Chalav and Chelev.

I was excited about Balashon’s latest post at first simply because it’s the first post this year, and then because I love examples of words that are “obviously” related — in this case, Hebrew chalav חָלָב ‘milk’ and chelev חֵלֶב ‘fat’ — but turn out not to be. But what really prompted me to post was the discovery that Klein’s Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language is available online! Balashon quotes the entries for chalav:

חָלָב m.n. milk. [Related to Aram. חֲלַב, Syr. חַלְבָּא, Ugar. ḥlb, Arab. ḥalab, ḥalib, Ethiop. ḥalīb (= milk). Akka. ḥalābu (= to milk).

And chelev:

חֵֽלֶב m.n. fat, grease. [Related to Phoen. חלב, Syr. חֶלְבָּא, Arab. ḥilb (= midriff). The orig. meaning of these words was perhaps ‘fat of the midriff’.)

What a wonderful world! (But it bothers my copyeditor self that the etymologies have a bracket at the start but none at the end.)


  1. Is the story of the link with the Russian sl. халява “freebie” <= “free milk from Sabbath milking by a gentile” credible?

  2. Lars (not the original one) says

    Too bad some of the languages are left untransliterated.

  3. Here are Klein’s enries, transliterated:

    ḥalav m.n. milk. [Related to Aram. ḥălav, Syr. ḥalbā, Ugar. ḥlb, Arab. ḥalab, ḥalib, Ethiop. ḥalīb (= milk). Akka. ḥalābu (= to milk).]

    ḥēlev m.n. fat, grease. [Related to Phoen. ħlb, Syr. ḥelbā, Arab. ḥilb (= midriff). The orig. meaning of these words was perhaps ‘fat of the midriff’.]

  4. Parts of the relevant enries in The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, v. 4, are visible on GBooks. The TDOT is a very in-depth scholarly dictionary, covering the etymologies and cultural aspects of various Biblical Hebrew words, in 15 volumes (plus one more for Aramaic).
    The etymology of the ‘milk’ word is not visible. The one for the ‘fat’ word agrees with Klein. What’s interesting to me is the essay on the significance of fat as a product increasingly exclusive to sacrifices, paralleling the Greek practice, which I first learned about from the myth of Prometheus dividing the carcass between humans and the gods.

  5. Lars (the original one) says

    Possibly not relevant, but I just encountered the concept of rabbit starvation — humans need fat in their diet, so before pastoralism (milk and eggs) they could not afford to burn the animal fats they could get. (Even caribou are supposedly too lean to be healthy).

    I don’t know when vegetable fats (olives?) became available, I always thought of early agriculture as grains only.

  6. Possibly not relevant, but I just encountered the concept of rabbit starvation

    Since I expect that’s as mystifying to others as it was to me:

    Protein poisoning (also referred to colloquially as rabbit starvation, mal de caribou, or fat starvation) is a rare form of acute malnutrition thought to be caused by a near complete absence of fat in the diet. […] Protein poisoning was first noted as a consequence of eating rabbit meat exclusively, hence the term, “rabbit starvation”. Rabbit meat is very lean; commercial rabbit meat has 50–100 g dissectable fat per 2 kg (live weight).

  7. Cold-water aquatic animals such as seals and salmonid fish, on the other hand, are quite rich in fats and have been hunted for a good couple tens of thousands of years in the northern reaches of human settlement. I wonder now how old things like blubber lamps are, and if major pre-agricultural blubber trade was ever a thing…

  8. Lars (the original one) says

    I’m not saying protein poisoning would be a problem for pre-pastoralists, unless they started separating out the fat from prey animals and burning it, so maybe there’s a reason that custom only developed later.

  9. @Y: The information about fat in The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament was quite interesting, especially in connection with the story of Eli’s sons, where it is difficult to get a really precise picture of what order the pieces of the sacrifice were burnt or eaten in. This reminded me of two opposing theories I have encountered regarding this episode.

    One proposal is just that the authors of the final written version of Samuel, writing hundreds of years later (perhaps in Josiah’s time), had to guess a bit about how the rituals of the Shiloh period had actually worked. There are lots of instances where religious, cultural and linguistic changes seem to have affected Samuel, which is one of the most propagandistic parts of the Bible: passing off King Sol’s nativity story as Samuel’s, possibly covering up the non-Aaronite origins of the Shiloh priesthood, etc. This may be the most likely explanation of any oddities in the text, but it is also a rather dull explanation.

    The other argument I have heard made, which seems unlikely but fascinating, is that the crimes of Eli’s sons represented negative versions of the virtues of Eli himself. Since the book in which Eli was the hero has been redacted out of the canonical text, we will presumably never know what Eli did to earn the blessings of Adonai. However, the sins committed by his sons might have been specific opposites of Eli’s pious behavior. This would, for example, justify the canceling of the blessings Eli had been promised for subsequent generations.

  10. @Lars (the original one): Rabbit meat, in England at least, was traditionally known for being dry and difficult to stomach without quite a bit of seasoning—which meant both a significant amount of salt and additional herbs/spices. The lack of fat is probably the biggest reason for this issue, and is the reason that rabbit recipes are practically always for stews and braises; those cooking methods preserve all the juices from the meat. I did once cook roast rabbit, and the recipe called for reclaiming all the drippings to make a (cream-based!) gravy to go over the meat.

    These problems with rabbit meat were presumably well known several generations ago, when hunting rabbits for subsistence was far more common. And later allusions to this rural lore sometimes appear in the oddest places, such as in the Infocom adventure game Journey, when the other party members mistake the wizard character Praxis adding salt to his rabbit stew for some kind of magic. It is also implicit in The Two Towers, when Sam is adamant about having herbs to cook with the two coneys the hobbits have killed. (As John Cowan might note, Tolkien’s works assume a somewhat “higher context” cultural environment than most English-language writing.)

  11. I love examples of words that are “obviously” related […] but turn out not to be.

    Well, then.

  12. Very nice!

  13. …which links to these lovely diagrams.

  14. Also very nice! It’s great to see someone taking the trouble to get these things right.

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