April 2, 2020

Hebrew word of the week: Tannur

Probably right after discovering how to start a fire, humans invented the clay oven, made to slap their dough onto the interior wall and cook on its top opening, with a bottom opening for kindling (often animal dung) and raking the ashes. Indeed, the word tannur has been around for several thousand years, from Sumerian to Akkadian, Aramaic, Hebrew (common in the Bible, as in Exodus 7:28 and Leviticus 2:4) to Arabic; and from Arabic to Armenian, Turkish, Persian and Urdu (Northern India, Pakistan): tandoor, as in tandoori chicken (served in Indian restaurants).

The latest uses: Israeli tannur microgal is the name for a “microwave oven”; the Arabic feminine form, tannurah is the name for “(modern) skirt” (which is cut in the same shape as a traditional oven). Some Moroccan Jews used to take their dafina “Sabbath stew, cholent” to a Muslim baker on Friday to keep it slowly baking on a low fire on his oven until needed on Sabbath. 

*Usually shaped as a big pot. Indeed, the English word oven originally meant “cooking pot”; perhaps from “something hollowed out.”

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