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LANGUAGE CORNER

TISHREI - The Head of All the Months

The new year is a time to look into the Hebrew calendar words, starting with shana (year) - as in Shana Tova. The word was in use in all the Semitic languages; it was sattu in Accadian, sanat in Ugarit, and shata in Aramaic. In the Bible, the year is sometimes expressed as yamim - “days,” such as “in the days of.…” Yamim ve’arba’a hodeshim means “a year and four months.” The expression for “old” is ba bayamim, never ba bashanim.
 

The beginning of the year is referred to in the Bible, as in the rest of Jewish tradition, as rosh hashana - which literally means the “head of the year.” The exact date of Rosh Hashana in the biblical period is not exactly clear. The Bible tells us that the month of Nisan - the month in which spring takes place - was the head of the months. The date of Rosh Hashana as we know it, on the first of the month of Tishri, is first mentioned in the Mishna, compiled in 200 CE. Tishri itself is an old Babylonian word that means “beginning.”
 

Apart from meaning the actual head, rosh has many derivatives, old and modern. Rishon means “first,” rashi means “main,” rishoni means “primary.” Rosh also means the person standing at the head of something, like rosh hamemshala - the head of the government, or prime minister.
 

Hodesh is the Hebrew word for “month.” The term used in all the Semitic languages, including Hebrew, is yerah – “moon.”  It is even used in some East African languages. The term hodesh for the month derives from hadash (“new”) and it refers to the new moon. In the beginning, this term was only used to denote the new moon, rosh hodesh. Only later was hodesh also used as a term for all the days of that moon. In the Bible, we also find the term hodesh yamim (“a month of days”) and hodesh he’aviv (“the month of Aviv”) - which was the month in which the people of Israel came out of Egypt.
 

Eventually, hodesh replaced yerah as the word used for month. The moon was also called levana – “the white one.” Since the moon was usually seen as a half-moon shape, levana came to mean “brick” as well: the ancient mud bricks were also crescent-shaped. Homer velevenim was what the people of Israel made when they were slaves in Egypt. Yerah was applied to another sort of brick, the ariah (“tile”).

 

Though yom is the Hebrew word for day, its original biblical meaning was “the hours of light.” It is also an ancient Semitic word, which, in a few East African dialects, for example, means “sun.”

The cycle of day and night is termed yom velila (“day and night") in the Bible. In post-biblical times, it is referred to as the yemma.
Yom is part of many idioms – yom hashabat – “the Sabbath”), yom tzom (“day of fasting”), yom hadin (“Judgement Day”), or yom hakipurim (“the Day of Atonement”). It also has many modern derivatives – yomem (“commuter”), yomemut (“commuting”), yoman (“journal”), yoman shana (“calendar’). The words yom and hadash had their biggest revival with the arrival of Hebrew media. Hadashot became “news,” later to become the name of a now-defunct Hebrew daily newspaper. The daily news programs on television are all referred to as hadashot, with the most popular of them all still being Yoman Hahadashot.
 

For other Language Corners, click here.


 

 

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