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 chamar, shechar, sava, assis, and smadar, trying to pinpoint their exact meanings and etymologies.
The Hebrew word chamer in the sense of “wine” appears three times in the Bible (Deut. 32:14, Isa. 27:2, and Ps. 75:9). Rashi (to Deut. 32:14) explains that chamer is the Aramaic word for yayin. Indeed, the Aramaic chamar orchamra appears several times in the Bible (Dan. 5:1-2, 5:4, 5:23, Ezra 6:9, 7:22) and is the standard word for “wine” throughout the Talmud and Targumim. Chamar medinah — “the wine of the country” — refers to any especially important drink in a given locale.
Similarly, Midrash Tanchuma (Shemini 5) notes that the Hebrew word yayin and the Aramaic word chamar both mean “wine” but allude to different properties of wine: The Midrash explains that the word chamar has a gematria of 248, which alludes to man’s 248 limbs and recalls the fact that when one drinks wine, the beverage enters each of one’s 248 limbs and causes one’s body to become lazy and one’s intelligence to become harried. In the same vein, the Midrash explains that yayin’s gematria is 70, which equals that of the word sod (“secret”), alluding to the fact that “when wine enters, the secret exits” (see also Sanhedrin 38a), because wine often induces a person to divulge his innermost thoughts and secrets. Interestingly, the words yayin and chamar appear side-by-side in Pittum HaKetoret, which lists yayn kafrisin (ostensibly, “Cypriot Wine”) and chamar chivaryan atik (“old white wine”). I am not sure why both the Hebrew and Aramaic words are used in the same sentence.
Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra (1055-1138) notes in his work Shirat Yisrael that some grammarians have supposed that the meaning of chamer as“wine” is known to us via tradition, but that chamer itself is not cognate with any other Hebrew word. However, he disagrees with these grammarians and contends that the word chamer actually means “red” and serves as an adjective describing the color of wine (see Ps. 75:9, where the word chamer appears asan adjective to describe the noun yayin). Because most wines are reddish, the very word chamer eventually became a noun that referred to “wine” itself. A similar explanation is offered by Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Balaam (1000-1070). Likewise, Radak (to Isa. 27:2, Ps. 75:9 and in Sefer HaShorashim) writes that a special feature of wine is that it is red, which he explains is why the Arabic word achmar (“red”) is derived from the Arabic khamr (“wine”), which is clearly related to chamer in Hebrew/Aramaic. What is fascinating is that Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra claims that in Arabic there are over 100 words for “wine,” most of which are derived from a wine’s various features, such as its quality, quantity or hue.
In a slight departure from this, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) contends that the core meaning of chamer is actually “brown” (which is not so far off from red). With this in mind, he explains that chamer alludes to the reddish-brownish color of wine, while chamor (“donkey”) and yachmor (a deer-like Kosher animal mentioned in Deut. 14:5, I Kings 5:3) refer to brownish beasts. Rabbi Marcus argues that the core root of chamer is the biliteral CHET-MEM, from which the words chum (“brown”) and cham (“hot”) are derived. The connection between these last two words may be that when something is burnt in extreme heat, it often takes on a brownish color. In fact, Rabbi Marcus claims that the very word braun (“brown”) in German is related to brennen (“burning”) in German (and the same could be said of their English cognates).
Other linguists argue that the term chamer refers to the fermenting process, which is why it can mean “wine” (chamer) or “sourdough” (chamirah). When Joseph’s brothers brought Benjamin to him, the Torah reports that Joseph quickly left the room to cry elsewhere because “his mercy was awakened (nichmaru),” and he did not want his brothers to suspect that something was amiss (Gen. 43:30). This word nichmaru is spelled with a KAF, but Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920-2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, notes that the KAF and CHET are often interchangeable. He thus explains that nichmaru refers to the festering and bubbling up of emotional sentiments that had long been fermenting within Joseph; this is similar to the idea behind chamer as fermented grape juice.
As we have already seen above, the triliteral string CHET-MEM-REISH may refer to either “wine” or “donkey.” The Talmud (Eruvin 53b) relates a humorous anecdote wherein a certain Galilean man was chided for not sufficiently accentuating the differences between the letters ALEPH, AYIN, and CHET in his speech. This Galilean man once publicly asked, “Who has an amra?” But those who heard him were confused as to whether he was looking for a “donkey” (chamor) to ride, “wine” (chamer) to drink, “wool” (amar with an AYIN) to wear, or a “sheep” (amar with an ALEPH) to slaughter.
