Jewish Surnames [Supposedly] Explained

“Dara, you’ll love this!” Actually, I don’t.
<em>Gluckel of Hameln—not actually from Hameln.</em>
Gluckel of Hameln—not actually from Hameln.
Dara Horn
Jan. 21 2014 12:00AM

Why, O Internet, do you keep doing this to me?

By “this,” I mean turning unsubstantiated nonsense into articles that are then smeared across the globe. And when the fun-filled piece-of-the-week concerns something related to Jewish culture—about which a few million Americans feel a sense of ownership, and millions more feel an intense curiosity, but remarkably few have any substantial knowledge—the phenomenon can multiply exponentially.

The latest in this genre is “Jewish Surnames Explained,” an article by Bennett Muraskin that appeared last November in the online magazine Jewish Currents, was picked up and further popularized a couple of weeks ago by Slate, and even found a spot among Mosaic’s daily listings of noteworthy items from around the web. According to Jewish Currents, not exactly a mass medium, the original piece attracted no fewer than 200,000 visitors; Slate’s posting has already garnered 79,000 “shares” on Facebook; and a quick Google search yields no fewer than 200,000 results for the title alone. All this, for an article that purports to explain the origins of a large number of common Ashkenazi family names.

If you are an American Jew who uses the Internet, I suspect that you, too, have already seen this article, and I even know how you found it or, rather, how it found you. It was sent by your friend, or your mom, or your friend’s mom, or you saw it on Facebook, or retweeted it on Twitter, or came across it republished elsewhere. I myself have been exposed to it at least three dozen times in the past six days, often accompanied by a tag or header: “Dara, you’ll love this!”

Actually, I don’t. Not because there’s anything illegitimate about the subject of Jewish names, or because linguistic and genealogical inquiry is a pointless endeavor. To the contrary: the immense attention paid to this article reveals the degree to which many American Jews are still fascinated to learn where they came from. Unfortunately, it also reveals how the members of a group so highly educated in other respects know so little about their own history that they will swallow any “fact” from the Jewish past that comes flitting across their screens.


What’s wrong, exactly, with “Jewish Surnames Explained”? In a sentence: despite its quotient of accurate information, its errors are legion. Yes, I know, everyone makes mistakes. Just yesterday, for instance, I unintentionally put a cat in my microwave. He’s dead now, and I won’t do that to him again. But the mistakes here aren’t of that one-off variety. They’re of the underlying-premise variety, and they are sufficient to place the whole enterprise under suspicion.

The first underlying premise is that one need not actually know Yiddish, Hebrew, German, or Slavic languages, or consult with anyone who does, in order to translate words from those languages and present the resulting fun-filled facts to a new audience. This leads to a symphony of errors, so many that it’s hard to know where to begin or to end. But here are a few.

Consider the name Kagan, which according to the article is derived from the Khazars, a Central Asian people who, according to legend, converted en masse to Judaism in the Middle Ages. Any mention of Khazars and Jews in the same sentence ought to raise a red flag, if only because the mythic Khazar “history” has become a favorite trope of anti-Semites, who use it to negate the Middle Eastern origins of the Jews—archaeology and genetic studies be damned. But to notice the mistake here, you need only know that h’s in other languages can become g’s in Russian. The name Kagan and its variants derive from the Hebrew word kohen, denoting descendants of the biblical high priests.

“Lieb means lion in Yiddish,” we are told. Actually, leyb means lion in Yiddish (with the vowel sound ey as in “hey”), while lib (the word that sounds like the German word lieb) is a verb form for “love”—as it is in German; this error requires an ignorance of two languages. We are told that Berliner means “husband of Berl,” despite the fact that Berl is a man’s name in Yiddish and Berliner is more recognizably derived from Berlin. We are told that Lieberman means “loverman”; it is actually a term of formal address, as in “dear sir.” We learn that Mendel is derived from Emanuel, when a rudimentary knowledge of Yiddish makes it clear that it is a diminutive of Menahem. There are more like this, but I needn’t bore you.

A second underlying premise in the piece is that a place-related surname describes where one’s ancestors came from. Seems obvious, right? In fact, such a name usually describes where one’s ancestors didn’t come from.

Take the Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, an autobiography by a 17th-century German Jewish businesswoman and a classic of early modern Yiddish literature, written well before the advent of official surnames among Ashkenazi Jews. In this memoir, Gluckel frequently identifies the people with whom she interacts by means of place names. Glikl Hamel, as she is known in Yiddish, married a man from Hameln (“Hamel” to Yiddish speakers). In her memoirs, she refers to her husband and her in-laws by that place name (which isn’t a surname) even though she and her husband spent most of their married life in Hamburg where she was born. In fact, they stayed in Hameln, which she describes as “a dull shabby hole,” only for the first year of their very young marriage—which for her husband meant only until he was fifteen. Yet the book isn’t called Memoirs of Gluckel of Hamburg. Similarly, Gluckel refers to a man with whom she has business ties as Judah Berlin since, yes, he lives in Berlin. But she does that because she lives in Hamburg. Did Judah’s neighbors in Berlin call him Judah Berlin? Unlikely.


