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 focused on the Hebrew words yayin and tirosh, attempting to differentiate between the two and tracing their etymologies to their most rudimentary roots. In Part II, we visit a whole bevy of words for “wine, trying to pinpoint their exact meanings and etymologies.
The Hebrew root chaf-mem-reish – chamar, chemer, chamer – appears to refer to wine three times in the Bible: Deuteronomy 32:14, Isaiah 27:2, and Psalms 75:9. Rashi to Deuteronomy there explains that it is the Aramaic word for yayin. Indeed, the Aramaic chamar/chamra appears several times in Daniel and Ezra and is the standard word for wine throughout the Talmud and Targumim (e.g. chamar medinah, “the wine of the country,” which 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 chemer both mean “wine,” but allude to different properties of wine: The Midrash explains that the word chamar has a numerical value 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 numerical value is 70, equal to that of the word sod (secret), alluding to the fact that “when wine enters, the secret exits” (see also Sanhedrin 38a).
[As a side note: The words yayin and chamar appear side-by-side in the recipe for the ketoret, the incense burnt in the Mishkan and then the Holy Temple. The recipe lists yayn kafrisin (ostensibly Cypriot wine) and chamar chivaryan atik (old white wine). I’m 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 suppose 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. He disagrees with this opinion and contends that the word chamer actually means “red,” and serves as an adjective that describes the color of wine (see Psalms 75:9, where chamer appears as an 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 writes (to Isaish 27:2, Psalms 75:9, and in Sefer HaShorashim) 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). Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra also claims that there are over 100 words in Arabic for wine, most of which are derived from the beverage’s various features (e.g. its quality or hue).
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 Deuteronomy 14:5 and I Kings 5:3) refer to brownish beasts. Rabbi Marcus argues that the core root of chamer is chet-mem, from which the words chüm (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 German words braun (brown) and brennen (burning) are related in this way.
Other linguists argue that the term chamer refers to the fermenting process. When Joseph’s brothers brought Benjamin to him, the Torah reports that Joseph quickly left the room to cry elsewhere because “his mercy was aroused (nichmaru),” and he did not want his brothers to suspect that something was amiss (Genesis 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.
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 (donkey), will be reincarnated after death into a chamor, and will become so aroused as to proposition a chamor in the marketplace. This last point is based on a Talmudic passage (Ketubot 65a) that offers a play on the connection between chamra (“wine”) and chamor (“donkey”) by warning that if a woman drinks too much wine, she might end up propositioning a donkey in the marketplace.
Let us now turn to another possible word for “wine” in Hebrew: shechar. When the Torah forbids a Nazirite from consuming yayin or shechar (Numbers 6:3), Targum Onkelos and Targum pseudo-Jonathan render both of these terms in Aramaic as wine – that is, chamar chadat v’atik (“new and old wine”). Before citing Targum Onkelos, Rabbeinu Bachaya (to Numbers 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 another word for “wine.” Indeed, Sifrei (Naso §23) also teaches that in the context of the Nazirite, yayin and shechar are two terms for the same drink.
Nonetheless, Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra 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 (Leviticus 10:9), both Targumim render the word yayin as chamar and shechar as “(anything) that quenches” (i.e., makes a person drunk), 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 Numbers 6:4 and Judges 13:14). Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (to Num. 6:3) seems to disagree with this because 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).
That said, Rabbi Avraham Bedersi in Chotam Tochnit points out that in rabbinic usage, the term shechar clearly refers to some drink other than wine. It usually refers to a sort of alcoholic mead/beer made from figs, pomegranates, raisins, or dates and often had barley added to it (see Pesachim 42b).
Here are a few more words for wine:
- The Torah (Exodus 22:28) warns farmers to be extra vigilant in not delaying giving the required tithes from their melayah and dimah. Targum pseudo-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 melayah as a synonym for wine. Indeed, it is fairly explicit elsewhere in the Torah that melayah refers to wine (see Num. 18:27). On the other hand, Midrash Chefetz (to Ex. 22:28) understands 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 dimah 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 or press), 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 (during which a masseuse squeezes and kneads the body).
- 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 Mishnah (Orlah 1:7, Gittin 3:8) this word clearly refers to “unripened grapes,” and that is its classic definition.