Word of the Day Al-sabon: Out, Damned Spot!

In latter-day argot this means soapless soap, but it comes from ancient biblical chastisements.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Al-sabon is soapless soap, but if you done wrong, no amount of washing will cleanse you, says the Lord.
Al-sabon is soapless soap, but if you done wrong, no amount of washing will cleanse you, says the Lord. Credit: Dreamstime.com
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

When you hear a phrase in Hebrew that starts with the word al, it’s usually succeeded by a verb in the future tense and means “don’t,” as in al tidag (“don’t worry”) or al tishkah (“don’t forget”).

Al tabit aharekha” – “Look not behind thee,” Lot is warned when he is advised to flee Sodom (Genesis 19:17). (You may recall that his wife does look, and turns into a pillar of salt.)

But though al-sabon combines the word for “soap” with the form of “no” that often means “don’t,” it is not a directive to refrain from taking a bath. Rather, it is a kind of soap – to wit, the kind that is actually a “non-soap,” which is what the term means.

Like soapless soap, al-sabon is a cleanser that is itself cleansed of certain key components of traditional sabon, the Hebrew word for “soap” that comes from the French savon and ultimately from the Latin saponem.

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Meir Barak, a researcher at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, defines soap as “a specific type of cleaning material that contains potassium hydroxide (KOH), which is an alkaline base known in the Bible (the book of Jeremiah) as borit.”

So what’s al-sabon then? That would be what Barak calls “other cleaning materials, new and synthetic ones that do not contain this compound (most of them also clean better).”

As for Jeremiah, the comment about soap is described as coming from God, who instructs the prophet to tell “the ears of Jerusalem” about the kinds of things even the sudsiest bath cannot get out (something Lady Macbeth had to learn the hard way): “For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap [borit], yet thine iniquity is marked before me, saith the Lord God” (2:22).

Perhaps this is actually an early reference not to soap but to al-sabon, in the sense of “No soap!” rather than “non-soap.” After all, God is telling us: “Don’t bother soaping up, sinners – it won’t do you much good anyway.”

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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