Another big problem here is the utter lack of sources. Many of the article’s derivations amount to just one among several possibilities; the lack of substantiation makes it impossible to judge. Koenig, we are told, refers to a “Purim king, in reality a poor wretch.” I’d venture that Koenig is probably a place name based on Koenigsberg. Nor does the name Hirschhorn strike me as an animal name referring to deer antlers; it’s likely a simple reference to the German town of Hirschhorn—which does mean deer antler, but so what? When we say people are from Buffalo, are we saying they have meaningful associations with buffalos?

More: while I guess the name Kessler could, in theory, be a patronymic for the (rather unusual) name Kesl, it is more likely derived from kestler, a Yiddish word denoting a married man who lives with his in-laws. The name Zaks or Saks may or may not be a Hebrew acronym for zera k’doshim sh’mo (“his name descends from martyrs”); I’ve heard a similar story about its derivation from zikhron k’doshey shtendal (“memorial of the martyrs of Stendal”), referring to a medieval massacre in that German city. But the Hebrew doesn’t quite fit; in both cases, the final consonant would have to be a “sh,” and I’ve never met a Zaksh. It would make much more sense if the name were simply a reference to Saxony.

Not being a scholar of linguistics, or a historian, I could of course be wrong about all of this. But so could the author of this already suspect list of names. Without a single citation or a single explanation of where any of his information comes from, there is no way for me or anyone else to know.

“Jewish Surnames Explained” concludes, tellingly, with a perennial myth about American Jewish surnames: “Finally, there may have been Jewish names changed or shortened by immigration inspectors (though this is disputed).” This is like saying: “Finally, the lunar landing may have been faked to impress the Soviets (though this is disputed).” The idea that immigration officers at Ellis Island were a bunch of rent-a-cops scribbling down whatever names struck their fancy falls into the same category as Washington chopping down the cherry tree or the CIA killing Kennedy. Immigration officers at Ellis Island (and its precursor, Castle Garden) were accompanied by interpreters who were required to know at least three languages, while ancillary interpreters with knowledge of more obscure languages circulated to ensure competency—and in this context, Yiddish, German, Russian, and Polish were far from obscure.

None of this even matters, though, because immigration officers at Ellis Island never wrote down immigrants’ names. They obtained those names from ships’ manifests, compiled at the port of origin. Nor is it possible that the same mythic scenario was enacted on the European end. Ships’ manifests were recorded from passports and other travel papers, and the shipping companies were very careful not to make errors, because errors cost them money: inaccuracies were grounds for deporting improperly documented or unqualified people back to Europe at company expense.

True, European Jewish immigrants did have to render their names into Latin or Cyrillic letters to create passports, and yes, passports were sometimes forged—but those forgeries or name changes would have been generated by the immigrants themselves. It is also true that many immigrants chose new names for themselves in America, whether for expediency or to avoid discrimination. But that was after they left Ellis Island. I am not revealing state secrets here, or arcane information. Any school child who has been on a field trip to Ellis Island knows all this. But why use facts when rumors will do?


We all know that the Internet is full of unintended errors, not-entirely-unintended distortions, and outright malevolent lies. It has that in common with all human discourse. As Jewish content goes, moreover, “Jewish Surnames Explained” is benign compared with what you’ll find if you Google, say, “Jewish lobby.” (Hint: not the reception area of the King David Hotel.) Amid a sea of mendacity and hatred, complaining about this one article feels a bit like clubbing a baby seal.

And yet it is precisely that toxic sea that makes it all the more important to get Jewish history right. When so many, online and off, are hellbent on denigrating Jews, denying their history, and discrediting their traditions and their culture, mindless gullibility about these matters is in itself distressing. It shames me to think that American Jews, 49 percent of whom claimed in the recent Pew survey that an “essential part of being Jewish” was “being intellectually curious,” are so ignorant of their own heritage as to lay eager claim to the most questionable and transparently dubious fluff, and celebrate it as fact. This, to me, is almost as depressing as when someone tells you he’s sent his banking details to Nigeria.

In the end, and despite the number of true facts it contains, “Jewish Surnames Explained” explains little, and that badly. It is really nothing but a bobe-mayse—which, incidentally, does not mean “grandma story” but is rather a reference to the Bove Bukh, a wildly popular Yiddish romance of the early modern period whose hero, Bove, gets drawn into fantastic and utterly implausible adventures.

But don’t get me started.


Dara Horn is the author of four novels. The most recent, A Guide for the Perplexed, was published in September.

More about: Ashkenazi, Bennett Muraskin, Khazars, surname, Yiddish


Were Reuben and Gad Right to Ask Moses for Land on the Other Side of the Jordan?

Wherever Jews live, God lives within them.

<em>From</em> Reuben and Gad Ask for Land, <em>by Arthur Boyd Houghton.</em> Wikimedia.
From Reuben and Gad Ask for Land, by Arthur Boyd Houghton. Wikimedia.
Atar Hadari
July 16 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.

