When Jacob tried to induce the animals in his care to give birth to offspring that fit a certain look, Jacob placed tree branches that mimicked their appearance in his animals’ feeding trough. Among the branches Jacob used, the Torah reports that he took a luz branch (Gen. 30:37).
Targum Onkelos leaves the word luz untranslated into Aramaic. Radak and Ibn Ezra cite Rabbi Saadia Gaon (892–942), who explains that luz here means “almond,” as it does in Arabic. Ibn Ezra adds that Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic all belong to the Semitic languages family, so it makes sense that a word in one language might carry over into the others.
Yet there is another Hebrew word for “almond” – shaked. What, if anything, is the difference between them? It would seem that they mean the same thing in different languages: When Jacob sends gifts to the viceroy of Egypt, among the edibles listed are shkedim (Gen. 43:11). Targum pseudo-Jonathan and Targum Neofiti (to Gen. 43:11) translate shkedim here as m’shach d’luzin (“almond oil/butter”). And when Aaron’s staff later sprouted shkadim (Num. 17:23), the word is translated into Aramaic as luzin.
Dr. Gary Rensburg of Rutgers University adds although luz is Aramaic, the Torah uses it when narrating the story of how Laban the Aramean tried to swindle Jacob in Aram, the home of the Aramaic language. Using an Aramaic word in this context thus gives more authenticity to the account.
Alternatively, shaked may refer to the almond fruit/nut itself, and to the almond tree only in a borrowed sense – while luz refers directly to the almond tree. It seems that Avraham Even-Shoshan’s dictionary follows this approach.
Just for the record, not everybody agrees that luz refers to the almond tree. In an alternate version of his commentary, Rabbi Saadia Gaon explains luz as the silverleaf poplar tree. Menachem Ibn Saruk writes that the luz is related to the cedar. Finally, many opinions maintain that luz refers to hazel (see Rashi and Tosafot to Bechorot 8a, Rashi to Gen. 30:38, Jud. 1:26).
In addition, Targum Onkelos (to Gen. 43:11, Num. 17:23, see also Targum to Ecc. 12:5) never translates shaked as luz but consistently translates the word as segd (which means “almond” in Syriac and Ethiopic, and seems to be derived from the Hebrew shaked through the interchangeability of gimmel and kuf).
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) defines the core meaning of the two-letter root lammed-zayin as “sideways deviation,” referring to moving to the side in a physical sense or to moralistic deviance. Thus the luz tree evokes the core meaning of lammed-zayin because it deviates from the nature of other trees in that its shoots branch out from its trunk very early on. Rabbi Pappenheim also explains that the word halaz, also derived from this root, refers to someone who is far away – not “here.”
Luz is also the place name of a biblical city later renamed Beth-El – the site of Jacob’s famous dream (Gen. 28:19). The Torah also refers to a Canaanite city named Luz, which the Jewish army was able to enter only after a Canaanite showed them a hidden entrance. This Canaanite defector later relocated to the land of the Hittites, where he established a new city also named Luz (Jud. 1:23-26).
Turning to the word shaked, this word seems to be related to the triliteral root shin-kuf-dalet (“watchfulness,” “vigilance,” “diligence,” “persistency”). Grammarians as early as Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990–1055) and Rabbi David Kimchi (1160–1235) intimated a connection between almonds and the core meaning of that root by explaining that the almond tree is especially zealous in making its fruits blossom faster than other trees.
Botanist Dr. Joshua D. Klein of the Volcani Center explains that the word shaked is appropriate for almonds because of their tendency to stay on the tree and not fall off when ripe like most fleshy fruits do. This fact thus serves a way of linking the verb shoked (“diligence”) to the noun shaked (“almond”), because the almond is “diligent” and “persistent” by tenaciously hanging onto the tree longer than most fruits.
The connection between these two meanings derived from the shin-kuf-dalet root might even predate the early grammarians, as it seems to be found in a sort of prophetic pun that G-d told Jeremiah:
“The word of G-d [came] to me saying: ‘What do you see, Jeremiah?’ And I said, ‘I see a branch of an almond (shaked) tree.’ And G-d said to me: ‘You see good, for I am vigilant (shoked) about My word, to do it’” (Jer. 1:11–12).
Rashi explains that just as the shaked tree is overly “attentive” to make sure it bears fruit before all the other trees, so is G-d especially “attentive” to fulfilling the words relayed to the prophet. (By the way, see Jerusalem Talmud Taanit 4:5, which paraphrases the word shaked in this passage as luz.)
It is fascinating to note that the old name for Portugal when it was a Roman province was Lusitania. The Hungarian Maskilic scholar Solomon Löwisohn (1789–1821) writes that this name is derived from the Aramaic word luz, because when the Phoenicians came to the Iberian peninsula, they saw a plentitude of almond trees. Löwisohn adds that several place names in Portugal that refer to almonds, such as Calmende (“the house of almonds”) and Castelmende (“the castle of almonds”), both of which are related to the Spanish/Portuguese words almendron (“almond”). For what it’s worth, this etymology for the name Lusitania is not widely-accepted nowadays.