On Root / How 'Europe' and 'Maghreb' Both Come From Hebrew

The Hebrew word for 'west' is ma'arav, thus Hollywood cowboy movies are ma'aravonim. Add a scimitar-slinger and camel, and what you get is a falafel western.

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This column is the second in a two-part series.

Living in a technological world where light and dark are had at the flip of a switch, we forget that for most of history, the rising and the setting of the sun were momentous occasions. In Semitic languages such as Hebrew these daily events are encoded in the very names of the directions.

The Hebrew word for "east" is mizrach, from the root z-r-ch, "shine":  the sun is shining.

"West" is ma'arav, from 'ayin-r-b (or "v" at the end). That is the root for the word 'erev -  "evening."

Change one vowel and you get ma'ariv, which observant Jews will recognize as the name of the evening prayer service. More secular Israelis know this as the name of the long-popular tabloid Ma'ariv which came out originally as an evening newspaper, when there used to be such a thing.

The Arabic region known as the Maghreb also comes from the same root - the Arabic letter ghayin is equivalent to the Hebrew 'ayin - for it is the western edge of the Arab conquest.

Western conquests bring us to the more modern development, the ma'arvon - the Hollywood Western. Were movies made in the Maghreb of scimitar-slingers and camel-rustlers, they's probably be better termed "falafel westerns."

Some theories even hold that the consonantal structure of the name "Europe" is also from this Semitic stock, later Hellenized in the Greek name "Europa."

Similarly, the Greek deity, personification of darkness, born of Chaos, is named Erebus, thus making the name parallel to "Occident" (from Latin, occidens "sunset, West").

Add mixtures

The word for evening, 'erev, comes from a family of words whose core meaning is "mixing" or "combining." The idea is that in contrast to boker, "morning," from a root meaning "discern" or "distinguish" (discussed last week), 'erev refers to the dusky time of day, when light mixes with darkness, and images blur.

Theat specific dusky transition hour is known as bein ha'arbayim, "between the two eves," the exact equivalent of the English "twilight," literally, "two lights."

That twilight transition hour was also the time of the first seder Pesach, the Passover feast of freedom, and the beginning of the Exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 12:6), which will be marked again this year in a few short weeks.

Significantly, the root 'ayin-r-b appears in two contexts in the Passover story.

First, there is the fourth of the Ten Plagues, known in Hebrew as 'arov (Exodus 8:20). Not everyone agrees on what this plague was, but the most common translation is "mixture of wild beasts." This is not to be confused of course with the 8th plague, arbeh (spelled with initial aleph, not 'ayin), "locusts," which have returned in droves to the Negev this spring.

Mixed metaphors

The other use of this root is in Exodus 12:38, where the Israelites were described as going up from Egypt together with an 'erev rav, "a mixed multitude" of peoples and property. ('Erev is used this way as well also in Nehemiah 13:3 – " Now it came to passe when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude.") There must have been plenty of nisuei ta'arovet, "mixed marriages."

A person who is me'orav in an issue is "involved" in it. Someone who isn't, though, may be told "lo lehit'arev" –don't intervene, "mix in." And then there's the Jerusalem mixture me'urav yerushalmi – a "mixed grill."

Yet another type of involvement is in loans, where one may be a guarantor – an 'areiv – for another.

This root, 'ayin-r-b indeed does a lot of heavy lifting, and we haven't told the half of it, but at the end of the day – which is of course the beginning of the day in the Hebrew calendar – all that's left to say is 'erev tov, "good evening."

Next week: It's almost Passover, and attention turns to "leaven," chametz, and the acid (chumtzah) test you won't want to miss (lehachmitz).

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

Somewhere in Europe the sun sets in the ma'arav, west, bringing in dusk, 'erev', all of which come from the same Hebrew root.Credit: AP
A meurav yerushalmi, consisting of chicken breast, chicken hearts and kidneys from - you guessed it - chickens.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky

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