A Sarajevo Haggadah Inquiry

By Philologos

Published February 06, 2008, issue of February 08, 2008.
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Jeremiah Riemer from Madison, N.J., writes:

“I have a case for you having to do with journalist and novelist Geraldine Brooks’ fascinating and inspiring New Yorker story about the Sarajevo Passover Haggadah. It involves the Hebrew root that gives us the word Haggadah, the literal meaning of which is ‘narration.’ Haggadah comes from the verb higgid, to tell. Yet according to the dictionary, the root letters of higgid are not Heh-Gimmel-Dalet, as Ms. Brooks mistakenly wrote in her article, but rather Nun-Gimmel-Dalet. The initial Heh, it turns out, belongs to the causative Hif’il construction, in which the Nun of the root drops out. And since the root Nun-Gimmel-Dalet spells the Hebrew word neged, which means ‘against,’ and which is also found in the verb hitnaged, to be opposed to, my question is: How do we get from a root meaning to be against or to oppose to words having to do with telling and narration? The semantic connection between the two is a mystery to me.”

Mr. Riemer’s grammatical analysis of Geraldine Brooks’s error is correct. The root letters of higgid, from which comes Haggadah, are indeed n-g-d, which would give us hingid in the Hif’il construction if the Nun weren’t assimilated, as it is in many Hebrew words, to the consonant following it. Moreover, this is indeed the same root from which comes neged, “against.” Yet, the mystery is not really so great.

Turning to the Bible will help us to solve it. In much of the Bible, higgid alternates with another Hebrew verb, amar, in the sense of “to say or to tell.” Generally, the two words are used interchangeably. Sometimes, though, particularly when they occur in the same verse, there is a difference of nuance between them. Let’s look at some of the cases where this happens:

“And Laban said [vayomer] unto Jacob, ‘Because thou art my brother, shouldest thou therefore serve me for nought? Tell me [haggida li], what shall thy wages be?’” (Genesis 29:15)

“And he [Joseph] said [vayomer], ‘I seek my brethren. Tell me [haggida li], I pray thee, where are they grazing their flocks?’” (Genesis 37:16)

“And Delilah said [vatomer] to Samson, ‘Tell me [haggida li] wherein does thy great strength lie?’” (Judges 16:6)

We can say two things about these highly similar verses: 1) In each, the verb amar precedes the verb higgid; 2) In each, the former introduces a question and the latter requests an answer to it. In fact, just as “Tell me” in English can be a polite way of saying “Answer me,” so haggida, the imperative form of higgid, really means “Answer!” in these biblical passages.

Having mentioned the English verb “answer,” let’s pay it some attention, too. It comes from Old English andswerian, which is composed of the verb swerian, “to swear,” and the prefix and-, “against or in opposition to.” (This and is an archaic form of the modern English prefix “un-”, as in “undo,” “unbend,” etc., and a cognate of German ent-, as in entkleiden, to undress, entladen, to unload, and so on.) Originally, therefore, andswerian meant “to swear against”— that is, to respond to an accusation with an oath that it was not true.

And now we can also say something about “respond.” It’s from Latin respondere, which is composed of spondere, “to promise,” and the prefix re-, “back” or “in return.” Similarly, we have “reply,” from Latin replicare, “to fold back,” and “retort,” from Latin retorquere, to bend back — all verbs meaning “to answer” as well.

The mystery is beginning to clear up before our eyes. In many languages, verbs for answering have components with the original sense of “back,” “in return,” “against” or “in opposition to,” because when you answer someone, you are talking back to him and sometimes opposing him or speaking against him. In Hebrew, a language that has no verbal prefixes, it is possible to convey this idea by means of the Hif’il construction. Thus, the pre-biblical verb hingid, which by biblical times had changed to higgid, started out by meaning “to talk back or talk against”; then it came to mean “to answer,” and ended up by meaning “to tell” or “to say.” In the Bible, it generally has the third of these three meanings, but sometimes, as in the verses quoted above, it retains traces of the second.

A similar trajectory can be discerned in another Hebrew verb, heshiv, which also means “to answer.” Heshiv is the Hif’il form of the root shuv, “to go back or to return in an intransitive sense” (as in a sentence like “He returned home”); the Hif’il construction makes this transitive, and the earliest meaning of heshiv, which still exists in modern Hebrew, was “to return an object to a place or to its owner.” Eventually, however, it took on the additional meaning of returning someone’s question — that is, giving an answer.

And with that, I hope I have given Mr. Riemer an answer, too. After his high praise of it, I look forward to reading Geraldine Brooks’s article.

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


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