While it sounds like the English word mystery, the Hebrew word mistory (mis-to-RY) doesn’t mean the enigma itself, but rather is an adjective meaning “mysterious.”
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The similarity between the words is no coincidence; they are both ultimately derived from the same source - the Greek word misterion.
The misterion were secret rites and ceremonies that only those initiated into a certain cult could witness. Among the most famous of these was the cult of Demeter – goddess of cereal grains celebrated in Eleusis, outside of Athens – whose initiates were sworn to secrecy. Thus, the word gained the meaning “secret” as well.
This sense of the word entered Hebrew in early rabbinic writing sometime in the mid-1st millennium. For example, it appears in Genesis Rabba, a religious text written sometime after the Talmud – perhaps in the 5th or 6th century – to express the opinion of one rabbi that God destroyed the people of Sodom because they revealed his mistorin.
The word is spelled with the letter tet in Hebrew texts of this period, but in later texts, the tet was replaced with tav indicating that the writers did not know that the word was of Greek origin and thought that it is derived from the Biblical root s-t-r, meaning “to hide.”
Exodus Rabba, written some time before the 13th century, warns that other nations should not learn of the mysteries of Passover and that these should be reserved for the Israelites. Here the word is already written with a tav, reflecting the fact that the writer was unaware of the Greek origin of the word and assumed it came from from Hebrew.
Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.