In Ashkenazi tradition, a liturgical poem, or piyyut,[i] recited on the eve of Yom Kippur begins, כִּי הִנֵּה כַּחֹמֶר בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר, בִּרְצוֹתוֺ מַרְחִיב וּבִרְצוֹתוֹ מְקַצֵּר, כֵּן אֲנַחְנוּ בְּיָדְךָ חֶסֶד נוֹצֵר: “As clay in the hand of the potter, who thickens or thins it at will, so are we in Your hand, Guardian of love.”[ii] The piyyut continues with a series of other similes for our status vis-à-vis God, including the following: כִּי הִנֵּה כַּהֶגֶה בְּיַד הַמַּלָּח, בִּרְצוֹתוֹ אוֹחֵז וּבִרְצוֹתוֹ שִׁלַּח. A recent translation captures the common understanding of these words: “As the helm in the hand of the sailor, who holds the course or abandons it . . . .”[iii]
Two Hebrew words in this line merit attention.
The first is the word translated — as it commonly is in the case of this piyyut — “helm.” The word הֶגֶה is used in just this sense in Modern Hebrew (and, even more commonly, as the everyday word for a steering wheel).
Now the word הֶגֶה appears a number of times in the Tanakh, but never in a context having anything to do with navigation or steering. The Biblical Hebrew word הֶגֶה is derived from the root ה.ג.י. and consistently means “sigh” or “utterance.” So how did it come to mean a helm (or steering wheel)?
The answer to this question is apparently to be found in a post-biblical source. In Mishnah Baba Batra 5:1, our printed editions read, הַמּוֹכֵר אֶת הַסְּפִינָה מָכַר אֶת הַתֹּרֶן וְאֶת הַנֵּס וְאֶת הָעוֹגִיןוְאֶת כָּל הַמַּנְהִיגִין אוֹתָהּ, “One who sells a ship sells the mast, the sail, the ʿogin and all its oars.” But the spelling of the word עוֹגִיןis evidently Babylonian; in manuscripts that reflect Palestinian tradition, the word is spelled הוֹגִין. So here we have a word whose root appears to be ה.ג.י. and which clearly refers to a fixture of a ship. The author of the piyyut apparently adopted this word, with which he, too, was acquainted in its Palestinian form, for his piyyut.[iv]
But what type of fixture did he mean? It is commonly believed that the word עוֹגִין/הוֹגִיןin the Mishnah in Baba Batra means “anchor”; and that it was borrowed from Greek, in which the word onkos means “hook”[v] (making עוֹגִין/הוֹגִין, incidentally, a cognate of the English word anchor).
And how did the author of the piyyut intend it? There is in fact good reason to think that, contrary to the usual translation, he, too, meant “anchor,” rather than “helm.” Alert readers may have noticed an anomaly in the translation quoted above: “As the helm in the hand of the sailor, who holds the course or abandons it.” In fact, there is no counterpart in the Hebrew to the words “the course”; a more faithful translation would be, “As the helm in the hand of the sailor, who holds it or abandons [better: ‘releases’] it.” The translator’s motivation for adding the words “the course” seems clear: the simile would poorly fit the pattern of the piyyut, with its multiple examples of a skilled person’s two alternative actions, if in the case of a sailor one of those alternatives was simply to let go of the helm. But this problem disappears, and the translation proceeds smoothly without adding any words, if the fixture in question is not the helm but an anchor, which sailors seize hold of when a ship is departing and release when the ship has been brought to rest.
If we are correct that the author of the piyyut intended הֶגֶה to refer to an anchor, how did it come to be reinterpreted as “helm”? Most likely, someone shared our puzzlement about the piyyut’s odd use of a word that usually means “sigh” or “utterance,” and guessed that the author had engaged in creative word play with the root נ.ה.ג.. Since this root usually refers to leading, it was a reasonable conjecture that whatthe author meant by the word הֶגֶהwas a fixture by means of which a vessel is directed — that is, its helm.[vi]
The other word of interest in the line from the piyyut is מַלָּח, “sailor.” Ask anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew to come up with a related word, and the response will be מֶלַח, “salt.” Add a little more knowledge, and she may observe that the particular pattern of vowels anddegeshim in the word מַלָּח is a common one: it is often seen in words that mean members of an occupation, such as נַגָּר (“carpenter”), קַצָּב (“butcher”), סַפָּר (“barber”) and, stretching the concept of “occupation” just a bit, גַּנָּב (“thief”). מַלָּח, then, is obviously a member of the occupation associated with salt (water) — a sailor. The English idiom for a sailor, “an old salt,” comes immediately to mind.
But sometimes the obvious just isn’t so. In fact, the origin of the word מַלָּחhas nothing whatsoever to do with salt.
The word entered Hebrew, via Aramaic, from Akkadian (a Semitic language whose principal dialects were Assyrian and Babylonian). (Given the small role that seafaring played in early Israelite life, it is not terribly surprising that the word for “sailor” was borrowed from another culture.)[vii] And the word is not native to Akkadian. Like a number of Akkadian words (including others that entered Hebrew), it had in turn been borrowed by Akkadian speakers from the Sumerians — a people at the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent in the fourth millennium B.C.E., who spoke a non-Semitic language. The word מַלָּחactually consists of two Sumerian elements: ma, meaning “ship,” and lax, meaning “to drive” or “to move”; a מַלָּח, in other words, was someone who helped move a ship.
Anchors aweigh, then; and may the High Holidays bring you safely to port — the Modern Hebrew for which is נָמֵל, a word with its own interesting story, which we’ll save for another occasion.
[i]פִּיּוּט is a term for a Jewish liturgical poem. The word is borrowed from the Greek poiétḗs, “poet” (and is thus a cognate of the English word poem).
[ii] As translated in Maḥzor Lev Shalem for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Rabbinical Assembly: 2010), p. 227 (emphasis supplied).
[iv] I can only speculate as to why the word was slightly modified in the piyyut, to הֶגֶה. Perhaps, the author sought a singular form of the word הוֹגִין, which could be taken as a plural (in Aramaic and, under its influence, Rabbinic Hebrew, the plural ending ־ִים is often replaced by ־ִין); perhaps the author simply took the liberty of employing the familiar word הֶגֶהwith a new meaning based on the seemingly similar word in the Mishnah in Baba Batra; or perhaps a subsequent copyist replaced a puzzling word with a similar, familiar one.
[v] In Modern Hebrew, the word for “anchor” is עֹגֶן, but this form appears to be recent; it is not mentioned in Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s dictionary (vol. ix, ed. M. Segal, 1950).
[vi] In E.Y. Kutscher’s History of the Hebrew Language (Magnes Press: 1982), which was completed by his son for publication after Kutscher’s death, Kutscher says that this usage is derived from an explanation, in “an obscure Midrash,” of the occurrence of the word in Ps. 90:9. No reference is provided, and I have thus far been unable to locate such a text.
[vii] In the Bible the word מַלָּח appears only in Ezekiel, which was written in Babylonia, and in Jonah, part of which takes place in the Assyrian city of Nineveh; elsewhere, wordier phrases are used, such as אַנְשֵׁי אֳנִיּוֹת יֹדְעֵי הַיָּם (1 Kgs 9:17) and יוֹרְדֵי הַיָּם בָּאֳנִיּוֹת (Ps. 107:23).