancied resemblance.”

Whether you like to bite into almonds or crunch up your soup with them, or you prefer to stick with the ones you were born with, stay tuned. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at what happens when shaked becomes a verb.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

Almonds.Credit: Doram Gaunt