“Erev” (evening) and “boker” (morning) are words that are well-known to us. How did these words develop these meanings?
The root ayin-resh-bet has several meanings, one of them is “mix.” See, e.g., Psalms 106:35: “va-yitarvu va-goyim.” The “mix” meaning very likely lies behind the term “erev rav” (=the mixed multitude that lacked a common identity and left Egypt with the Israelites). The “mix” meaning may also underlie the use of the root ayin-resh-bet in connection with weaving, as weaving combines both vertical and horizontal directions. Also, the “mix” meaning is usually assumed to underlie the name of the plague of “arov.” E.g., the plague was a mixture of wild animals or of very small harmful creatures. (But I did write an article in this paper last year mentioning an entirely different explanation: “Arov” was the scarab beetle that the Egyptians worshipped. The Hertz Pentateuch, p. 240, bottom, follows this explanation.)
The “mix” meaning also underlies the word “eruv” of rabbinic Hebrew. This term typically relates to the “mixing/joining” of areas.
I had always thought that the “mix” meaning was the explanation for erev/evening as well. Indeed, two such explanations are often presented in traditional Jewish sources. One is that “erev” is the time when there is a mixing/confusion of objects to the human eye due to the lack of light. (This is in contrast to “boker,” where items can be inspected and distinguished.) The other is that “erev” is the time when the conditions of light and dark begin to mix. For these suggestions, see, e.g., the concordance of Solomon Mandelkern, p. 912, and the commentaries of Ibn Ezra, Radak, S. D. Luzzatto, and Rav S.R. Hirsch to Gen. 1:5.
I was therefore surprised to learn that modern scholars take a different approach. In Akkadian (a Semitic language that was the language of Assyria and Babylonia), they have an ayin-resh-bet root that means “to enter.” Most modern scholars believe that “erev” is called this because it is the time when the sun has set, and early man viewed it as having entered into its resting location. See, e.g., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 11, p. 335.
This “set/enter” meaning also explains the related word “maarav” (=west). The maarav is the place where the sun sets. (This is in contrast to mizrach, the place where the sun begins to shine, derived from the root zayin-resh-chet.) The “set/enter” meaning of the verb ayin-resh-bet is perhaps seen in the Tanach at Proverbs 7:9 and Judges 19:9. (It may be implicit in the ayin-resh-bet of “weaving” as well.)
On the subject of ayin-resh-bet, these letters have many other meanings in Tanach. For example, an “aravah” is a desolate, wilderness area. Also, an “aravah” is a willow, and an “orev” is a raven. I have seen the speculation that “orev” for raven derives from it being a bird of the aravah/wilderness, or from it being a dark bird (=from the “evening/dark” meaning of “erev”). Alternatively, the name may derive from the sound that the bird makes.
The verb ayin-resh-bet also means to be a surety/guarantor (see, e.g., Genesis 43:9: “anochi e’ervenu”). There are also related nouns, “eiravon” and “arubah,” that mean “pledge.” It has been suggested that these meanings come from the “enter” meaning and are related to entering under the authority of another.
An unusual use of ayin-resh-bet is found at Psalms 68:5 (and in the zemer “Baruch Kel Elyon”) where God is described as “rochev ba-aravot.” Here, the scholarly consensus is that this A-R-B should be viewed as deriving from an original root A-R-P and that the meaning is “God Who rides on the clouds.” (“Arafel” is a word in Hebrew that means “clouds,” and most likely that final lamed is not a root letter but a suffix. I wrote a lengthy column about this last year.)
To conclude this section on a positive note, there is also another meaning of A-R-B in Tanach. The last sentence of the Amidah is “ve-arvah...minchat Yehuda vi-Yerushalayim.” This phrase comes from Malachi 3:4. The root A-R-B here means “pleasant, sweet.” The root A-R-B has this meaning elsewhere in Tanach as well. I have seen the suggestion that this originated from the “mix” meaning and originally meant “mixed well.” But this suggestion is not found in the more recent scholarly works, so I suspect that for some reason this suggestion is no longer accepted.
Hopefully, I have not mixed you up too much, as now it is time to deal with “boker.”
The verb B-K-R only appears a few times in Tanach. It generally has a meaning of “inspect” or “investigate.” As mentioned earlier, a common view in our commentaries (e.g., Ibn Ezra and Radak) is that “boker” is the time when items can be inspected (unlike “erev,” when they are mixed and hard to distinguish.)
However, two other approaches to the origin of “boker” deserve mention. One is the approach of S.D. Luzzatto (commentary to Genesis 1:5) who notes that B-K-Ayin means “split” or “break.” Luzzatto then suggests that “boker” is simply a contraction of “baka or” (=the light broke through). To support his position, he cites Isaiah 58:8: “az yibaka ka-shachar orecha.”
The other approach to “boker” is one supported by many modern scholars. This approach observes that in Arabic, “bakara” means “to split” or “to open.” The suggestion is that this was the original meaning of the verb B-K-R in Hebrew as well. “Inspect/investigate” was just a later expansion, since this is what you did after you split something open (e.g., a sacrificial animal). See Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 2, p. 219. If the original meaning of the verb B-K-R was “split,” then “boker” can be the time when the light first breaks through. (A parallel is our English word “daybreak.”) Moreover, under the assumption that the original meaning of B-K-R was “split” or “open,” we can suggest why “bakar” were called by this name. These animals plow, thereby making openings in the ground. See, for example, Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 81. He writes that “bakar” means “the plowing animal.”
Finally, I will make a point about another time-related word, shachar/the morning light. We all know that shachor, with the same three root letters, means “black.” To explain this anomaly, some have suggested that shachar really means “the blackness just before the dawn.” Others have suggested that shachor/black derives originally from a different root, chet-resh-resh, which means “burn.” But both of these suggestions seem far-fetched. Most likely, it is just coincidence that the root shin-chet-resh has two opposite meanings.
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He does his best writing in the very early morning before boker and Shacharit. If you need to disturb him then, he can be reached at [email protected]