Hebrew word of the week: Tahtonim
Our forefathers (and foremothers) likely did not wear any underwear, or, as Adam and Eve, wore only underwear (“fig leaves”). Until relatively recent times (and still in many traditional parts of the world), people did not wear special clothes next to the skin under other clothing.**
TaHton or taHti in the Bible means “lower” place (Genesis 6:16; Joshua 18:16). In Rabbinic Hebrew, taHtonim means “worldly, as the human body” versus elyonim, “celestial; as the human soul” (Rashi on Genesis 2:7).
In modern Hebrew: taHat, “butt”; taHtonit, “petticoat, slip”; taHtit, “saucer”; rakkevet taHtit, “subway, underground (trains)”; ha-‘olam ha-taHton, “the underworld” (organized crime); ha-galil ha-taHton, “the Lower Galilee.”
*Usually refers to underpants only; “undershirt” is gufiyyah. Another word for “underwear (and sheets)” is levanim, “whites.”
**The English word “underwear” is from 1872 (the custom being first recommended by Queen Victoria and later enforced by the Irish Catholic Church).
Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.