Jacob blessed his son Zebulun by saying how the future tribe of Zebulun will settle the Holy Land along its coast, and will enjoy the fruits of naval trade (Deut. 49:13). In that context, the Bible uses the word oniah (“boat” or “ship”) for the very first time. This essay embarks on an exploration of several different words for “boats” and “ships” in the Bible and in later Rabbinic literature. We will boldly seek out the differences between these seemingly synonymous terms and come to new understandings of several words in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and even English.
Dr. Raphael Patai (1910-1996) explains that oni/oniah is the most basic, general term for “boats” in Biblical Hebrew. As such, the Bible sometimes references different types of boats with modifiers attached to the word onia: oni Tarshish (I Kings 10:22) or oniyot Tarshish (I Kings 22:49, Isa. 2:16, Ps. 48:8, and more) refers to boats that were capable of traveling long distances — all the way to Tarshish (possibly Tarsus or Tunis). Oniyot socher (literally, “boats of merchants”) likewise refer to mercantile ships that were equipped for lengthy journeys (see Prov. 31:14). Oni shayit (Isa. 33:21) either refers to “row boats” that are powered by the motion of oars, being that shotim in Hebrew are “sticks” or “paddle rods” (Radak), or serves as a general term for boats that “swim” (shat) on the surface of the sea (Rashi).
Interestingly, there is one type of oniah whose meaning is not readily understood: that is oniyot eiveh (Iyov 9:26). Rashi explains that eivah is the name of a strong river, seemingly implying that this term refers to boats used in waters with strong currents. Ibn Ezra explains that eivah is a place name, seemingly implying that the term in question refer to boats that are sturdy enough to make the journey all the way to Eiveh. Alternatively, Ibn Ezra explains that eivah refers to some sort of fruit (or other commodity), such that oniot eiveh refers to boats commonly used for transporting those products. Gersonides claims that oniyot eiveh are especially fast boats. Dr. Patai and Dr. Chaim Tawil argue that eiveh is related to the Akkadian word abu/apu, which means “reeds,” leading to oniyot eiveh asreferring to boats made of reeds (which were typically insulated with tar and pitch).
Rashi and Radak explain that dovrot (I Kings 5:23) and rafsodot (II Chron. 3:15) both refer to seafaring rafts built by tying wooden beams together. Even-Shoshan’s dictionary cites some scholars tying the Hebrew word rafsodah to the Akkadian word rakasu (“tying” or “knotting). In later Hebrew, the term rafsodah refers to a “footstool” or “Ottoman” (see Midrash Tanchuma, Ber. 5). In Modern Hebrew, the term rafsodah has been redefined to refer to “wooden pallets” used for transporting goods. (It would be interesting to consider whether the English word rhapsodyis related to the Hebrew rafsodah, especially given the fact that the etymon of that English term is the Ancient Greek word rhapsoidein, “to weave/sew songs.” This is somewhat similar to a Biblical rafsodah, which was comprised of wooden beams tied together. (That said, the English word raft does not seem to be related to rafsodah, but is apparently derived from the Old Danish rafft, meaning “stick” or “beam.”)
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces the word oniah to the biliteral root ALEPH-NUN (“where”), from which the words an/anah/le’an (“where” and “to where”) come. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the word oniah derives from this core meaning because a boat does not travel in a straight line to its destination, but rather it moves about and follows whatever path the waters push it in. Because a boat’s last stop is not readily obvious from watching its route, one might ask about such a seafaring vessel, “To where is it going?” Consequently, the very word for “boat” in Hebrew is derived from that question. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 16:8) offers a simpler take on this connection, merely noting that the oniah is the vehicle that brings a person to a specific destination (i.e. “where”).
The word sefinah appears only once in the Bible (Jonah 1:5). By Mishnaic times, however, sefinah replaced oniah as the more common word for “boat.” It thus comes as no surprise that sefinah appears in the Mishna many times in many different contexts: Berachot 4:1, Maaser Sheini 5:9, Challah 2:2, Orlah 1:2, Shabbat 9:2, 11:5, 16:8, Succah 2:3, Taanit 3:7,Gittin 3:4, Bava Batra 5:1, Avodah Zarah 5:2, 5:4, Chullin 2:9, Keilim 2:3, 15:1, Ohalot 8:1, 8:3, 8:5, Negaim 11:11, 12:1, Parah 5:5, 9:6, Taharot 5:8, Machshirin 5:7, Zavim 3:1, 3:3, 4:1. (Rabbi Mordechai Koster once asked this author why the Bible calls the boat that Jonah boarded both an onia and a sefinah, but the author failed to find a good answer.)
Just as the Biblical term oniyot Tarshish referred to boats that could travel as far as that city, the Mishnaic term sefinah Alexandrit refers to deep-sea boats that would often embark from the Egyptian city of Alexandria (see Maimonides’ commentary to Keilim 15:1). On the other hand, Sefinat HaYarden refers to a smaller boat used for ferrying people across the Jordan River (Shabbat 83b). The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 17:5) mentions a parable that refers to sefinot shel piraton, which are — as you probably guessed — “pirate ships.”
Rabbi Pappenheim offers four ways of understanding the etymology of the word sefinah: First of all, he argues that the shape of the sefinah resembles that of a vessel known in Hebrew as a saf (a liquid receptacle, see Ex. 12:22, II Sam. 17:28). Second, he argues that sefinah is related to safah (“edge” i.e. sea shore) because, when not in use, a sefniah is typically housed at a port along the edge of the sea. Third, he suggests that sefinah might denote a ship that is not as seaworthy as an oniah, so the sefinah must be kept closer to shore and is unsuitable for deep-sea excursions. Fourth, the term sefinah is related to tzafun/safun (“hidden” or “embedded”; see Deut. 33:19 and Abarbanel there) because all sorts of merchandise were typically packed up and transported on a sefinah. (I seem to remember seeing some commentators explaining that sefinah is related to safun because the bottom hull of the ship is immersed — i.e. “hidden” — in the sea, while only the top part that floats above water remains visible. But, alas, the source of this wonderful explanation remains hidden from me for now.)
The Biblical Hebrew avarah (II Sam. 19:19) refers to “ferry boats”, which were used for crossing a river. It derives from the Hebrew verb l’avor (“to pass” or “to cross”). In the Talmud, an Aramaicized version of this word appears in the forms of ma’abra or mabra (Shabbat 32a, 139b, Bava Kama 116a, 117b, Chullin 81a, 94a).
Rashi and Radak (to Amos 4:2) explain that the Biblical term sirot dugah refers to “fishing boats” that fisherman employed when trying to catch fish. As Rashi notes, the equivalent term for a small fishing boat in Mishnaic Hebrew is dugit (see Bava Batra 73a). Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber explains that dugit is derived from the Hebrew word dag (“fish”), and refers to the sort of fisherman’s boat known as a lembus in Greek.
The dugit is also the subject of a halachic controversy: When one sells a sefinah (“main ship”), does one also intend to sell the dugit attached to it? According to Sumchos, since the dugit was attached to the sefinah and was typically towed by the mother ship in the middle of the sea, it is also included in the sale of the sefinah (Tosefta Bava Batra 4:1). However, others seem to disagree and maintain that one cannot assume that the sale of the larger ship includes the smaller boat (see Yerushalmi Bava Batra 5:1, and Tosefta Succah 3:2). The latter sources use a different word to denote a small fishing boat — instead of dugit: iskupah. Iskupah, in turn, derives from the Greek skaphe, which literally means “bowl” (and refers to a bowl-shaped boat). It is the ancestor to the Germanic word scif — the etymological forebear of the English words ship, skiff, and skipper.
Rashi (to Num. 24:24, Isa. 23:13, and Sanhedrin 106a) explains that the term tzi/tzim refers to especially large boats. The Malbim adds that this term is typically used for “battleships” because such vessels are typically built to be big and strong.
Before we conclude, we should mention several Aramaic words for “boats” or “ships” that appear in the Targumim and Talmud:
The Targumim sometimes translate oniah as ilfa (Jonah 1:3, Ps. 48:8, 104:26) and sometimes as sefinah/sefinta (Gen. 49:13, Deut. 28:68, I Kings 9:26). Similarly, Rashi defines ilfa as sefinah (Rashi to Avodah Zarah 10b), and also defines it as oniah (Rashi to Eruvin 53b). (Ilfa was also the name of sage in the Talmud in Ketuvot 69b).)
Rashi (to Shabbat 103b) writes that sometimes people mistakenly write ALEPH instead of AYIN and vice versa, because the sounds that those two letters make are quite similar to one another. In his work Eitz Chaim, Rabbi Yaakov ben Yehudah Chazzan of London (a 13th century English Tosafist) offers an example of this in the word arva, which means “small boat” or “yacht” in Aramaic. That word is sometimes spelled with an AYIN (Berachot 57a, Eruvin 88b, Bava Metzia 80b, Avodah Zarah 40a), and sometimes is spelled with an ALEPH (Berachot 56a, Shabbat 20b, 67a, Pesachim 111b, Taanit 11a, Ketuvot 84b, 97a, Bava Batra 34b, Avodah Zarah 62b).
The Talmud also sometimes uses the word borni to mean “boat” (Rosh Hashana 23a, Bava Metzia 80b).
Rashi (to Shabbat 19b, 156b) writes in the name of the Geonim that zuzi (possibly related to the Hebrew word la’zuz, “to move”) means “boat” in Aramaic.