There are even instances in the Talmud where a word spelled CHET-MEM-REISH can be read as either “wine” or “donkey” (see Ritva to Bava Metzia 77b and Beit Yosef to Tur Choshen Mishpat 190). Apparently to alleviate such confusion, Rabbi Yaakov Moelin (1360-1427), also known as the Maharil, pronounced the word chamra in the sense of “wine” with a schwa under the CHET (ch’mara), and chamra in the sense of “donkey” as having a kamatz under the CHET (chamara).
Following his system of phonetic etymologies, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 1:22-23, 11:3) sees the words amar (with an ALEPH), chamer, and amar (with an AYIN) as interconnected due to the interchangeability of the letters ALEPH, CHET, and AYIN. He understands the core definition of CHET-MEM-REISH (as in chomer, “matter/material,” see below) to be the unification and conglomeration of multiple components, comparing this to amar/omer (“bundling” many stalks), chamarim (“piles” of similar items); and amar (“speech/statement”, i.e. verbalizations composed of many ideas/words focused on one motif). Based on this, Rabbi Hirsch (there and to Deut. 32:14) explains that chamer refers specifically to wine that had already undergone the fermenting process, whereby similar particles in the liquid cling together to create a new entity.
Jewish Medieval Philosophy coined the Hebrew terms chomer (“matter”) and tzurah (“form”) to better express the idea of fashioning a complete product from raw material. In that way, chomer refers to the raw materials, while tzurah refers to the fashioning and forming of those materials into a complex entity. Based on this, the Maharal (Gur Aryeh to Ex. 4:20, Netzach Yisrael ch. 31, and Gevurot Hashem ch. 29) writes that the chamor (“donkey”) is the most materialistic of animals, and its name even alludes to its close association with “matter” (chomer). Yet, he explains, it is precisely the donkey’s association with pure matter that makes it unique among non-Kosher animals: something that is so identified with formless matter must, per force, be a simple being, because its perennial connection to chomer precludes it from connecting to tzurah. As a result, in the Maharal’s view, the donkey becomes a symbol for utter simplicity.
With this in mind, the Maharal explains why — of all non-Kosher animals — the donkey is singled out for the mitzvah of peter chamor (Ex. 13:13, 34:2), and why Rabbah Bar Bar Chana’s Arab guide showed him that Mount Sinai was surrounded by scorpions that were “as big as white donkeys” (Bava Batra 74a). Because man is a highly complex creature (with a strong balance of chomer and tzurah), the chamor represents the wholly materialistic realm bereft of tzurah in which man cannot exist. Yet, the simpler something is, the more it recalls the most basic and fundamental elements of Creation, and so in that way, the donkey actually represents the Torah, which is the most basic Creation upon which all of reality hinges. The donkey thus signifies the human goal of totally aligning oneself with the Torah and stripping oneself of the complexities of reality that get in the way.
Although the Maharal does not connect the words chamor and chomer to chamer (“wine”), that connection is made explicitly in the work Toldot Yaakov Yosef, by Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Katz of Polonne (1710-1784). He explains that drinking wine (chamra) indulges in one’s animalistic desires, which causes a person to become stripped of one’s tzurah and more steeped in materialism (chomer). Similar explanations of the connection between chamra and chamor are found in Ohalei Yehuda (by Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras) and Shoresh Yesha (by Rabbi Yitzchak of Zeldin).
Perhaps influenced by this train of thought, Rabbi Yitzchak Sarim of Aleppo (1798-1873) offers a moralistic exhortation in which he writes that wine is called chamra because whoever drinks too much wine will end up losing his mind like a chamor, will be reincarnated after death into a chamor, and will become so moved as to proposition a chamor in the marketplace. This last point is based on a Talmudic passage (Ketuvot 65a).
Let us now turn to another possible word for “wine” in Hebrew — shechar. When the Torah forbids a Nazirite to consume yayin or shechar (Num. 6:3), Targum Onkelos and the Targum known as Jonathan render both of these terms into Aramaic as “wine,” that is, chamar chadat v’atik (“new and old wine”). Before citing Targum Onkelos, Rabbeinu Bachaya (to Num. 6:3) offers the exact opposite explanation, interpreting yayin as a reference to “old wine” and shechar as a reference to “new wine” (tirosh). Either way, both sources understand shechar as yet another word for “wine.” Indeed, the Sifrei (Naso §23) also teaches that yayin and shechar in the context of the Nazirite are two terms for the same drink.
