The Mysterious Hebrew Word for Mask, and Its Mysterious English Equivalent

Last week, Mosaic’s language columnist, Philologos, took us on a delightful journey into the origins of the word grogger—denoting a noisemaker used on Purim. Now, René Bloch investigates the etymology of another Purim-related word: the Hebrew masekhah, which means “mask.” When and how did this word come to replace the older partsuf, and is it related to the English word and its French, German, and other equivalents? Bloch writes:

Eliezer Ben Yehudah (1858–1922) in his classic dictionary of Hebrew, under the entry for masekhah as “covering,” writes: “Maske; masque; mask. They have begun to use this term in modern times with the meaning of face-hiding, ‘Maske, masque, mask.’”

Masekhah rings suspiciously similar to the English mask, German Maske (with its Yiddish equivalent maske), French “masque” etc., and it seems likely that the biblical term masekhah entered Modern Hebrew with this new meaning, replacing partsuf, because it sounds like the familiar non-Hebrew word—and because there was a similar-sounding biblical word at hand: masekhah, [meaning something cast out of gold].

Notably, the origin of the non-Hebrew word is itself a mystery. . . . No one knows for sure the origins of the word “mask.” Somehow, it continues to escape, playing hide and seek with us, and laughing at all those philologists trying to catch it.


More about: Hebrew, Purim

Israel Can’t Stake Its Fate on “Ironclad” Promises from Allies

Israeli tanks reportedly reached the center of the Gazan city of Rafah yesterday, suggesting that the campaign there is progressing swiftly. And despite repeatedly warning Jerusalem not to undertake an operation in Rafah, Washington has not indicated any displeasure, nor is it following through on its threat to withhold arms. Even after an IDF airstrike led to the deaths of Gazan civilians on Sunday night, the White House refrained from outright condemnation.

What caused this apparent American change of heart is unclear. But the temporary suspension of arms shipments, the threat of a complete embargo if Israel continued the war, and comments like the president’s assertion in February that the Israeli military response has been “over the top” all call into question the reliability of Joe Biden’s earlier promises of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security. Douglas Feith and Ze’ev Jabotinsky write:

There’s a lesson here: the promises of foreign officials are never entirely trustworthy. Moreover, those officials cannot always be counted on to protect even their own country’s interests, let alone those of others.

Israelis, like Americans, often have excessive faith in the trustworthiness of promises from abroad. This applies to arms-control and peacekeeping arrangements, diplomatic accords, mutual-defense agreements, and membership in multilateral organizations. There can be value in such things—and countries do have interests in their reputations for reliability—but one should be realistic. Commitments from foreign powers are never “ironclad.”

Israel should, of course, maintain and cultivate connections with the United States and other powers. But Zionism is, in essence, about the Jewish people taking responsibility for their own fate.

Read more at JNS

More about: Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship