Hebrew lovers will savor the way in which the Hebrew root for spice,
(tav, vet, lamed), has added relish to the language. The first thing
we notice is that the commonly accepted word for "spice" found both
in the pages of the Talmud and on the shelves of your local Israeli Supersol,
is the result of an inadvertent error. It appears that when some readers of
the Aramaic plural
(tevalin), spices, saw that word, they read it as a singular,
(tavlin), spice. The rest is linguistic history.
Then there is the fact that two distinct words use the three letters of our
(tav, vet, lamed). We have(tevel,
accent on the first syllable), a masculine noun meaning "spice," and
(tevel, accent on the second syllable), a feminine noun meaning "the
world." The first meaning probably derives from an older, primary root,
(bet, lamed, lamed), meaning "to mix." When you add spices
to food you are creating a savory mixture; alternatively, many spices added
to foods are in fact mixtures of different spices. As to the second use, the
word (tevel), world, comes from the root
(yod, vet, lamed), to be fruitful, that also gives us the noun
linguistic facts did not stop the Rabbis from making some ingenious pluralistic
plays-on-words using both forms of our root
(tav, vet, lamed). They said, for example,
(tevel zu eretz yisrael, she-hi metubelet ba-kol), "The world, that
is the Land of Israel, because it is spiced with all [good things]."
For the Rabbis, however, there was only one spice that counted. The Talmud records
(tavlin ehad yesh lanu, ve-shabbat shemo), "We have one spice, and
Shabbat is its name."
This playfulness has filtered down to twentieth-century writers. Nobel laureate
S.Y. Agnon, for example, writes that the conversation of one of his characters
(metubelet be-mikrah u-ve-mishnah), "spiced with quotations from
the Bible and Mishnah." And Chaim Nahman Bialik reports not too gleefully
that his father would spice his words with
(min tavlin harif), "a type of sharp spice," a real slap in
the face. Sholem Aleichem,
the great Yiddish writer who captured the piquancy of Jewish life, has been
referred to as
(ha-tablan ha-gadol), "the great spice man."
Consider the proverb
(ein tavlin ka-re-avon). "There is no better spice than hunger."
Pass the felafel please.
Joseph Lowin is Executive Director of the National Center for the Hebrew
Language (NY). He has written extensively (in both popular and scholarly
formats) on Jewish narrative, modern Jewish literature, and Hebrew language.
His most recent book is Hebrewspeak: An Insider's Guide to the Way
(Jason Aronson, 1995). http://www.ivrit.org