Word of the Day Aluf: How the Word for Bull Morphed Into General

This word has morphed through millennia, even passing through the ranks of the nobility en route.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Words sometimes travel a long way, but in the case of aluf (a-LOOF) it seems to be longer than usual.

Nowadays aluf has two distinct meanings - champion (sports) and general (in the army). But up to the 1920s, it was the Hebrew word for a count or an earl.

And in the ancient times, it meant something else entirely: a bull. That was so long ago that by biblical times, some two thousand years ago, the word had already achieved a multitude of meanings: It was a friend, a tribal leader, and, also, simply cattle.

During the Babylonian exile Jews picked up Aramaic, in which the root aleph-l-f means "to learn". By the early Middle Ages the word “aluf” had lost all its biblical references and instead meant an extremely agile and perspicacious student of the Torah, the wisest of the wise in the yeshiva.

By the time of the High Middle Ages this last meaning, too, had become disused. Instead, aluf picked up a new meaning - that of a rank of European nobility.

It's unclear how the idea to use the biblical word for tribal leader in this particular sense came about. What is known is that it wasn't unusual: In those days, other European titles of nobility as well as church titles were also borrowed from outmoded biblical words for leaders.

Come the chess column

In the first half of the 20th century, during the British Mandate of Palestine, chess became increasingly popular, but its vocabulary was incipient. This was a problem for the daily newspaper Davar, which started printing a chess column in the early 1930s. The editors contacted the Committee of the Hebrew Language, which set up a subcommittee for chess terms. These were published in Davar in 1931 and are the terms Israelis use to this very day.

This is how aluf, meaning champion, came into being.

This new word for chess champion made its way into Hebrew papers quickly and, within a few years, sports writers who weren't aware of its academic connotation started using the word in the context of sports, as it is used to this very day.

But what has this got to do with aluf being the Hebrew equivalent of Major General?

Mickey Marcus volunteers to help baby Israeli army

In 1948, shortly before the Declaration of Independence, the prominent Jewish-American colonel David (Mickey) Marcus volunteered to assist the fledgling IDF in the war. (His story was later dramatized in the Hollywood blockbuster "Cast a Giant Shadow," where he was played by Kirk Douglas).

At first he was recruited in an advisory capacity, but soon David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in Palestine and commander-in-chief of the army, put him in charge of three brigades, the largest unified command at the time. He also entrusted him with a mission of paramount importance - to break the siege on Jerusalem that had been imposed by the Arab armies. In light of all this, he was given the rank of “aluf.”

Not only was he the first to hold this rank, he was the first in the history of the nascent IDF to have any rank whatsoever.

Unfortunately, Marcus didn’t hold this post for very long. Two weeks later he was mistakenly shot dead by a guard, who didn’t recognize him as he was returning to his camp from a late night walk, a day before the first ceasefire went into effect. That very day, Ben-Gurion coined the words for all the other IDF ranks, which much like aluf, he based on biblical words for clan leaders.

An angry bull at pasture.Credit: Wikipedia

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