In the spirit of the recent 15th of Av holiday, I offer the following column.
Surely you realize that I am not going to write some deep psychological article here. (In my generation there was that strange definition: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”) Rather, I am going to discuss the etymology of the Hebrew word “ahav” (=A-H-B).
It is generally agreed that abstract verbs are later developments that arise from concrete verbs. I discussed one example a few weeks ago. The verb for “decree,” G-Z-R, originally meant “cut” before it developed into its more abstract meaning of “decree.” This is a phenomenon that occurs not just in Hebrew, but in all languages. (Another example in Hebrew is kof-shin-resh for “conspire.” This “conspire” meaning grew out of the concrete meaning “tie, connect.”)
A-H-B (=love) sounds like an abstract verb. Our question then is what is the concrete verb that originally underlay this abstract verb? The relevant essay in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament first states that the original meaning of the root is uncertain. But it then offers some suggestions. One suggestion notes that in Arabic there is a word “habba” that means “breathe heavily, be excited” and theorizes that this was the original meaning of A-H-B. Another suggestion notes that in Arabic there is a word “ihab” that means “skin, leather.” Based on this, the suggestion is made that A-H-B may have originally had to do with some positive feeling that you felt in your skin and that it was then applied to the emotional stimulation that produced it.
There is an interesting use of the word “ahavah” at Shir HaShirim 3:9-10. We are told that Shlomo made himself an “aperion” with gold and silver and that it was “ratzuf ahavah,” e.g., inlaid with “ahavah.” Perhaps “ahavah” has a concrete meaning here. But we do not know what it is.
A common “dvar Torah” that is given at wedding times is that the word A-H-B is related to the word “hav” (H-B), which means “give.” I.e., the foundation of “love” is giving to one another. Is there a basis for this beautiful idea?
It is generally agreed that the root of “hav” and “havu” (=“give,” singular and plural) is Y-H-B. (Both the Mandelkern and Even-Shoshan concordances make this point.) “Hav” and “havu” are just command forms. (“Havu” occurs many times in Psalms and in our prayers.) In Hebrew, the first root letter often (but not always) drops in the command form. Another example is the command “kach” (=take), from L-K-Ch.
On a scholarly basis, there is no ground to relate the roots A-H-B and Y-H-B (even though the purported connection is beautiful). In contrast, when the first two letters of a root are the same there is some basis to argue that the roots are related.
(There is a verse at Hoshea 4:18 where words based on A-H-B- and H-B are used right next to one another. But this is mere wordplay.)
So, not surprisingly, I cannot find the meaning of “love.” (And I am not ready to move on to the next question: what is the concrete physical verb that underlies the meaning of Sin-Nun-Aleph, hate!)
The good news is that I can provide some explanation for the modern Hebrew word “agvaniah.” You will see the connection shortly.
The tomato has a very interesting history. It was first brought to Europe from its native South America in the 16th century. Initially, most Europeans were afraid to eat it and believed it was poisonous, so it was used mainly for decorative purposes. The Italians were the first Europeans to eat it extensively.
For whatever reason, one of the tomato’s affects was thought to be as an aphrodisiac. Already in the 16th century we find it referred to in English as a “love apple,” and in French as a “pomme d’amour.”
So what was it going to be called in modern Hebrew? This is how the language expert Philologos summarizes what happened: “As Hebrew was being revived as a spoken language in the late 19th century, an argument broke out between two of its great champions and rival word-coiners, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Yechiel Michel Pines. Ben-Yehuda wanted to call the tomato a “badura” from Arabic “bandura,” which itself is from Italian “pomodoro.” [Arabic lacks the letter “P.”] Pines rejected that as non-Hebraic and came back with “tapuach agavim,” love apple, which he then shortened to “agvaniya.” To this, Ben-Yehuda countered, correctly arguing that the Hebrew verb “agav” meant to lust, not to love, and suggesting “ahaviya”… For whatever reason, “agvaniya” won out, and generations of Israelis have eaten “lust” apples ever since.” See Philologos’ column in the Forward, 2/25/09.
If you are not familiar with the Biblical verb “Ayin-Gimel-Bet” for “lust,” this is not surprising. The verb only appears a few times: 10 times in the book of Yechezkel and once at Jer. 4:30.
However, we all should be familiar with the Biblical noun Ayin-Vav-Gimel-Bet, a kind of musical instrument. It is perhaps a flute or pipe; the exact meaning in the Bible is unclear. (In contrast, in modern Hebrew, it means organ.) “Ayin-Vav-Gimel-Bet” (or “Ayin-Gimel-Bet) as a word for a musical instrument appears four times in the Bible, and two of these times are well-known to us: Gen. 4:21 and Ps. 150:4 (praise Him with “minim” and “ugav”). According to many scholars, the name for this instrument may derive from “A-G-B=lust” due to the sensuous tunes that come from it!
But admittedly, not everyone agrees with this etymology for the musical instrument. S.D. Luzzatto, for example, thinks that Ayin-Vav-Gimel-Bet is a shortening from al-gav, “on the back” (related to the position of the musical instrument).
There is voluminous interesting material online about the history of tomatoes. For more on the background to the Hebrew word “agvaniah,” see the post at balashon.com of April 16 2010.
Since I am an attorney, I am going to end this column on a legal note. The tomato, although botanically a fruit (a type of berry), has many of the qualities of a vegetable. This led to a major legal dispute in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century. As summarized on Wikipedia (entry “tomato”): “In 1887, U.S. tariff laws imposed a duty on vegetables but not on fruits, causing the tomato’s status to become a matter of legal importance. The U.S. Supreme Court settled this controversy on May 10, 1893, by declaring that the tomato is a vegetable, based on the popular definition that classifies vegetables by use—they are generally served with dinner and not dessert. Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304. The holding of this case applies only to the interpretation of the [above tariff]….and the court did not purport to reclassify the tomato for botanical or other purposes.” (Of course, we make a “borei pri ha-adamah” on tomatoes, regardless of whether they are botanically considered a “fruit” or a “vegetable.” For our purposes, all that matters is that they grow from the ground.)
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected] While lustily eating tomatoes, he searches for the meaning of love.