The Sikrikin Mystery

By Philologos

Published April 20, 2007, issue of April 20, 2007.
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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.


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