Reuven Chaim Klein
What's in a Word? Synonyms in the Hebrew Language

Oenological Synonyms: Wine in Hebrew (part 1 of 2)

Photo by Apolo Photographer on Unsplash.

In this special two-part essay in honor of Pesach, we get into the holiday spirit by discussing the various Hebrew words for the alcoholic beverage that the rabbis commanded us to drink four cups of at the Passover Seder — wine. In Part 1 we focus on the Hebrew words yayin and tirosh, attempting to differentiate between the two and tracing their etymologies to their most rudimentary roots. In Part 2 we visit a whole bevy of words for “wine,” such as chamarshecharsavaassis, and smadar, trying to pinpoint their exact meanings and etymologies.

The word yayin (or yayn in the construct form) is, by far, the most popular word in Biblical Hebrew for “wine.” This word in its various forms appears more than 140 times throughout the Bible. By contrast, the word tirosh appears less than 40 times in the Bible. In most instances, tirosh is coupled with the word dagan (“grain”) and appears in an agricultural context. According to archeologists, the idolaters of ancient Canaan/Ugarit deified the concept of wine and actually named their wine-god Tirosh. There is even an entry devoted to discussion of this deity in the scholarly work Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible.

To learn about the various idolatrous deities mentioned in the Bible and about the history of Jewish idol worship in Biblical Times, check out Rabbi Klein’s book God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018).

Although some Bible scholars claim that tirosh is an archaic Hebrew word for “wine” that was later replaced with the more modern word yayin in the Bible, this explanation does not really explain the difference between the two terms and why the newer term did not just completely supersede the older term. As an aside, Machberet Menachem defines yayin as tirosh, but Rabbi Yosef Kimchi (1105-1170) in Sefer HaGalui takes umbrage with this definition by declaring that nobody ever had any question as to what yayin meant. He further notes that Menachem using the word tirosh to define yayin does not add to one’s understanding, and is incorrect. This suggests that he understood that these two terms are not perfect synonyms. In fact, the Talmud (Yoma 76b) already notes the existence of two Hebrew words for “wine” and explains that each word represents a different aspect of the drink.

First, the Talmud explains that the word yayin alludes to the fact that wine brings yelalah (“wailing,” “lamenting”) to the world. Rashi clarifies that this refers to the reality that wine often leads to promiscuity, which brings punishment to the world. Rashi also notes that the word yayin is related to the phrase ta’aniyah v’aniyah, meaning “wailing and moaning” (Isa. 29:2, Lam. 2:5), which is an expression of mourning.

Second, the Talmud exegetically expounds on the word tirosh as relating to the Hebrew words rosh (“head”) and rash (“pauper”), noting that one who merits (to drink wine in moderation, as Rashi comments) becomes a “head” (because wine has the potential to broaden his intellectual abilities), but one who does not merit becomes a “pauper.” Rabbeinu Elyakim seems to explain that this refers to a person becoming addicted to wine and spending all his money in pursuit of it. However, Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) explains that this means that a person’s body will physically become weak and “poor” from overdrinking.

Let’s unpack some of the ideas presented in this Talmudic passage. The negative connotation of the word yayin is also seen in the connection between the word yayin and ona’ah, which essentially means “to profit by ripping somebody off” (see Rashi to Jer. 46:16 and Mahari Kara there). Despite the fact that earlier grammarians (like Menachem Ibn Saruk, Yonah Ibn Janach, and the Radak) understand yayin to represent a triliteral root of its own (YOD-YOD-NUN), Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) sees both yayin and ona’ah as derivatives of the biliteral root YOD-NUN (“trickery” or “deception”). Both words relate back to this core meaning, because ona’ah uses trickery and deceit to make a profit off of someone else, while wine deceives the drinker by tasting sweet at the onset, but later betraying him by causing inebriation and taking away his capacity to think properly. Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim sees as derived from this root include yaven (“quicksand,” which gives off the impression of being dry land that one can tread upon, but actually drowns a person if he attempts to do so) and yonah (“dove,” because this bird is especially naïve and gullible, and so it is susceptible to trickery).

