Shedding a Little Light on Sea Monsters and Planets

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.

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