The Sikrikin Mystery

By Philologos

Published April 20, 2007, issue of April 20, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Terror is stalking the streets of Jerusalem.

It’s not the Palestinian brand. It’s the work of ultra-Orthodox extremists who have been, according to recent reports in the media, using and threatening violence against other ultra-Orthodox Jews whose religious observance strikes them as too lax. Known in Jerusalem’s Haredi community as “the sikrikin,” they recently burned down an ice cream parlor because, even though it met the highest standards of kashrut, ultra-Orthodox men and women mingled in it while buying and eating their ice cream.

This news made me wonder — not about religious extremism, but about why the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem say sikrikin instead of sikarin.

Let’s go back to the period of the Second Temple, and to the Great Revolt against Rome that started in the Galilee, spread to Judea and led to the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. Both before and during this war, groups of nationalist zealots in Jerusalem resorted to acts of terror against the Romans, Jewish moderates and, ultimately, one another. In Aramaic, which was the language spoken by first-century Jerusalem Jews, these zealots were known as sikarin. The term comes from Latin sicarius, meaning an assassin or murderer, which in turns derives from Latin sica, a knife.

The sicarii, to use the Latin plural, started out, in other words, as knife wielders. Indeed this is exactly how they are described by their contemporary, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote in his Greek history of the Great Revolt, “The Jewish War,” that they “committed numerous murders in broad daylight and in the middle of the city [of Jerusalem]. They used to mingle with the crowd, especially during festivals, carrying short daggers concealed under their clothing, with which they stabbed their opponents. Then, when the victims fell, the murderers joined the indignant crowd, and acting inconspicuously, they were never discovered.”

But it is not from the pages of “The Jewish War” that the ultra-Orthodox of Jerusalem would be likely to know about the sicarii. Rather, their knowledge would come from such rabbinic texts as Avot d’Rabbi Natan, a book traditionally attributed to the second-century Mishnaic sage Natan of Babylonia, in which we read that, when the Roman general Vespasian set siege to Jerusalem, “the sikarin burned all the warehouses [of food].” This tragically ironic story of how warring groups of zealots set fire to supplies set aside for a Roman siege for which they themselves were responsible is known to us from Josephus, too, and provides the background for today’s burners of ice-cream parlors. Moreover, Avot d’Rabbi Natan gives us what originally must have been the correct plural form for the word: Sikarin, the Latin sicarii plus the Aramaic plural ending –in, rather than sikrikin.

But why then, I wondered, are the ice-cream parlor burners of Jerusalem known as sikrikin and not as sikarin?

Let us turn to another rabbinic text of the period, the Mishnaic tractate of Gittin. There we read, in a discussion of property laws: “In the case of those killed in the war [of the Great Revolt] in Judea, there was no [law of] sikrikon. After the [time of the] war dead, there was a [law of] sikrikon.”

Sikrikon, as the Mishnah and its commentaries inform us, was land confiscated from its owners by the Roman government and then sold by it to private individuals, and the discussion in Gittin involves its legal status. On the whole, the Mishanic laws of sikrikon call for compensation for the original owner who lost his land, or for his heirs — but not, we are told in Gittin, if this owner was killed fighting in the Great Revolt and had his property confiscated because of it. This exception to the rule was made to encourage Jews to buy back such land from the Roman government and thus prevent the Jewish de-population of postwar Judea.

But where does the word sikrikon come from? A good question. A little research turned up that traditional commentators on the Mishnah, as well as some modern scholars, connect it to the sikarin, with whose thuggish behavior the Romans confiscation of Jewish land was associated. And because of this association, presumably, the second “k” of sikrikon crept into sikarin and turned it into sikrakin.

And yet the linkage of sikrakon to sikarin strikes me, I must say, as a folk etymology for a little-understood word. Seeking to elucidate the matter further, I turned to Marcus Jastrow’s monumental 1903 Aramaic-English Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, and found: “Sikarikon (a disguise of [Greek] kaisarikion), property confiscated by the Roman government.”

Aha! My folk-etymology theory was confirmed! Our ice-cream parlor burners are known as sikrikin because of a mistaken association of sikrikon — or sikarikon, as Jastrow has it — with sikarin! In fact, according to Jastrow, sikrikon comes from Greek kaisarikion and has nothing to do with the knife wielders of the Great Revolt.

And yet this just pushes the conundrum back a step further. What kind of word is kaisarikion? The great Jastrow doesn’t bother to tell us, and it’s not in any dictionary. Where did he find it or get it from?

Are there any classicists in the house who can help?

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.