Word of the Day Apifyor

How Hebrew got an ancient word for pope that is hundreds of years older than the Latin word 'papa.'

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Catholic Church has a new leader on the Chair of Saint Peter – Pope Francis. But in Hebrew we don't call him "pope" or "papa," but rather apifyor (api-FYOR).

Until the 16th century, Jews called the pontiff as their Christian neighbors did: papa, a name that since the 12th century was reserved for the Bishop of Rome but before that referred to any high ranking church official. It derives from the Greek papas - a term of endearment a son gives his father.

Apparently some creative soul back in the 16th century thought it was improper for Jews to refer to the pope with such deference and decided to come up with a new term instead. This anonymous Jewish scholar picked the obscure word apifyor from the Talmud and fit it to the task. By the 17th century the word "papa" had all but disappeared from Hebrew.

So why apifyor? What does it mean?

Well, the word appears in the Avodah Zarah tractate of the Talmud in the story of Onkelos. According to the Talmud, Onkelos was a prominent Roman who converted to Judaism. The Roman emperor sent troops to bring him back but they too were converted.

The emperor then sent another group of soldiers to try again but, of course, they failed in their task. Onkelos tells them that while in the temporal world, each dignitary must carry a torch for his superior, just as the Hebrew god carries the torch for his people: "And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them" (Exodus 14:19).

Onkelos created a list of the Roman dignitaries, in order of rank, to carry their torches in succession. The lowest of these ranks was apifyor. That according to later commentators was the Byzantine official responsible for the palace gates.

This exercise convinced the new group of Romans to convert too, at least so says the Talmud. As you may have guessed by now, another contingency of soldiers is sent by the emperor and they too were converted. Finally, he gave up.

Possibly apifyor, the last in line, was chosen to refer to the pope and not kuma, the highest rank in Onkelos' procession (and a word not used in Hebrew) because despite being a lowly rank it was still a Roman title and it sounded much like "papa."

And that is how Hebrew got an ancient word for pope that was hundreds of years older than the Latin word used throughout the world.

Elon Gilad is a guest contributor to Word of the Day. Shoshana Kordova will return on Sunday, March 17.

When it was deemed inappropriate for Jews to refer to the pope as 'papa,' they reached back to a Talmudic story for a replacement.Credit: AP

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