The question at the heart of this week’s double reading of Matot-Masey (Numbers 30:2 – 36:13) strikes at the heart of what the Torah as a whole is actually about. At the very beginning of Genesis, Rashi opens his magisterial commentary with this hypothesis:

Rabbi Yitzḥak said: The Torah didn’t need to start other than with “This month shall be [your first month]” (Exodus 12:1), which is the first commandment the Israelites were commanded. Why then does it begin with “In the beginning”? This is because it says in Psalms (111:6): “He declared the power of His works to His people in order to give to them the inheritance of nations.” Thus, should the nations of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you have taken by force the lands of the Seven Nations [of Canaan],” they shall say to them: “All the earth belongs to God. He created it and gave it to whomever He saw fit. It was His will to give it to them and it was His will to take it from them and give it to us.”

Rashi’s hypothesis would make sense if the conquest of the land of Israel actually took place in the course of the first book of the Torah, or the second, or the third. But it does not take place in any of the five books of the Torah, whose narrative breaks off with the Israelites on the eastern side of the Jordan, leaving the messy business of conquest to the book of Joshua. And even that book, as my teacher Rabbi Hezi Cohen pointed out, contains fewer than 100 verses on the subject of warfare, being much more concerned with the problem of ethics and power once you’re in your own land.

As for the Torah as a whole, it’s concerned with much broader issues. Take, for example, the conversation in this week’s reading between Moses and the livestock-rich sons of Reuben and Gad:

But there were farm animals galore belonging to the sons of Reuben and sons of Gad,
A tremendous number and they saw the land of Etzar and the land of Gilad
And here the place was a place for grazing.
And the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben came
And spoke to Moses and Elazar the priest and the leaders of the community, saying:
“The country the Lord struck before the community of Israel is for livestock
And your servants have livestock.”
And they said, “If we’ve found favor in your eyes,
Let this land be given to your servants as an estate,
Don’t cross us over the Jordan.”

As the attentive reader will recall, this is not the first time in the Torah that livestock have figured at a critical juncture. Abraham and Lot discontinue their travel together because they have too many animals, and Lot, gazing at the rich pastureland in the cities of the plain, heads off in that direction. (To put it mildly, that didn’t turn out so well.) Later, Joseph’s brothers follow him down to Egypt to live in Goshen because of its rich pastureland. (And how did that turn out? A pattern is emerging here.) And now along come these livestock-happy fools. Have they learned nothing from the preceding books? Moses proceeds to slap them down:

But Moses told the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben: “Are your brothers coming to war
And you’ll settle here? Why do you stir the hearts of the children of Israel
From crossing over to the land the Lord gave them?”

So far, Moses seems to have no intention of letting them stay outside the land of Israel. Which must mean that Rashi’s right: the Torah isn’t a book of moral philosophy, it’s a real-estate prospectus. Or is it?

But they went up to him and said, “We’ll build pens for our sheep here
And cities for our children.
And we’ll swiftly trailblaze ahead of the children of Israel
Until we bring them to their places
While our children settle in cities fortified against the dwellers in the land.
We won’t return to our homes until each son of Israel has inherited his inheritance.
But we won’t inherit with them over the Jordan and beyond,
For our inheritance will have come to us on the eastern bank of the Jordan.

And Moses said to them: “If you fulfill this speech,
If you trailblaze before the Lord to the war,
And every trailblazer of you crosses the Jordan before God
Until He lets you inherit His enemies before Him
And when the land is conquered before the Lord
And after that you return—then you’ll be clear of the Lord and of Israel
And this land will be yours as an estate before God.
But if you don’t do so,
Here you’ve sinned before God
And know that your sin will find you out.
Build yourselves cities for your children
And pens for your sheep,
And what comes out of your mouth, follow through.


It turns out, then, that the Torah is not about the land of Israel, it’s about morality—anywhere. When the sons of Gad and Reuben ask for the rich land outside of Israel, Moses reacts initially in his role as warlord, not as spiritual leader. But then these tribesmen—who were among the fiercest fighters at his command—take charge of the negotiations and assure him that they will see the campaign through. At that point, Moses switches modes. Rather than insisting that they plan for villas in the Negev, he becomes entirely practical about the realities of building your life outside the land of Israel. Notably, he also reverses the order of their plan of action: where they put building their property and sheep pens first, Moses instructs them first to build cities that can protect their children from the inhabitants of the surrounding land.

The issue is not really what land you’re living on, but how you live on it. That’s why the central actions of the Torah take place in pre-Jewish Canaan, Egypt, and Sinai. The laws of moral reality that govern Jewish life obtain everywhere, and Moses’ job is to pound them into the heads of the Israelites. As he prepares to delegate his duties to Joshua, he also prepares the sons of Gad and Reuben for a life without him, and for that purpose the central question becomes: how will you raise your children? If you want to raise them properly, put their welfare ahead of your livestock’s. They’re your principal herd, and if you’re no longer moving through the desert but proposing to settle down then you’d better make provisions for educating them and keeping them distinct, or—guess what?—they won’t be distinct for long.

But Moses appointed over them Elazar the priest and Joshua son of Nun
And the leaders of the tribes of the children of Israel
And Moses told them, “If the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben cross
With you over the Jordan, each a trailblazer to the war before the Lord,
And the land is conquered before you,
Then give them the land of Gilad as an estate.
But if they don’t cross as trailblazers with you
Then they’ll take hold among you in the land of Canaan.”

