Word of the Day / Yareakh: The Moon God That Couldn't Be Obliterated

When stoning deaths didn't prevent paganism, the ancient sages tried to stamp out this word. Didn't work.

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The Hebrew word for moon is yareakh (ya-re-AKH), though that isn't the tiny celestial body's name in the Book of Genesis. In the story of creation, the moon is described as the “lesser light” that God created to "rule the night": "And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also" (1:16).

The word yareakh is quite ancient, preceding Hebrew itself, but it is found in multiple other languages. Semitic languages such as Southern Arabic, Ge’ez and Akkadian also contain the word yareakh, but in those it means "new moon."

This is the source of the biblical Hebrew word for month yerakh (ye-RAKH), as the Hebrew calendar measures the month from new moon to new moon. (Modern Hebrew uses the word khodesh for month, from khadash, the word for "new," once again referring to the new moon!)

Unlike in the case of the above mentioned languages, in Hebrew and Ugaritic, the word yareakh simply means moon. 

Like the word shemesh – sun, which we discussed earlier this week – the moon was also deified: it was seen as a god, the moon god Yareakh, yet we have little information about the worship of this god. Most of the information is from a poem found in Ugarit (in modern-day Syria), describing the god's marriage to the moon goddess Nikkal, who is also the goddess of fruit.

Researchers believe that the worship of Yareakh slowly died off until disappearing completely in the first millennium BCE. This is based on the relatively few written references to his worship, as well as the gradual disappearance of names that reference his worship from the second millennium, where they are quite plentiful, to the first BCE, where they become increasingly rare.

The Jewish sages tried to stamp out idolatrous moon worship - the punishment for which was death by stoning – by stamping out the use of the deity's name, among other things. Instead they tried to introduce the word levana (le-va-NA), which means “white one.”

But in Modern Hebrew, levana is largely used by poets while average Joes use yareach, the long forgotten god of old. There is one modern idiom that does use levana to mean moon: otiyot kidush levana, for letters so large they can be read by moonlight.

A full 'yareakh.'Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

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