On Root / Cowboys Home on the Israeli Range at Dawn

Whether you're already out herding cattle or just gearing up with a cup of java, "boker" - morning - is the time for starting to see things distinctly. First in a two-part series.

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When do you start your day? I don't mean what time do you get up in the morning, but when do you consider the day to begin? Of course, dawn is the logical choice, but technically, a new day in the secular Western world starts oddly in the middle of the night, at midnight.

Jews, always a little different, count the day from the onset of the evening prior: On the Hebrew calendar, the date changes at sunset.

The source for this choice is usually said to be the highest authority possible, that God created the world this way. As the Good Book says, in Genesis, Chapter 1, for each of the six days of Creation: Vayehi 'erev vayehi boker, "[First] there was evening, [then] there was morning"

That story tells the day-by-day drama of the world coming into being as one of progressive distinctions - between light and darkness, sky and earth, water and land. This makes sense seeing that most Hebrew words have a tri-consonantal root that expresses a core meaning and that the roots of the very words boker ("morning") and'erev ("evening"), b-k-r and 'ayin-r-v, mean "distinguish, split, differentiate" and "mix, blur distinctions" respectively.

We'll begin here with boker, the harsh "critical" (see below) morning light, and next week move on to the "mixture" of light and darkness that is 'erev," evening." (Spoiler alert: we shall reveal that that root gives us a huge and fascinating family of words ranging from the fourth Passover plague to the name of the whole continent of "Europe").

The dawn's early light

Right after shalom, a student of introductory Hebrew greetings learns: boker tov! "Good morning!" More advanced speakers discover that the appropriate ritualized response to boker tov is: boker or! "A morning of light!"

As mentioned, the root of boker, b-k-r (or v-k-r depending on position), has the sense of "separate" or "distinguish." With the light of morning, one can visually differentiate between objects. It's hard to distinguish when the light is extinguished. This root also gives us the word levaker which can mean both "visit" and "criticize."

For instance, if someone suggested that you levaker chaver, unless advised more specifically - you wouldn't know if they meant "visit a friend" or "criticize a friend."

Even the person who does the act is called by the same word: mevaker is both a "visitor" and a "critic".

The context of course should help differentiate, while the noun form of the action is different as well. Bikur is a "visit", as in bikur cholim, "visiting the sick," which actually may also involve examination and care. On the other hand, bikoret is "criticism," which, as in English, can be either petty and back-stabbing, or high-minded and literary.

If this confusion sounds strange, remember that the word "visit" in English comes from the Latin "to see," as in "visible." The progression from "see" to "look" to "examine" to "criticize" is not so farfetched. The same verb levaker also gives us the action bakarah, "supervision," literally "over-seeing." Here the relevant occupation might be mevaker hemedinah, "the state comptroller."

Home on the Negev range

Now, the word boker, "morning" (pronounced BO-ker) shouldn't be confused with the homograph boker (bo-KER), which means "cowboy."

For instance, the kibbutz in the Negev to which David Ben-Gurion retired, and where he is buried, is called Sdeh Boker, which means "the field of the cowboy" (not "field of the morning").

While this boker could be simply the one who "supervises" his herd (it appears only once in the Bible, in Amos 7:14), it probably comes from the animal, bakar, "cattle."

And how exactly are cattle connected to this root? Linguists who theorize about this sort of thing conjecture that perhaps the animal got its name from its function in plowing the earth, splitting its surface and making distinctive furrows.

Whether you're already out herding cattle, or just gearing up with a cup of java, boker, "morning," is the time for starting to see things distinctly.

Next week, we'll look at 'erev, "evening," when those distinctions begin to blur. This word gives us the direction where the sun sets, ma'arav, "west." So we'll go from bokrim, "cowboys," to ma'arvonim, "westerns," via the "twilight zone." Stay tuned.

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

Both the word for 'cowboy' and the word for 'morning' share a root in Hebrew. Read on to find out why.Credit: Bloomberg
Cattle ("bakar") are apparently the source of the word "boker" for cowboy. Credit: Reuters

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