What is fascinating is that Rabbi Pappenheim’s theory about the etymology of yayin is actually supported by the Samaria Ostracon (discovered by archeologists in the early 20th century) and other ancient texts found by archeologists. In those epigraphical specimens, the Hebrew word yayin is spelled with one YOD (although we cannot know for sure if it was pronounced yayin with the initial diphthong that we are familiar). This gives some support to the notion that the root of the yayin is indeed YOD-NUN, not YOD-YOD-NUN.

Dr. Edward Yechezkel Kutscher (1909-1971) theorized that the original form of yayin was actually spelled with an initial VAV (making it vayin), but as often happens when VAV is the first letter of a shoresh, it later turned into a YOD. Kutscher further notes that although he is of the opinion that similarities between Indo-European words and Semitic words are typically coincidental, in this case, he sees a clear link between the Hebrew yayin and its counterparts in various Indo-European languages (woinos/oinos in Greek, vinum in Latin, wein in Germanic, and vino in Slavic), and ultimately the very word wine in English (as well as its cognates like vinevinegarvintage, and oenology). Nevertheless, the Oxford English Dictionary (s.v. wine) remains ambivalent about the Hebraic origins of the English word wine, noting simply “the nature of the connection… is disputed.”

As mentioned above, the Talmud connects the word tirosh to the word rosh. Midrash Sechel Tov (to Gen. 27:28) offers the same exegetical connection, but explains it differently, arguing that “wine” is first and foremost (rosh, literally, “the head”) among all remedies, as the Talmud (Bava Batra 58b) says: “First among all medicines, I am wine. In a place where there is no wine, people require [other] medicines.”

Rabbi Pappenheim also connects tirosh to rosh, explaining that both words derive from the biliteral root REISH-SHIN, whose core meaning is “head,” but can be expanded to anything that is considered foremost in terms of value, importance or chronology. Based on this, he connects tirosh to rosh in the sense of “beginning” (think: b’reishet) and explains that tirosh specifically denotes “new” wine in its early stages, while it still remains sweet and rather non-intoxicating.

Rabbi Pappenheim’s explanation of the etymology of tirosh reflects an earlier tradition that identifies yayin as “old wine” and tirosh as “new wine” (see Nachmanides to Deut. 14:22, Radak in Sefer HaShorashim, and Tosafot Rid to Yoma 76b). In fact, Rashi (to Yoma 76b, Menachot 86b) also follows this approach by explaining that wine is called yayin only forty days after beginning production, while until then it is called tirosh. Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra (1055-1138) writes that while a majority of the time tirosh refers to “new wine,” it can sometimes refer to the very grapes from which wine is produced (that is, the fruit of the wine press).

In line with the commentators cited above, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Deut. 32:14) also explains tirosh as freshly-squeezed grape juice — before the wine had undergone fermentation. He also connects the Biblical phrase “the blood of grapes” (dam anavim in Deut. 32:14) to this stage of wine production. Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Felix (1921-2004) similarly concludes that the Biblical term tirosh actually refers to “grape juice” that had yet to ferment and become wine.

The prophet Hoshea criticizes the Jews of the Kingdom of Israel for their constant engagement in zenut (“promiscuousness”), yayin, and tirosh (Hoshea 4:11). In line with the above, Rabbi Yosef Kara (there) explains that Hosea refers to their overindulgence in immoral permissiveness, as well as in both “old wine” (yayin) and “new wine” (tirosh). Radak (there) adds that excessive “new wine” is especially sinful and deleterious because it makes a person drunk even faster than aged wine.