If the land of Israel were the only place the Torah envisaged as a possible Jewish habitation, things would have looked different. But at this crucial juncture, with some Jews opting to stay outside the land, Moses postulates a moral hierarchy. It is certainly possible to stay outside the land, but extra effort is required. Over and over again, Moses repeats the word offered by the sons of Gad: ḥalutsim, pioneers or, in my translation, trailblazers—the same word that in our era was adapted to describe the early Zionist pioneers who returned to the land to prepare the way for a mass immigration from Europe (which never came). But “pioneer” doesn’t cover the entire meaning. I’ve opted for “trailblazer” because of its moral connotations: if you want to stay outside the land of Israel, you don’t just have to blaze a trail ahead of the rest of the community while conquering the land, you have to be a perpetual trailblazer: you yourself have to be the force that insulates your children from becoming lost among the surrounding tribes. If you do not keep your word to God, that is the sin that will find you out. And if you aren’t capable of such trailblazing, better to accept the lesser moral challenge of scrabbling to take root in Canaan amid the other tribes.

Not that that’s such a simple challenge, either:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the prairie of Moab, saying:
Speak to the children of Israel and tell them—
You’re crossing the Jordan to the land of Canaan
And you’ll disinherit all those settled in the land before you
And you’ll desecrate their mosaics, and all their graven images you’ll desecrate,
And all their platforms you’ll wipe out.
And you’ll dispossess the land and settle it
For to you I gave the land, to inherit it.

. . .

And if you don’t dispossess those settled in the land before you
Then whatever you leave of them
Shall be pokers in your eyes and burrs in your sides
And they’ll tie you in a knot over the land you’re settled in.
And then it shall be that what I thought to do to them, I’ll do to you.


The problem of living in and conquering the land of Israel is that it is not unoccupied; it has never been unoccupied. If the moral problem of living in it were simple, then Rashi’s scenario at the beginning of his Torah commentary would work fine: just show up on the other side of the Jordan, wave the first verse of Genesis at the first inhabitants you meet, and they’ll immediately start packing. But it isn’t like that. Even when Joshua conquers the land by force, armed with divine permission to conduct a kind of ethnic cleansing, all it takes is for the Gibeonites to pose as a distant tribe and sue for a treaty and the children of Israel strike a deal allowing them to become the “woodcutters and water carriers for the assembly.” Even with divine sanction, dispossession and a clear conscience do not go together.

The upshot is that the land of Israel is another morally lethal environment:

But don’t defile the land you’re in
For blood will defile the land
And the land won’t be expiated for the blood spilled on it
Except by the blood of whoever spilled it.
Don’t contaminate the land you dwell in
That I dwell within
For I the Lord dwell within the children of Israel.

Here finally is the answer to the question posed by Rashi and the question posed to Moses by the ranchers. Real estate matters, but not ultimately: wherever Jews live, God lives within them. If you live in the land of Israel, you have to take care not to desecrate that land because the blood you spill will come back to haunt you. If you don’t live in the land of Israel, God is still within you, and you’d best communicate that fact to your children—because, whether stationary or moving, a herd of farm animals or of children needs to be led; it doesn’t lead itself. And wherever God lives, there are consequences to actions. If you don’t keep your word, your sin will find you out.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Rashi, Religion & Holidays, The Monthly Portion


What's so Bad about Paganism?

Even in our increasingly post-religious age, “pagan” remains for most people a derogatory word. Why?

<em>The winter solstice at Stonehenge.</em> Flickr/brentbat.
The winter solstice at Stonehenge. Flickr/brentbat.
July 15 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

Richard Samuelson writes about my recent column on the Hebrew term avodah zarah, “foreign worship”:

Your discussion [of rabbinic laws concerning paganism] raises a question. What exactly is the proper definition of the term “pagan”? Is paganism only a thing of the past? Peter Gay, the great historian of the Enlightenment, speaks in his books of “modern paganism,” and many elements of modern life in the West seem to be pagan, a repudiation of classic Jewish ethics that goes from the worship of God to the worship of nature. Or am I mistaken?

I don’t think that Mr. Samuelson is mistaken. In general, one of the errors we often make about ancient polytheism, which is what the word “paganism” has traditionally referred to, is to dismiss it as a more primitive stage of religion than monotheism, and therefore as a relic of history. Yet just as monotheism developed in antiquity from its simpler biblical form to the more sophisticated Judaism of the early rabbis, so polytheism evolved, too. The high paganism of Greco-Roman culture and the Roman empire, which reached its acme in the first centuries CE just before being destroyed by Christianity, produced elevated modes of worship, important philosophers, great poets and prose writers. Intellectually, let alone artistically, it was in no way Judaism or Christianity’s inferior.

The roots of this dismissal, of course, go back to the Bible. “Their idols are silver and gold,” typically says the Psalmist of the gods of the peoples among whom the Israelites lived. “They have mouths but they speak not; eyes they have, but they see not.” As perceptive as the biblical authors were about many things, they themselves were blind to the fact that no thinking polytheist ever confused an idol representing a god with the god it represented. Biblical monotheism understood paganism, whose conception of the world was not necessarily simple-minded, no better than paganism understood biblical monotheism.

