Shedding a Little Light on Sea Monsters and Planets

On Language

By Philologos

Published January 06, 2010, issue of January 15, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It was one of the less publicized contests of 2009, and the winners won’t be given any prizes, but there are nonetheless two of them. They are oron and rahav, and they are now the official Hebrew names of the planets Uranus and Neptune, which until now had to be known to Hebrew speakers as, well, Uranus and Neptune with an Israeli accent. The successful finalists in a competition sponsored by Israel’s Academy of the Hebrew Language in conjunction with UNESCO’s International Year of Astronomy 2009, which marked the 400th anniversary of the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo, they were chosen by Internet balloters in landslide votes: oron by 2,808 against 1,539 over shaḥak, and rahav by 2,907 against 1,266 over tarshish.

Uranus and Neptune were until now nameless in Hebrew because, not being bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, they were unknown to the ancients and not discovered until relatively modern times. Uranus, the seventh most distant planet from the sun, was found with the aid of a telescope in 1781 by British astronomer William Herschel and eventually named with the Greek word ouranos, “sky” or “heaven.” Herschel himself wanted to call the new planet “Georgium Sidus,” Latin for “George’s Star,” after King George III, while in France, where British kings were unpopular, it was — fortunately, briefly — known for a while as “Herschel.” (The sequence “Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Herschel” would indeed have been difficult to recite with a straight face.)

As for Neptune, the eighth planet from the sun, its existence was deduced several decades later, before there were telescopes large enough to sight it, by mathematical calculations involving Uranus’s orbit. Its name, too, was at first wrangled about. The French wanted to call it Leverrier, after French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier, who was one of the calculators, while Le Verrier’s colleague, Englishman James Challis, plumped for Oceanus to go with Uranus. It was German astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve who suggested the name of the Roman sea god Neptune, which balanced Uranus, too, and was more in keeping with the names of the classical deities for whom the other planets were named.

And why oron and rahav? The former, it would seem, triumphed primarily because of an appealing association of sound, the latter because of an association of sense.

Oron (the stress is on the second syllable) was coined by one of the contest’s Internet participants, from the Hebrew word or, meaning “light,” plus the diminutive suffix –on, thus giving us “little light.” Besides sounding like “Uranus,” it must have seemed fitting to those who voted for it, because the seventh planet is indeed a faint presence in the sky. Shaḥak, the runner-up, is a literary Hebrew word for “sky” that goes back to the Bible and would have been closer to Uranus in meaning, though without any phonetic similarity.

Rahav, the new Hebrew name for Neptune, also appears in the Bible, where it is the name of a mythological sea monster. In the Book of Job, for instance, we are told, “By His [God’s] power He stilled the sea; by His understanding He smote Rahav.” The Talmudic tractate of Bava Batra even refers to Rahav as “the lord of the sea” (sar shel yam), which makes this legendary creature a rough Hebrew parallel to the Roman sea god Neptune. Tarshish, which came in second, is the name of a distant but unidentified Mediterranean city or land mentioned many times in the Bible, sometimes in the metaphorical sense of “far over the sea.”

As for the visible planets that were all known in ancient times, all have old Hebrew names going back to early rabbinic literature. Mercury is kokhav ḥamah, “the sun star,” or sometimes just ḥamah, because its orbit’s closeness to the sun makes it possible for us to see it only in the sun’s vicinity at dawn and dusk. (It is in fact extremely difficult to make out Mercury at all.) Venus, the brightest of all celestial bodies after the moon, is nogah, “the bright one.” Mars’s reddish color gave it the name of ma’adim, “the red one.” Jupiter in Hebrew is tsedek, which means “justice”; the Roman god Jupiter was the patron of justice and law, hence the Hebrew name. Saturn is shabtai, from shabbat, “Sabbath”; this is an ancient translation of the Roman dies Saturni, “the day of Saturn” (from which comes English “Saturday”), who was the god thought to preside over the seventh day of the week.

That leaves everyone taken care of except for Pluto. But Pluto, although we were taught in school that it is the ninth and farthest planet of them all, turns out not to be a planet at all. After many years of scientific debate, it has recently been redefined as a “dwarf planet,” the largest of a great number of asteroidlike objects, composed of frozen gases, to occupy the so-called Kuiper belt, which orbits the sun beyond Neptune. You can’t expect Hebrew to have a separate name for every hunk of ice in the solar system.

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!
  • "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?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • 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.