A Possible Solution to a 2,000-Year-Old Biblical Etymological Mystery

In the Hebrew Bible, the word totafot appears only three times, each in reference to t’filin or phylacteries—small boxes containing parchment with short passages from the Torah—that are to be worn on the head. The word’s literal meaning is obscure, and gave rise to various rabbinic etymologies. After discussing these in light of modern linguistic and ethnographic knowledge, Stanley Dubinsky and Hesh Epstein present an explanation provided by the contemporary biblical scholar Jeffrey Tigay:

Tigay argues for an interpretation . . . wherein totafot is a headband, and suggests that the use of the word is as much metaphorical as it is literal. Tigay explains the probable source of the word’s root meaning (“something that encircles”), illustrates how its use in Exodus could be understood metaphorically (i.e., “something one holds close”), and points out that contemporaneous Egyptian and Assyrian art from the 8th century BCE shows the wearing of headbands to be typical of peoples (e.g., the Israelites) living in the region northeast of Egypt.

In discussing the earliest translations of totafot, Tigay notes that it is almost always used in reference to something that “completely encircles the part of the body on which it is worn.”

We are thus left with a way of understanding totafot as an ordinary word, as Rabbi Moses Naḥmanides [1194–1270] would have it, neither borrowed from Egyptian, Coptic, or Phrygian [as one talmudic opinion suggests], nor connected to other cultures’ magic rituals for dispelling evil, [as some modern scholars have asserted]. And rather than involving some mysterious allusion to the construction of the head t’filin, its meaning is a straightforward metaphor reminding us how important it is to keep the teachings close to us and foremost in our minds.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Biblical Hebrew, Hebrew Bible, Linguistics

The Arab Press Blames Iran Rather Than Israel for Gaza’s Woes

Following the fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad over the weekend, many journalists and commentators in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia didn’t rush to condemn the Jewish state. Instead, as the translators at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) note, they criticized the terrorist group for “operating in service of Iranian interests and thus inflicting suffering on the Gaza Strip’s residents.” One Saudi intellectual, Turki al-Hamad, wrote the following on Twitter:

It is apparent that, if at one time any confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian organizations would attract world and Arab attention and provoke a wave of anger [against Israel], today it does not shock most Arabs and most of the world’s [countries]. Furthermore, even a sense of human solidarity [with the Palestinians] has become rare and embarrassing, raising the question, “Why [is this happening] and who is to blame?”

I believe that the main reason is the lack of confidence in all the Palestinian leaders. . . . From the Arabs’ and the world’s perspective, it is already clear that these leaders are manipulating the [Palestinian] cause out of self-interest and diplomatic, economic, or even personal motives, and that the Palestinian issue is completely unconnected to this. The Palestinian cause has become a bargaining chip in the hands of these and other organizations and states headed by the [Iranian] ayatollah regime.

A, article in a major Arabic-language newspaper took a similar approach:

In a lengthy front-page report on August 7, the London-based UAE daily Al-Arab criticized Islamic Jihad, writing that “Gaza again became an arena for the settling of accounts between Iran and Israel, while the Palestinian citizens are the ones paying the price.” It added that Iran does not want to confront Israel directly for its bombings in Syria and its attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear facilities.

“The war in Gaza is not the first, nor will it be the last. But it proves . . . that Iran is exploiting Gaza as it exploits Lebanon, in order to strengthen its hand in negotiations with the West. We all know that Iran hasn’t fired a single bullet at Israel, and it also will not do this to defend Gaza or Lebanon.”

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Read more at MEMRI

More about: Gaza Strip, Iran, Islamic Jihad, Israel-Arab relations, Persian Gulf