The Christian scorn for paganism, inherited from Judaism, can be found in the word “pagan” itself. It derives from Latin paganus, which originally meant, in pre-Christian times, “rustic” or “villager,” and also had the derogatory sense of “hick” or “yokel.” Paganus in turn is from pagus, a rural district, whence come words like French pays and Spanish país, “country,” Italian paesano, “fellow countryman,” and English “peasant.” Paganus came to mean “non-Christian” or “polytheist” because Christianity made its first strides in the Roman empire as a largely urban religion and spread more slowly to the countryside, where the old gods continued to be worshiped longer. All of this was reinforced among Christians by the word’s pejorative sense.

A variant form of “pagan,” “paynim,” from old French paienime, was once also common in English but has long been archaic. Interestingly, another now-archaic word, “heathen,” which was in the past used more often than “pagan” as a designation for non-Christians or (in biblical times) non-Israelites, has a similar history. It derives from Old English haethen, “heath dweller,” or from an even earlier Germanic word (compare German Heide, meaning both “heathen” and “heath”) referring to someone like a cowherd or shepherd who lived on uncultivated land. Even when most farmers had been Christianized, paganism held on in outlying areas where farmland yielded to pasturage. The heathen was the bumpkin whom the true faith had not yet reached.

Even today, in our increasingly post-Christian age, “pagan” remains for most people a derogatory word. Take the case of Hinduism, the one great polytheistic religion of antiquity that has survived and still flourishes. In an essay published a few years ago, Arvind Sharma, an Indian professor of comparative religion at McGill University, wrote:

Is Hinduism a pagan religion? . . . [It] at first blush appears to conform to [definitions of] paganism. It seems to worship many gods and seems to do so by worshipping different images. It thus comes across as polytheistic and idolatrous and therefore pagan. . . . There is only one problem with this scenario. It is based on a false presumption. It is true that there are many gods in Hinduism and that it abounds in image worship, but while these various gods are considered different gods in paganism as traditionally represented, in Hinduism they represent the various forms of one and the same God.

And yet that the “different gods . . . represent the various forms of one and the same God” is precisely the message that the high paganism of the Roman empire was preaching in the early centuries of the Christian era! Read such pro-pagan works as the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry’s Against the Christians, or the 2nd-century Apuleius’ wonderful novel The Golden Ass, and you’ll see that Sharma’s description of Hinduism applies to them, too. Were he less defensive about it, he would embrace Hinduism’s pagan nature rather than deny it.

Whether one can justifiably speak, as does Peter Gay, of a “modern paganism” that is post-theistic rather than polytheistic is, I think, a largely semantic question. Certainly, there are ways in which contemporary Western culture resembles the paganism of antiquity—for instance, as Mr. Samuelson observes, in its sacramentalization of nature, or in its veneration of physical beauty. Without a doubt these are things that both Judaism and Christianity were traditionally opposed to and that they identified with the paganism of antiquity. But the paganism of our own times, if such it is, also has much to distinguish it from the paganism of old, and the use of a so highly charged a word to characterize it may not contribute to the quality of the discussion.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: History & Ideas, Paganism, Religion & Holidays


Diving and Divinity

How a Bible scholar with a yen for scuba diving ended up introducing Judaism to Christians on a remote island in Fiji.

<em>A six-rayed sea star.</em> Wikipedia.
A six-rayed sea star. Wikipedia.
July 9 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Joshua Berman is professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and at Shalem College in Israel, and a research fellow at the Herzl Institute. He is the author most recently of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.

Sunset on a Friday evening: clouds have descended on the lush mountains surrounding this grassy campus as young people, dressed in their Sabbath best, cross the central lawn to gather in a large common room. In the stillness, I’m transported back to my teenage years and Friday evenings at my Jewish summer camp—until suddenly my reverie is interrupted: “Dr. Joshua! Happy Sabbath, happy Sabbath to you!” The nearest synagogue is over 1,700 miles away, and I’m in Sabeto, a village on the Fijian island of Viti Levu in the South Pacific.

There are two passions in my life. Primary is the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh—which I have the good fortune to study and teach and write about as a professor of Bible in Israel. Second is scuba diving. Currently on sabbatical, I’d indulged a longstanding dream to travel to a world-class diving destination—and, while there, to teach Tanakh.

As a diver, my sights had long been long set on Fiji, whose underwater mountains of candy-colored coral, teeming with reef sharks, offer some of the best diving in the world. But Fiji is two ten-hour flights from Tel Aviv, and to fulfill the itinerary I had in mind I would have to observe Shabbat in a place with no Jewish community and no Chabad presence. Scouting out venues in Fiji that offer Bible, I’d noticed that one, Fulton College, was associated with the Church of the Seventh Day Adventists, of whom I knew nothing except that in some fashion they observed Saturday as a holy day of rest. Surely, I reasoned, it would be better to spend Shabbat with them than within the walls of my hotel room.

But would they see it the same way? An inquiring e-mail made its way to Steven Currow, the college principal, who graciously invited me to spend Shabbat on the campus and while there give a range of talks on Judaism and the Bible. Contacting a European member of his theology department, I asked about topics that might be of interest. “Well, few of us have ever really met a Jewish person before,” he replied. “Could you offer a lecture about those boxes you wear in the airport?” I happily agreed.


