Word of the Day Shablool: A Snail by Many Other Names

An enigmatic Biblical creature that was mistakenly rendered as 'wax' in many translations.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Apparently the most ancient Hebrew word for snail is shab-LOOL. It appears but once in Psalms 58:8, in one of the Bible’s most difficult verses to make out: “As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away,” the King James Bible translation rendered it.

But this is not the only way to understand the text.

The translator of the most ancient surviving translation of this psalm, the Septuagint, had no clue what a shablool was. He simply guessed - “What melts?” and wrote the Greek equivalent of wax.

This translation error was later carried on into the Latin Vulgate and appears in many other translations, including Wycliffe’s translation.

We know that this is a mistake since the ancient Hebrews continued to use the word shablool after the Septuagint was completed, and it appears here and there in post-biblical texts - for example, in the Babylonian Talmud. “Everything the holy one may he be blessed created in the world, he did not create without a reason: Created a shablool for a katit, a fly for a wasp, a mosquito for a snake,” from which we can understand that in the second century CE snails were used to treat katit bites/stings, what ever that may be.

The 10th century brought with it a flurry of Bible commentators and Hebrew lexicographers, following a similar movement in the Arab world. The question “What is a shablool?” was a contested one in this period with some scholars such as Sa'adiah Gaon and Menahem ben Saruq reading the verse in psalms so that it is a direct continuation of the verse that came before.

By that rendering, the word shablool means a stream and is related to another Hebrew word shiboleth. Others understood it as in the context of the Talmudic passage.

After Rashi, who gave both options, in the 11th Century, most scholars went with the snail, which is likely as the root b-l-l seems to mean spiral in one other passage in 1 Kings.

Come the khilazon

In modern Hebrew, the word shablool has a synonym - khilazon - which Hebrew adopted from the Aramaic as did Arabic and Persian.

In all four languages the word signifies both sea and land snails but in the ancient Hebrew texts it is almost exclusively used to describe the sea snail Hexaplex trunculus, which was used in antiquity to make a purple dye called in Hebrew tekhelet and in Latin purpura, extremely sought after in the ancient world and ritually important in the ancient Jewish religion.

Today both words, khilazon and shablool, are used interchangeably, along with a third word, be'raleh, used by children since 1985 with the publication of Pnina Moed Kass' popular children's series, "Beraleh," about a snail by that name.

ShabloolCredit: AP

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