Posts Tagged ‘German’

We just finished commemorating Tishah b’Av, when the Holy Temple was destroyed.

The stories in the Talmud relating the events surrounding the destruction (Gitin 55-57) are a popular choice of study on this day.

The Talmud says: “Because of shaka d’rispak, Beitar was destroyed.” What is “shaka d’rispak”? Rashi defines shaka as a “side” (דופן) and rispak as a “women’s chariot” (Heb. מרכבת נשים), so collectively shaka d’rispak means the side of a women’s chariot. Rashi also offers a translation of rispak as ריטוג”א in German. Phonetically, this would appear to be “rituga,” but there is no German word resembling that that I could immediately discover.

So I went to Google translate and tried translating “chariot” into German. I got “Streitwagen.” That didn’t seem right, but then I looked closer and realized that if the “St” part was eliminated, the word would be “reitwagen,” and would actually be quite close to Rashi’s word. The “Reit” part is ריט, and the “wagen” part is “וגא,” leaving only the “n” sound missing. But is a “reitwagen” a thing? As it turns out, yes! It means “riding-wagon” in Middle High German, the language spoken in Germany during (and after) Rashi’s lifetime.

The etymology for “wagen,” incidentally, is derived from “vega,” meaning “way.”

The next part of the mystery is why this is a “women’s chariot” specifically. So I investigated ancient modes of transportation for women and found that there was a type of carriage called a “litter” or “basternum” in which wealthy women were carried by human servants or on the backs of animals (like the mule). The context of the Talmudic passage concerns the daughter of a Roman official, so this would make sense.

I looked up “rispak” in Jastrow’s Dictionary of the Talmud, and he references to another word, “dispak,” which he defines as “litter,” as above.

I’m not sure why Jastrow changes rispak to dispak, but I’m gonna hazard my own guess as to its etymology. Bear with me.

Rispak is very similar to the English word “respect.” I researched the etymology of this word and found that it derives from the Latin verb “respicere” meaning to regard or “look back” at. “Re” means “again” and the SPC root means to look, as in “spectacle,” “spectator,” etc. Hence to “respect” means to look at something with particular regard. Since these vehicles were designed to carry wealthy individuals, to whom others were meant to look with regard, they may have gotten their name from this verb.

If “dispak” is the correct version, this may be a combination of the same SPC verb with the prefix “de” or “dis,” meaning to undo or reverse something. So then this would mean a vehicle designed to obscure the rider from the observer, as these carriages would often have curtains or be closed off to prevent the eyes of commoners from seeing the occupant.

Incidentally, I have a theory that Rashi offers foreign language equivalents of certain words in the text when he wishes to show a linguistic connection or origin, not just a translation. Here, ריטוג”א as the German counterpart for “rispak” works as follows: ריט derives from ריס, as the “t” and “s” sounds interchange, the ו (“v” sound) interchanges with the פ (“p” or “f” sound) and the ג (“g” sound) interchanges with the ק (“k” sound). Hence ריספק to ריטוג”א.

The context of the story in the Talmud is as follows: The Caesar’s daughter was passing the city of Beitar in a rispak, when the “shaka” of the rispak broke. The people of Beitar had a custom to plant certain trees when a boy or girl was born, then, when a boy and girl grew up and married, they used the wood from their respective trees to build their chupah. When the shaka broke, the servants of The Caesar’s daughter cut down one of these trees to use its wood for the carriage. The people of Beitar became incensed and attacked the Caesar’s daughter and their attendants. The Emperor avenged himself upon the city of Beitar, massacring its inhabitants.

From the story, and based upon our exploration above, it would seem that the “shaka,” or “side” of the rispak, may have been one of the poles used to carry it.

Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking. What are your thoughts?


Found an awesome Rashi while reading I Kings 6:8:

“פֶּתַח הַצֵּלָע הַתִּיכֹנָה אֶל-כֶּתֶף הַבַּיִת הַיְמָנִית; וּבְלוּלִּים יַעֲלוּ עַל-הַתִּיכֹנָה, וּמִן-הַתִּיכֹנָה אֶל-הַשְּׁלִשִׁים”

Never mind the English translation right now, ‘cuz I’m working from the Hebrew. The context is the construction of Solomon’s Temple, and the text is describing the different parts of the structure.

As I read, I’m confused by the word “belulim.” The word ‘balul’ in Hebrew (or the root B-L-L in general) usually means “mixed up.” The abbreviated root, B-L, means the same, and the Torah states clearly that this is the root of the name of the city ‘Babel’ (or more properly ‘Bavel’ in Hebrew), the place where languages were confounded (mixed up). It is also certainly the root of the English word “ball,” and likely “bowl” as well. So what does it mean here in this verse? Rashi weighs in:


He first cites Targum that translates the word as “mesivatha” in Aramaic, from the S-B root which means to go around. (Famously, this is the root of the modern Hebrew word “sevivon,” a spinning top, known popularly in Yiddish as a “dreidel.”)

Rashi then relates this to an Old French word that I don’t recognize, spelled in Hebrew letters וויין. This might roughly be the equivalent of the Latin spelling “wein,” but I’m not sure what it amounts to in Old French. We will soon see that this word is related to the English word “wind” (verb), as in “turn” or “twist.”

Then Rashi goes on to German, where Rashi offers two terms: what appears to be phonetically pronounced as “vindel shtein,” and something that phonetically amounts to “shvindel shtig.” Rashi describes this as a sort of winding stone structure, a pillar of stone, as it were, with steps ascending around it, so that one ascends by walking around the central pillar.

Well, after some google searching with alternate spellings, I came up with a few things.

“Wendelstein” means “winding stone,” and is the name of a place in Bavaria, Germany. It is also the name of a mountain there (for which the place is named, presumably).

Germane (no pun intended) to our context, however, is that a “wendel-stein” was a structure in old German castles, which is exactly what Rashi describes. Some were winding ramps used to carry heavy things up. It can also refer to a winding staircase, also known in German as a “wendeltreppe.”

I haven’t figured out what a “shvindel shtig” is, but “schwindel” in modern German means “dizziness” (according to Google translate) and “schtig” translates as “addiction.” Perhaps the connotation is a structure that turns continually, such as the winding ramp or stairs described above.

Oh, and now the English translation of the verse according to JPS:

“The door for the lowest row of chambers was in the right side of the house and they went up by winding stairs into the middle row, and out of the middle into the third.”

I know, you’re thinking, “You could have just looked at the translation tobegin with!” But that’s not how I study. I read the original Hebrew and try to figure out what it means, using commentaries where appropriate. This is how scholarship is born. I find it amazing that my conclusion aligned with the translation (which I only checked at the end).

So can anyone else help me with the Old French term or the “schwindel schtig” thing?

UPDATE: Aha! Just figured out (via some more google searching for different variations) that “steig” in old German essential means “a steep track” ( So “schwindel steig” means a winding ramp — perfect!

Interestingly, even in modern Yiddish vernacular, particularly in “Yeshivish” slang, to “shteig,” is used to refer to one’s spiritual ascent, that is, when someone learns Torah with vigor, or increases their level of observance, this is called “shteigen”! I should have known!

Still need help with the French, though.

UPDATE: With the help of some awesome friends (shout-out to Ari Khan of West Hempstead, NY), we’ve solved the French weird mystery! The word that appears to say “vine” is apparently exactly that! It seems that the winding, twisting path of the vine caused that word to become the word for the staircase with the same shape. Hooray hooray hooray for words!