There is no church edifice at Fulton College. Instead, communal gatherings are held in an enormous open-air hangar. This allowed me to remain outside during prayer services on Friday evening before entering to present my talk. I was struck by the melodies, which were reminiscent of black American spirituals, and by the fact that all of the hymns were in English. Later I learned the reason why: Fulton students come from all over the Pacific islands, and even on a single island it’s common to hear more than one language being spoken. Hence, instruction and prayer at the college are conducted in the local lingua franca, a heavily accented English.

My first talk, following the ceremony ushering in the Sabbath, went well. “Dr. Joshua,” gushed the college pastor, a native Fijian who had earlier sent me an enthusiastic e-mail, “it is an enormous privilege that you are here with us. And what you said tonight is so important. I have arranged that tomorrow all of the elders from around the region will come to hear your talk and shake your hand.” I was a bit unsettled by the intensity of his response. At home, my lectures and sermons are well enough received—but nothing like this. I was reminded of a Hebrew saying that a friend of mine likes to invoke: eyn navi be-iro, “no one is a prophet in his own hometown,” or: you’re only a star when you’re on the road. I couldn’t remember the prophet who said it, but the name would come back to me soon enough.

For dinner, I was invited to the home of Steven Currow and his wife Nerrisa. Would this feel like a Shabbat dinner, I’d wondered? I needn’t have. There were just the three of us, and, like me, Steven had dressed for the occasion in a white shirt and dark slacks. Intent on serving only what I could eat, my hosts had prepared a meal consisting of a bounteous salad followed by a large platter of local tropical fruits, the whole served on a table set beautifully on a white cloth. To finish off, Nerissa produced fig bars whose wrappers bore the kashrut certification of the Orthodox Union.

Adventists engage in formal Bible study every Sabbath morning, focusing on the same weekly reading worldwide. In order to be able to express themselves in their native tongue, the Fulton students had broken into smaller groups, the Polynesians in one corner, the Melanesians in a second, the Micronesians in a third, and, in a fourth, those students and faculty, remnants of the fall of the Tower of Babel, who spoke in diverse other tongues but also knew English. This was the group I joined.

The morning’s reading, from the Gospel of Luke, was a passage narrating how Jesus’ teachings had developed a following in some parts of the land but not in Nazareth. We read Luke 4:24: “And I tell you all with certainty that no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” I had found the voice behind my Hebrew proverb: Jesus of Nazareth.

Over the course of the day I had many conversations with Fulton students about their lives and their communities. One young man approached me with struggle visible on his face. “May I ask you a question about marriage?” he asked. “What does the Bible say about taking several wives?” As I began measuring my response, he continued: “My grandfather is the chief of our tribe in the Solomon Islands. He has four wives, and he says there is nothing in the Bible that forbids this.”


“Your grandfather is absolutely correct,” I said to the young man. “In fact, we find in the Bible many stories about families where a man has married several wives. And I can tell you that not a single one of those families is happy. It’s not for me to offer you instruction as a religious authority. But I’ll say this: you can enjoy the pleasure of having several wives available to you, or you can enjoy the intimacy and the bond that comes with monogamous union. You can’t have both. The choice is yours.”

As Saturday ended and the sun sank over the open-air hangar, the students again sang hymns, and again I was struck by the melodies, by the loveliness of their voices, and by the frequently exquisite harmonic effects they achieved. It had been a more beautiful Shabbat than I could possibly have imagined.

At the same time, though, I felt within me a certain tension that runs through rabbinic literature: how to regard the observance by non-Jews of commandments that Judaism traditionally considers a particular inheritance of the Jewish people? A prime example is the laws of kashrut, which aren’t universal moral teachings but, to the contrary, precepts by which Jews are deliberately separated from other human beings. The observance of Shabbat is often cited as a second example—but, for me, the power of this community’s Sabbath observance had challenged the notion.

Some guardians of Jewish law, fiercely protective of the commandments as a trust given to the Jewish people alone, maintain that no meaning whatsoever inheres in the attempted observance by non-Jews of Shabbat and kashrut. But Maimonides in the Middle Ages and many contemporary authorities on Jewish law maintain otherwise. To them, non-Jews who recognize the Torah as the word of God and wish to observe the commandments may receive divine reward, and are to be regarded positively.

Was my time among the Adventists of Fiji shedding further light on this question? Part of me felt as if someone had gone into my closet and come out wearing my best suit—and looking pretty good in it.


The diving portion of the trip began the next morning at Rakiraki on the island’s northern coast. If my trip had already brought me experiences far from my usual comfort zone, the diving part would be no different. Back-flipping off the boat into a spinning swirl of bubbles in an azure sea, I was propelled into an incredibly thrilling universe entirely disconnected from normal existence. Moments later, in the total silence of the undersea world, I was alongside a 50-foot cliff of lavender and yellow polyps of coral. From the left, a school of small red fish made its way in my direction; from the right, another school of glass-colored fish. As the two converged around me, a five-foot reef shark swam quickly by. Looking up at the columns of light streaming down into the water I couldn’t help wondering: if there were no one to behold all this, would it still be as ravishing?

