Hebrew word of the week: Hammah (sun, hot)

Words in any language may become obsolete or change in pronunciation and meaning. Moreover, certain names for things or concepts may have one meaning at one time, and another later, such as the English word “groovy” (in the 1970s) and now “cool”; or even assume the opposite meaning, as Hebrew Haval ’al ha-zman, once “waste of time, not good” (until the ’90s); now “great, wonderful.”

Even words such as shemesh “sun,” the common word in the Bible and modern Hebrew, was called Hammah “(the) hot one” in Rabbinical Hebrew.* Even in the Bible, Hammah may, rarely, mean “sun,” but only in Prophetic-Poetic texts, as in Isaiah 24:23; 30:26; Song of Songs 6:10.

‫*Similarly, “moon” in the Bible and modern Hebrew is known as yareaH, but in Rabbinical Hebrew is levanah “(the) white one,” as in birkat ha-levanah “the blessing of the new or full moon.”

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.