Word of the Day / Stav: How the Ancient Word for Winter Turned Into Fall

Let's face it, Israel doesn't have an autumn and so, neither did the ancient Israelites.

It is autumn, or in Hebrew - stav. If you live in New England, France or some other temperate clime you may be watching the leaves turn gold and brown.

Not here in Israel. We don’t have a fall. Israel has only two seasons - winter and summer. So it isn’t surprising that in the Hebrew of old, in the Bible, Talmud and other ancient texts, there is no word for this lovely season.

But that doesn’t mean that the word stav doesn’t appear in the Bible - it does once: “For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone” (Song of Solomon 2:11).

You’ll notice that the translators of the King James Bible translated stav as winter. This is as it should be; the translation is clearly supported by the text - surely it isn’t autumn that ends with the last rain of the season. And in fact, the word stav comes from the Aramaic word sitva, which plainly means winter.

People continued to use the word stav to mean winter through antiquity and the Middle Ages. That persisted until Mordechai Yaweel published his book Limudei Hateva (“Nature Studies”) in 1836, in which he stated: “The time during which the heat little by little subsides and the cold takes its place shall be called stav.”

The highly influential poet Judah Leib Gordon picked up on this and began using the word in this sense. Later teachers in Israel followed suit, raising the first generations of native Hebrew speakers using stav to mean autumn, not winter. Eventually, everyone was using stav for autumn and ho-REF became the only word for winter.

Benny Mar