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In this special two-part essay in honor of Purim, we get into the holiday spirit by discussing the various Hebrew words for Achashverosh’s favorite alcoholic beverage: wine. In Part I, we focus on the etymology of the Hebrew words yayin and tirosh. In Part II, we survey a bevy of words for wine, like chamar, shechar, sava, assis, 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, appearing over 140 times. 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” (Brill).


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 account for the difference between the two terms and why the newer term did not just completely replace the older term.

In fact, the Talmud (Yoma 76b) 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 wine often leading 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” (Isaiah 9:2, Lamentations 2:5), which is an expression of mourning.

Then, the Talmud exegetically expounds on the word tirosh as relating to the Hebrew words rosh (head) and rash (pauper): 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 explains that this refers to a person becoming addicted to wine and spending all of his money in pursuit of it. According to Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776), however, 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 Jeremiah 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 three-letter root of its own (yod-yod-nun), Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) sees both yayin and ona’ah as derivatives of a two-letter root (yod-nun, a root for words like “deception” or “trickery”). Both words relate back to this core meaning, because ona’ah uses trickery and deceit to make a profit off of somebody else, while wine deceives the drinker by tasting sweet but later betrays by stealing one’s faculties. Rabbi Pappenheim says another word derived from this root is yaven (quicksand), which gives off the impression of being dry land that one can tread upon but actually drowns a person if he makes the attempt).

What’s 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 twentieth 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 with which 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 root, it later turned into a yod. Although Kutscher 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 languages), and ultimately the very word wine in English (as well as its cognates like vine, vinegar, vintage, and oenology). Nevertheless, the Oxford English Dictionary 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 Genesis 27:28) offers the same exegetical connection, but explains it differently, arguing that wine is first and foremost (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 derive from the root reishshin, 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: bereishit) and explains that tirosh specifically denotes new wine in its early stages, while it still remains sweet and rather unintoxicating.

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 Deuteronomy 14:22, Radak in Sefer HaShorashim, and Tosafot Rid to Yoma 76b). In fact, Rashi to Yoma 76b and Menachot 86b also follows this approach by explaining that wine is only called yayin 40 days after production, and until then it is called tirosh. Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra (1055-1138) writes that while most of the time tirosh refers to “new wine,” it can sometimes refer to the very grapes from whence wine is produced (that is, the fruit of the wine press).

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

The prophet Hosea 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 explains there that Hosea refers to their overindulgence in sexual permissiveness, as well as in both “old wine” (yayin) and “new wine” (tirosh). Radak adds that excessive “new wine” is especially sinful and deleterious because it makes a person drunk even faster than aged wine.

The Vilna Gaon offers an alternate reading of Hoshea 4:11 that sheds light on another way of differentiating between yayin and tirosh. According to him, 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 zenut; in the morning, they drank yayin; and in the afternoon, they drank tirosh, the sweet wine that was customarily drunk after lunch. According to this, the difference between yayin and tirosh is not in the wine’s age per se, but in its level of sweetness and the time of day it was typically drunk.

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras in 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 or 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 offers the root shin-yod-reish (song), explaining that this alludes to wine’s tendency to arouse people to sing when under the influence.

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 or sending away) via the interchangeability of yod and gimmel.

(To be continued)


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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.