The Vilna Gaon (to Hoshea 4:11) offers an alternate reading of Hoshea’s prophecy, shedding light on another way of differentiating between yayin and tirosh. He explains that the crux of Hosea’s criticism was that the Jews of the Northern Kingdom were engaged in sin during all hours of the day — at night, they busied themselves with immoralityin the morning, they drank regular wine (yayin); and in the afternoon, they drank the sweet wine that was customarily drunk after lunch (tirosh). According to this, the difference between yayin and tirosh is not in the wine’s age, but in its level of sweetness and the time of day when it was typically drunk.

Although in Biblical Hebrew the word tirosh was an alternate term for “wine,” in Rabbinic times, it evolved in popular parlance to refer to any sort of “sweet” and “juicy” product, but specifically not wine (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 76b and Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 7:1). However, this usage is no longer in vogue (see responsa Divrei Malkiel vol. 6:18).

The triliteralist Hebrew lexicographers, like Yonah Ibn Janach and the Radak (in their respective Sefer HaShorashim works), classify the word tirosh as a derivative of the triliteral root YOD-REISH-SHIN (“inherit,” “bequest,” “conquer”), but concede that this word is unrelated to the core meaning of that root. Among the biliteralists, I have come across two approaches: Menachem Ibn Saruk totally ignores the word tirosh and does not provide its etymological root in his Machberet Menachem (although, as mentioned above, he uses the word tirosh to define yayin). Rabbi Pappenheim, as previously noted, traces this word to the biliteral REISH-SHIN, while he also traces YOD-REISH-SHIN to that biliteral root, explaining that whoever “inherits” an estate becomes its “head.”

Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh of Carpentrasin Ohalei Yehuda offers two original etymologies for the word tirosh. First, he proposes understanding the word as comprised of the roots YOD-VAV-REISH (“shoot, throw”) and ALEPH-SHIN (“fire”), explaining that the way alcohol affects a person’s senses is related to the elemental power of fire, as if drinking wine causes a fire to burn within a person. Second, he suggests viewing the root of tirosh as SHIN-YOD-REISH (“song”) by way of the metathesis, explaining that this word alludes to wine’s tendency to arouse people to sing when under the influence.

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Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 9:20, 21:10, Ex. 15:9) also offers a novel explanation of yayin and tirosh, noting that these terms focus on the relationship between a grape and the juice/wine within it. Like the grammarians mentioned above, Rabbi Hirsch sees tirosh as derived from YOD-REISH-SHIN. He explains that this etymology refers to the way that the wine had been “driven out” by force from the grape wherein it originally rested. This is similar to the act of inheriting/conquering a land, by which one might displace the previous inhabitants by driving them out through force. In fact, Rabbi Hirsch sees YOD-REISH-SHIN as related to GIMMEL-REISH-SHIN (“chasing/sending away”) via the interchangeability of YOD and GIMMEL.

Similarly, Rabbi Hirsch sees the word yayin as derived from the triliteral root YOD-NUN-HEY (“trickery,” “deception,” or “profiting by ripping somebody off,” as discussed above). When a person separates the grape from its juice, that person is — from the grape’s perspective — unfairly profiting by using underhanded tactics (like pressing the grape) to force the grape into giving away what rightfully belongs to the grape.

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) similarly sees yayin as derived from that triliteral root, and adds that the name Yavan (“Ionia,” i.e., Greece) also derives from this root because, he alleges, the ancient Greeks were known as plunderers, thieves and plagiarists. Rabbi Marcus even goes as far as to claim that everything in ancient Greek poetry, mythology and philosophy was either stolen from other nations or is wholly untrue and imaginary.

To be continued…

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is a researcher and editor at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew Language appear in the OhrNet and are syndicated by the Jewish Press and Times of Israel. For over a decade, he studied at preimer Haredi Yeshivot, including Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem, Beth Medrash Govoha of America. He received rabbinic ordination from multiple rabbinic authorities and holds an MA in Jewish Education from the London School of Jewish Studies/Middlesex Univeristy. Rabbi Klein authored two popular books that were published by Mosaica Press, as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2011 and currently live in the West Bank city of Beitar Illit. Rabbi Klein is a celebrated speaker and is available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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