No less eye-opening than the dive itself had been the long boat ride to the site. Our pilot, Choelly, or “Joe” as he introduced himself to the English speakers, was listening to a discourse on a Fijian-language radio station. Hearing words like “Solomonolulu,” “Moabitelula,” and “Sidonitalula,” I recognized the context: passages in the biblical book of Kings about Solomon’s lapse of virtue in his dalliance with foreign wives. “Joe,” I asked, “Are you a Christian?” “Yes, sir, Adventist!,” he beamed, and his eyes lit up when I proceeded to tell him about my Sabbath at Fulton College. “Joe, while I’m here, would you like me to come to your village and speak about the Bible?” Certain that the village elders would be pleased, he made a date with me for that same evening.

Nakorokula was established some 80 years ago when rival tribes in another part of the island chased out some inhabitants. The population, drawn from two clans, numbers some 70 souls. No one owns a car, and inside the village there are no roads at all. Electricity arrived in 2012.

In pitch-black darkness, our taxi wound its way down a dirt path. At the first structure in the village—a small thatched hut—a man was pounding loudly and (to me) rather forebodingly on bongo drums. My hosts allayed my anxiety: “This is our call to all of the village members to gather together for a significant occasion.”

Escorted by two elders, I entered the common room to find the entire village—men, women, and children—seated on mats on the floor, with some of the youngest children already sleeping on pillows or in their parents’ laps. The villagers sang a hymn in my honor, this time in Fijian, and once more I was struck by the resonance and richness of the voices and how naturally the singers broke into harmonies.

I began my talk by telling them how privileged I felt to be with them, and expressing gratitude on behalf of the Jewish people for the Fijian men in arms who participate in UN peacekeeping operations on Israel’s northern and southern borders. After I spoke for a while, we opened the floor and the questions came in earnest:

“Could you tell us please the history of your people?”

Who is the man who led your people back to the holy land?”

“What tribe are you from?”

“Does your wife wear the hijab?”

It was no surprise that, as Adventists, they were most interested to hear about Jewish Sabbath observance. Here I note that the Adventist church discourages a lengthy code of official rules for Sabbath conduct. Rather, each community institutes its own norms for instilling the special Sabbath spirit—although a common recommendation is that cooking for the day be concluded before sunset on Friday. “Like you,” I therefore opened confidently, “we do all of our cooking on Friday”—only to notice that the villagers were exchanging uncomfortable glances. Sensing that there must be some debate and perhaps contention over the issue, I backtracked. “Before I tell you about my Sabbath, let me tell you about my Friday.” I then described what a typical Orthodox home looks like in the hours preceding Shabbat, concluding that, in our experience, the greater the effort on Friday to get everything done in the kitchen, the greater the rest and peace in the house on the next day. Every woman in the room smiled and nodded in approval.

An especially fascinating moment came when a woman asked if we separated tithes on the Sabbath. Adventists dedicate a tenth of their earnings to the church, and evidently bring the money to worship services on the Sabbath itself. I said that we don’t touch money at all on the Sabbath, not even to give charity, and no beggar would think to extend his hand on that day. This really struck home. On the taxi ride back, one of the two elders, after conversing with the other in Fijian, announced a decision: henceforth, tithing in Nakorokula would no longer be done on the Sabbath. “You are absolutely right about money,” he said to me. “When your hand is in your pocket, your mind is in your pocket.”


But if the villagers gleaned something useful from me, I benefited even more from them. During the course of the evening in Nakorokula, one man had asked if I knew the origin of the name “Fiji.” As I struggled to remember what I had read on the subject, he proudly interjected: “‘Fiji’ means First Israelite Jews’ Island.” Stunned, I looked around the room, but no one was laughing at his invented acronym. Fearing to embarrass the man in front of his village, I also feared offending the whole village by correcting him. I decided to play it safe and register polite interest in this newfound insight.

As it turned out, no else dared correct him publicly, either, at least not in my presence as the honored guest. But as we returned to the waiting taxi, one of the two elders—they had been speaking to each other in Fijian—broke into English. “Mbale,” he began, addressing his colleague, “that was the first time I ever heard that explanation for the name ‘Fiji.’ Have you heard it before?” “No,” said Mbale,” that was also the first time I heard that explanation.” I was blown away. By staging this innocent dialogue, they had managed to make clear to me that, lest I think them a community of kooks, they knew their etymology perfectly well and that “Fiji” did not remotely mean the Promised Island—a feat they had accomplished with such delicacy as simultaneously to avoid shaming or disparaging one of their own.

Back in Israel, when first conceiving the idea of combining the word of God with an undersea adventure, I’d facetiously dubbed my plan the Jonah Project. In the biblical book named for that notoriously reluctant prophet, Jonah flees God’s summons by putting to sea on a boat manned by supposedly heathen sailors. When the sea begins to storm violently, he is content to let all aboard perish rather than acknowledge his identity. But the sailors spare no effort to save his life, thereby offering a living lesson in the divine attribute of compassion.

To achieve insight into God’s ways, Jonah had to remove himself from home and seek the society of strangers, only then to find himself undersea, alone and terrified, in the belly of a great fish. Sometimes a rabbi and professor must depart his comfort zone and dive into worlds, on land and beneath the waves, entirely disparate from his own, there to apprehend the fullness of the Almighty’s blessings.

More about: 7th Day Adventists, Arts & Culture, Asia, Religion & Holidays, Scuba diving


Are the Origins of "Abracadabra" Jewish?

The first written reference to the magical utterance was in a Roman text. Did it have earlier roots?

July 2 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

Among the many things said about President Barack Obama in Ally, the new book by Israel’s ex-ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, there is one that few readers may have paused to reflect on. Yet in reading Ally, I couldn’t help wondering about the assertion, made midway through Oren’s controversial analysis of Obama’s character as a product of childhood experience, that the president’s “pervasive belief in the power of words . . . reminded me of the ancient Aramaic incantation ‘Abracadabra,’ meaning ‘I speak therefore I create.’”

For a moment, forgetting all about AIPAC, Iran, and the state of Israeli-American relations, I found myself asking: is abracadabra, one of the few five-syllable English words probably known to every five-year-old speaker of the language, really Aramaic in origin? And if it is, does it mean what Michael Oren says it does?

It’s a word, it turns out, with a long written history. The earliest reference to it occurs in a Latin text, Serenus Sammonicus’ De Medica Praecepta. Serenus was the physician of the Roman emperor Caracalla, who reigned from 188 to 217 CE, and in treating of fevers and colds he prescribes an amulet on which is written:


This amulet, writes Serenus, should be worn around the neck for nine days. On the morning of the tenth day, the patient should rise before dawn and discard the amulet in a flowing river, whereupon he or she will be cured.

How many fevers or colds were gotten over in this way, I don’t know. Yet the magical logic of the treatment seems clear. As the eleven letters of abracadabra diminish day by day, so does the power of the illness until, by Day Ten, when only one letter is left, it has been weakened enough to be cast off.

Medical spells of this sort were common in antiquity and were practiced by Jews as well as Gentiles. The Babylonian Talmud speaks of a condition known in Aramaic as shabrirey, a temporary attack of blindness brought about by contact with an aquatic demon named Shabrir. This was treated, according to the tractate Avodah Zarah, by means of the incantation shabrirey, brirey, rirey, irey, rey, which gradually shank the demon’s hold on the blinded person. “Abracadabra” was no doubt such a charm, too.

But if the ancient purpose of the word seems clear, its origins are anything but. “I speak, therefore I create” is Oren’s version of a hypothetical Hebrew (not Aramaic) phrase suggested by others before him: evra k’divra,“I create as is the spoken word”—an implied comparison of the healer’s magical powers with those of the biblical God who created the world by speech alone. Not only, however, is such a phrase unknown to rabbinic or other Jewish tradition (from which it supposedly was absorbed, perhaps via Jewish Gnostic circles, into Graeco-Roman culture), it makes no sense in terms of the gradual diminution of the letters on the amulet. Why would the healer want to diminish his own powers?

Numerous other explanations of abracadabra have been given, none of them any more convincing. Its source has been proposed as Aramaic avad k’davra, “it has perished like the plague.” (Alas, though this interpretation provides the “killing curse” of Avada Kedavra in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, no Aramaic word davra corresponding to Hebrew dever, “plague,” exists.) As the invention of Jewish Christians, abra being an acronym of Hebrew av, ben, and ruaḥ ha-kodesh, “father,” “son,” and “holy spirit,” and kadabra of ha-kadosh barukh hu, “the Holy One Blessed Be He.” (This strikes one as far-fetched—and, once again, why the diminution?) As Abrasax or Abraxas, the supreme archon or ruler of this world, considered an evil demiurge in certain forms of Gnosticism. (This name is indeed found on many ancient amulets, but how did its ending change from “sax” or “xas” to “cadabra?”) As a nonsense word formed from “a,” “b,” “c,” and “d,” the first four letters of the Latin alphabet. (How, though, unless we are dealing with an ancient placebo, would a nonsense word have affected a demon?) And on and on.

One of the more recent ideas concerning abracadabra’s reputed Jewish provenance comes from the late Amram Kehati, an Israeli student of Jewish mysticism who argues that the word is a garbling of Hebrew ארבע-אחד-ארבע, arba-eḥad-arba or “four-one-four.” As far as I can follow Kehati’s reasoning, it’s that ancient Hebrew or Aramaic magic spells against demons must have consisted of nine rather than eleven characters, nine being a symbol of evil in the Jewish numerology of the age, and that the demon’s name was shrunk by progressively removing the letters on either side of the middle one until that alone remained; arba-eḥad-arba, its ḥet pronounced by the gutturally-challenged Romans as a hard “c,” would thus have been a generic term for all such spells, not a proper name in one of them. Yet while it’s a nice theory, there’s no external evidence to back it up. On the contrary: shabrirey (שברירי), the only example of such a Hebrew/Aramaic spell that we have from talmudic times, has six letters, not nine.

Where does abracadabra come from? It’s anyone’s guess. When, in the first of 125 separately published fascicules that eventually comprised the entire work, the Oxford English Dictionary said of it “origin unknown,” the date was 1884. Nothing much has changed since.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: Aramaic, Hebrew, History & Ideas, Magic