With Chanukah just around the corner, people are already thinking about how exactly they will light their menorah and what sort of candles they will use. Of course, ideally one should use olive oil, but, for various reasons, wax candles remain a popular choice.
Hebrew has several words for wax. “Donag” appears four times in the Bible (Micah 1:4 and Psalms 22:15, 68:3, and 97:5), and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Exodus 29:20) connects this word to “tenuch” (ear lobe), apparently based on the interchangeability of dalet and tav, as well as gimmel and kaf. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the words are related because both wax and ear lobes are malleable and pliable.
Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg writes in Shorashei Leshon HaKodesh (Warsaw, 1897) that “donag” is a portmanteau of “dei” (enough) and “nogah” (light), an allusion to wax’s usefulness in providing light.
More scholarly-oriented etymologists are at a loss to explain the origins of “donag.” The prominent linguist Avraham Even-Shoshan (1906-1984) suggests in his dictionary that the word is derived from the Akkadian “dumqu,” which means clear or shiny. Wax, as we know, is translucent.
Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899-1983) cites Dr. Heinrich Leberecht Fleischer (1801-1888) who compares “donag” to the Arabic “danj,” which means the remainder of honeycombs.
In Mishnaic Hebrew, the common word for candle wax is “shaava” (typically pronounced shayva in more yeshivish circles). This word appears six times in the Mishnah, thrice in Shabbos (2:1, 8:4, and 22:3) and thrice in Keilim (10:2, 17:17, and 24:7), but never in the Bible.
The Talmud (Shabbos 20b) explains that “shaava” refers to the refuse of honey (pesulta d’duvsha). In other words, it’s the honeycomb, which is the source of bees’ wax, a byproduct of the honey-making process.
All three times that “donag” appears in Psalms, the Targum renders it into Aramaic as “shaava.” However, the one time it appears outside of Psalms (Micah 1:4), Targum translates it into a slightly different word, “she’ei’ita.” Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur in Metrugaman suggests a printing error occurred and the word should really read “shaavita.” Both these words seem to be derived from the two letter root shin-ayin, which means smooth. Hardened wax, of course, has a silky smooth texture.
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 85:4) states that Judah’s father-in-law, Shua, was a prominent figure in his locale and highlights this point by referring to him as “The Candle of the City.” Rabbi Matisyahu Strashun (1817-1885) explains that this appellation is actually a pun on the name Shua, which is spelled with the same letters as “shaava,” the material from which the best candles are made.
The Talmud variously translates “shaava” as “kerosa” (Shabbos 20b), “kira” (Bava Metzia 40a, Berachos 56b, Shabbos 110b and 133b) and “kiri” (Pesachim 8a, Yevamos 76a). These, however, are not Aramaic words; they are loanwords derived from “cera” in Latin and/or “keros” in Greek.
Interestingly, according to some commentators, there might be another word for wax in Biblical Hebrew. When the Torah describes Joseph’s brothers seeing an Ishmaelite caravan heading to Egypt, it mentions that the caravan was transporting nechot (Genesis 37:25). Later in the Joseph story, Jacob gives his sons “nechot” among several gifts to appease the Egyptian viceroy (ibid., 43:11).
“Nechot” is generally understood to be a sort of spice, often identified as ladanum. However, according to the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 91:11), “nechot” is wax, and Targum Jonathan and Targum Neophyti (to Genesis 37:25 and 43:11) both translate “nechot” as “shaava.”
Rashi (to Genesis 37:25) writes that Targum Onkelos renders “nechot” as “shaava,” although our editions of Targum Onkelos have the word “shaaf” (not “shaava”) for the translation of “nechot.” “Shaaf” apparently means smear (see Chullin 111b).
Nachmanides (to Exodus 30:34) takes Onkelos’ translation to mean that “nechot” denotes olive oil. The Vilna Gaon’s son Rabbi Avraham Vilner reads Onkelos as using the word “saaf,” which he connects to “seif” (branch), which appears in Ezekiel 31:8.
Rabbi Yosef Teomim-Frankel (1727-1792) suggests in Iggros Pri Megadim that “shaaf” is actually a variant of “shaava,” presumably because the letters peh and vav represent phonetically similar sounds and thus can be interchanged. In light of this comment, Rashi’s comment about Targum Onkelos’ translation is easily understandable.