Nonetheless, Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra (1055-1138) argues that the word shechar literally refers to any drink that might render a person intoxicated. This is seen from the fact that when the Torah forbids a kohen from entering the Temple after drinking yayin or shechar (Lev. 10:9), both Targumim render the word yayin as chamar and the word shechar as “(anything) that quenches” (i.e. makes a person drunk), and not just wine. He explains that when it comes to the Nazirite’s prohibitions, the Rabbis felt compelled to explain shechar as referring specifically to “wine” — and not just any intoxicating beverage — because the Bible itself seems to limit the drinks forbidden to a Nazirite to those produced from grapes (see Num. 6:4 and Judges 13:14). Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (to Num. 6:3) seems to disagree with this, as he explains that shechar in the context of the Nazirite includes any intoxicating beverage (cf. Maimonides’ Laws of Nezirut 5:1 and Aruch HaSulchan HeAtid, Laws of Nezirut 13:1-6, who explains that shechar refers to any alcoholic drink that has some wine mixed into it).
Nevertheless, Rabbi Avraham Bedersi in Chotam Tochnit points out that shechar in rabbinic usage clearly refers to a drink other than wine. It usually refers to a type of alcoholic mead or beer made from figs, pomegranates, raisins or dates, and often had barley added to it (see Pesachim 42b).
Another possible word for “wine” is sove (spelled SAMECH-BET-ALEPH). This word appears in the context of the “rebellious son,” who overly indulged himself until he was zollel and sove (Deut. 21:20). The Mishna (Sanhedrin 8:2) and Targum Onkelos explain that zollel refers to him overindulging in meat, and sove refers to him binging on wine. This explanation parallels the usage of the words zollel and sove in Proverbs 23:20.
If this were all we had to go on, we could understand the word sove as meaning “drunk,” as Ibn Janach and Radak both explain (in their respective Sefer HaShorashim). However, another verse reads: “Your sava is diluted in water” (Isa. 1:22), and on that verse, the Targum, Rashi (to Bava Batra 15b), and Rabbi Yosef Kara all explain that sava actually refers to “wine.” Even Ibn Janach and Radak agree to this when explaining that particular verse (see also Rashi to Avodah Zarah 77a, that a cognate of this word, savyuta, refers to “wine merchants”). Rabbi Yosef Nechemias (to Prov. 23:20) notes that since drunkards are called sovim, the word sava came to also refer to “wine” itself.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces sove to the two-letter root SAMECH-BET (“circular”), noting that the drunkard circles the streets looking for a place to buy his next drink. Other words derived from this root that relate to “circular movement” include sivuv/saviv (“encircle”), mesibah (“party,” where people sit around a table or guest of honor), and seivah (“old age”) and saba (“elder,” or “grandfather” in Modern Hebrew), terms that denote a person nearing the completion of his or her time in this world.
Ohalei Yehuda relates the word sava to its homonym sava (SIN-BET-AYIN), which means “satiated,” “satisfied” or “full.” He explains that this refers to wine’s ability to satiate one’s hunger or, conversely, to the fact that strong wine does not quench one’s thirst (as drinking too much wine could lead to dehydration). Based on the last point, he even considers a connection between sava and tzamah (TZADI-MEM-ALEPH), predicated on the interchangeability of TZADI and SAMECH, as well as BET and MEM.
Here are a few more words for “wine”:
- The Torah (Ex. 22:28) warns farmers to be extra vigilant to not delay giving the required tithes from their mel’ayah and dim’ah. The Targum known as Jonathan renders the former word into Aramaic as chamra, which leads Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino (in his lexicon of Hebrew synonyms Ohel Moed) to list the Biblical term mel’ayah as a synonym for “wine.” Indeed, it is fairly explicit elsewhere in the Torah that mel’ayah refers to wine (see Num. 18:27). On the other hand, Midrash Chefetz (to Ex. 22:28) says that this term actually refers to grapes, which are “filled” (maleh) with wine. Other commentators (including Rashbam and Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor) explain mel’ayah as referring to grain (see Deut. 22:9) and dim’ah as referring to “wine” (and/or oil).
- Menachem Ibn Saruk writes that dim’ah refers to “filtered wine” that has no sediment, such that it resembles the pure liquid of “tears” (dim’ah). Either way, it seems we have at least one more word for “wine” in Biblical Hebrew (see Torah Shleimah to Ex. 22:28 §478 for more sources that discuss whether mel’ayah or dim’ah refers to “wine”).
- Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra explains that the word assis is derived from the verb issui (“squeeze,” “press,” “knead”), seemingly in reference to the process used to extract wine from grapes. In Modern Hebrew, assisi refers to anything “juicy,” and issui refers to a “massage” (by which a masseuse squeezes or kneads another’s epidermis).
- Based on Symmachus’ Greek translation of Song of Songs (2:13, 2:15, 7:13), Dr. Edward Kutscher (1909-1971) claims that smadar refers to a type of “wine.” Nonetheless, in the Mishna (Orlah 1:7, Gittin 3:8), this word clearly refers to “unripe grapes,” and that is its classic definition.