On Root / Purim Unmasked: In Hebrew, You're Looking for Yourself

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The worst of winter seems to be over, and in Israel, that means the holiday of Purim is upon us, with masks, costumes, strong drink and revelry. Indeed, many cultures mark the arrival of spring with gaiety and carousing, whether in the spirited carnivals of the Catholic Mardi Gras, the Hindu festival Holi with its riotous colors, or just plain non-denominational spring fever.

In short, there's a lot of drunken dressing-up going on and the Hebrew language, while usually a fairly sober tongue, has some intriguing words in this area. So, in the spirit of Purim, following are some antics with semantics.

Strong drink and the devil

We all know that Hebrew has given the larger world some key religious terms, such as "halleluyah" ("praise ye the Lord"), "amen" ("true and certain"), and "hosanna" ("save us!"). Familiar characters such as "messiah," "Satan" and "cherub" are also straight from the Hebrew.

But did you know that a common, very English name for a strong drink is also Biblical Hebrew?

Here's the story: if you know a little Yiddish, you'll know that "drunk" is shikker. This is simply the Yiddishized pronunciation of the Hebrew shikor.

You get drunk - shikor - from imbibing "hard drink," that is, shechar (hard "k" and the softer palatal "ch" are the same Hebrew letter: here they alternate). Shechar appears several times in the Old Testament, usually paired with wine.

But the Latin translators of the Vulgate didn't know exactly what sort of drink it referred to – so they just transliterated it, as "sicera". That entered the Old French as "cisdre" and finally into English, as "cider."

In short, the word "cider" is from an ancient Hebrew root, and so, especially if your tastes run more to regular beer, know that cider is the real He-brew.

From the Golden Calf to modern mayhem

Another interesting English-Hebrew connection in Purim's semantic playground is the word for "mask" - masechah.

They even sound similar. Wait, that's the point! Masechah comes from the root n-s-ch, which means "liquify" or "pour. In the Bible (Exodus 32:4) masechah referred to how the Golden Calf was made, meaning something like "molten" - metal poured and cast in a mold.

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An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man sitting next to his son, wearing a costume for Purim, at a Bnei Brak synagogue, early morning March 20, 2011.Credit: Reuters
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Performers take part in an annual parade for the Jewish holiday of Purim in the Israeli city of Holon, near Tel Aviv, March 20, 2011.Credit: Reuters
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A man with a painted chest takes part in an annual parade for the Jewish holiday of Purim in the Israeli city of Holon, near Tel Aviv, March 20, 2011.Credit: Reuters

When Hebrew was revived in modern times, new terms had to be coined for things that hadn't existed in biblical times. There are numerous examples of old words being pressed into service with new meanings, sometimes because they simply sound like parallels in other languages.

For instance, the ancient Hebrew word mechonah, originally a Temple fixture with wheels, was chosen to mean "machine" because it sounds like that, and like the classical Latin machina (as in deus ex-) on which it is based.

So the word masechah was chosen to mean "mask" explicitly because of the phonetic similarities between the words. So if you have a ball this Purim - let it be a masked one!

Come as you really are

Purim masks are often part of a larger costume which revelers wear when they want to get dressed up, to masquerade – which Hebrew is lehitchapes.

You'll need a little grammar to understand why this is a cool word.

The root here is ch-p-s, which means to "search" or "look for." Its form, however, is a special construction that often expresses a reflexive meaning, something you do to yourself. 

So lehitchapes, "disguise oneself," is hyper-literally "to look for oneself." Instead of "coming as" something else, you're coming out as who you might be if you could.

If that sounds a little fatuous, think about children and their costumes. When our 7- year old son dresses as a Ninjago this week, he is indeed looking to express a part of himself through disguise and role-playing.

But we have to take off the masks and sober up soon enough. A short month after Purim is Pesach, with all its strenuous holiday preparations. In other words: Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we clean.

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