Thanks to the Western World’s long, intimate relationship with the Tanach, English (and no doubt other European languages as well) is peppered with Biblical words such as the Sabbath, the Messiah, cherubs, the Satan, jubilee (fiftieth anniversary), leviathan, and behemoth (the latter representing gigantic animals or fish). English has also adopted complete phrases from the Tanach including the writing on the wall (Doniel 5:25), the mark of Cain (Bereishis 4:15), grapes of wrath (Devorim 32:32), from the mouths of babes and sucklings (Tehillim 8:3), the way of all flesh (Bereishis 6:12), dust to dust (ibid 3:19), feet of clay (Doniel 2:34), and man shall not live by bread alone (Devorim 8:3). These words and phrases are of fairly common usage among English speakers.
The Lingual Deathtrap
A less known Biblical term adopted by the English language is the word Shibboleth, (literally, an ear of corn, also the name of a stream) which in English means a linguistic password, a word whose use or pronunciation sets off the speaker as belonging or not belonging to a particular race or nation, often with dire and even fatal results. The first and only time this word appears in Tanach with this sinister connotation is in Sefer Shoftim (chapter 12) soon after Yiftach’s victorious battle against Amon, when Yiftach returned home and was forced to dedicate his daughter to Hashem after she was the first living creature to come out to meet him.
A less well known tragedy that developed immediately after his victory against Amon occurred when the people of Ephraim entered into an argument with him about the conduct of the war, complaining that he had not invited them to help in the battle, while Yiftach complained that on the contrary, they had deliberately held back from supporting him during the struggle against Amon. This argument developed into a full scale battle in which the men of Ephraim were decisively defeated. The Tanach tells us that as Ephraim attempted to escape from Menashe’s territory and cross the Yarden River into Eretz Yisroel proper, Yiftach’s men devised a simple but effective strategy to detect the fugitives and put them to the sword:
The men of Gilead took the crossings of the Yarden [and guarded them] against the people Ephraim; and when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said: Let me go over, the men of Gilead said to him: Are you of the tribe of Ephraim? If he said: No, they then said to him: Say now Shibboles; and he said Sibboles; for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they laid hold of him, and killed him at the crossings of the Yarden and there fell at that time of Ephraim forty-two thousand.
Subsequently, this Shibboleth tactic was utilized numerous times during history to detect concealed foes. Examples of its use include when the Sicilians revolted against the French occupiers of their country during the late 1200s and identified those who tried to pass themselves off as locals by their inability to pronounce the Sicilian word Ciciri (chickpeas). Also, during a revolt in 1302, Belgian peasants identified their French foes by demanding they pronounce the slogan Schild ende Vriend (Shield and Friend); the French were unable to pronounce the Sch sound. Ten years later in Cracow, the Polish sniffed out German and French citizens of the city when they could not pronounce the words soczewica, koło, miele, młyn (lentil, wheel, grinds, mill) and subjected them to death, exile, or confiscation of their property.
We see it again during World War II, when Dutch resistance fighters caught Germans trying to infiltrate their ranks by asking them to pronounce the name of the port town Scheveningen, and similarly, during the Battle of Normandy, American forces challenged unidentified soldiers to say the word “welcome,” which Germans pronounced as Velcome. (At the time, a number of Jews in the American forces were mistaken for Germans due to their Yiddish pronunciation of English). During Israel’s War of Independence, many passwords deliberately included p sounds, since Arabs almost invariably pronounce P as B.
Another relatively recent incidence of utilizing language to filter out unwanted people took place near the beginning of the last century when Australia was interested in keeping out undesirable (read non-white) elements from the country. To achieve this result, they tested the language skills of prospective yellow or brown immigrants by challenging them with sentences such as, “The tiger is sleeker, and so lithe and graceful that he does not show to the same appalling advantage as his cousin, the lion, with the roar that shakes the earth. Both are cats, cousins of our amiable purring friend of the hearthrug, but the tiger is king of the family.” Prospective immigrants were instructed to write paragraphs such as these from dictation and to ensure that no one succeeded, officials were sometimes instructed that “the test when applied to an immigrant is intended to serve as an absolute bar to such a person’s entry into Australia, or as a means of depriving him of the right to remain in the Commonwealth if he has landed. The test should therefore be applied in a language with which the immigrant is not sufficiently acquainted to be able to write out at dictation.”
But one day the Australian Shibboleth test met its match when the Communist Jewish Czech journalist and anti-Fascist Egon Kisch arrived there in 1934 to deliver a series of public lectures against Hitlerism. Because Kisch was known as a public agitator, the Australians were determined to keep him out and due to his fluency in many languages it was decided to take advantage of the rule that any European language could be utilized for the diction test and to test him in Scottish Gaelic. Subsequent public protest brought the matter to court where it was ruled that utilizing an unknown language like Scottish Gaelic had been unfair. As a result, Kisch was able to deliver a rousing speech on February 17, 1935/5695, warning a huge crowd of 18,000 of the dangers of Hitler’s Nazi regime and how it could lead to increasing imprisonment in concentration camps and war.
Rays or Horns
The widespread use of Biblical words and expressions in English also led to mistranslations and miscomprehensions, such as the widespread belief that Moshe had horns. This is due to the ambiguity of the word koran, which can mean either to radiate or to have horns. Rashi indeed finds a link between the two meanings by pointing out that rays of light are called karnayim because light radiates and protrudes like a horn.
Ignoring Jewish sources, the Catholic translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate translated the verse, And the face of Moshe shone (Shemos 34:29) as meaning that his face sprouted horns (cornutam) and a number of artists and sculptures subsequently depicted Moshe with strange protuberances protruding from his forehead. Was this depiction of Moshe with horns the origin of the strange but persistent belief of some non-Jews that Jews have horns, or is the myth due to the general demonization of Jews? The jury is still out on that one.
Another famous mistranslation of the Tanach is the persistency in calling Yam Suf the Red Sea instead of the Reed Sea. Surprisingly, this seeming mistranslation was due not to the similarity between Red and Reed, but rather because the Greek Septuagint translates Yam Suf as Erythra Thalassa, the Red Sea, unlike the earlier verse where Moshe is placed in the reeds of the Nile, which the Septuagint faithfully translates as helos (reeds). Why the Septuagint translates Suf as red is another question that remains open to the jury.
While on the subject of the formulation of English words from Jewish sources, it is intriguing to note that a short lived English word was once formulated from a Jewish soldier’s name. This happened around the time of the Civil War when, for a short time, some good people of Texas utilized a newly minted word, referring to a courageous person as “a regular Fronthall.” The original Fronthall was Confederate Private Louis Frauenthall (or, Frankenthal, according to some) who was admired by his comrades for never flinching under fire. He was especially singled out for praise in the July 15, 1893 edition of the Galveston News, which depicted his part in the forgotten Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
“Fronthall, a little Jew, although insignificant in appearance, had the heart of a lion,” wrote newspaperman A.T. Watts. “For several hours he stood at the immediate point of contact, amid the most terrific hail of lead, and coolly and deliberately loaded and fired without cringing. After observing his unflinching bravery and constancy, the thought occurred to the writer – I now understand how it was that a handful of Jews could drive before them the hundred kings; they were all Fronthalls!”
Frauenthall’s bravery briefly influenced the English language but never reached the permanent status of the Biblical terms that have become such an irreplaceable part of European language and culture.
(Source: some Biblical words/terms and Shibboles information from Wikipedia)