Naomi, over at Baraita, has taken time out from her lytdybr entries about moving to a new university town and posted a fascinating discussion of, among other things, “Jewish groups who deviated from some perceived norm”: minim, apikursim, and others. One of the reasons I used to wish I were Jewish was so I could be an apikoyres, but the other terms were new to me.

Update (August 2019). Baraita, alas, is no longer with us, so I have substituted an archived link for the post. And just to be sure of access, I’ll copy the most relevant bit here:

In this particular context, the word minim is usually translated as “heretics.” It’s not an awful translation; haeresis in Greek originally referred to a political party or other voluntary association, and it took quite a few wiggles before it turned into the specifically Christian understanding of “heresy.” Minim in Hebrew originally referred to “species” or “kinds” — the various plants we shake around at Sukkot are the arba minim, the four species. Somewhere in the Second Temple period — I could suggest articles about this if you’re curious — it started to be used in reference to Jewish groups who deviated from some perceived norm. By the time the Gemara was being finalized, minim could also refer to non-Jews.** There are also a host of other terms for referring to people who are technically (by birth or conversion) Jews but don’t behave or believe properly, thus doing themselves out of wine-sharing privileges and an afterlife, among other things.*** There are apikursim, which is an Aramicization of the Greek word “Epicureans” and refers to a similar outlook; kofrim, which means something like “denier” or “atheist”; mumim, which refers to someone who’s unobservant… and the fun just keeps coming. […]

** –At some point in the first five centuries of the Common Era, it became reasonably common to use minim as a semi-tactful way of referring to Christians, but the term was never confined to that. And the part in our daily (unreformed) liturgy about God’s showing the minim what-for (a loose translation) is… uh… well, all the branches of Judaism I’d consider have kind of dropped it. I almost regret this, as I think one could have a blast redefining the term… but not quite.


  1. Just bumping this in case anyone in 2019 might be interested in these esoteric terms.

  2. David Marjanović says


    Hm. There’s the German* insult Vollkoffer, literally and nonsensically “complete suitcase”, referring to stupid people just like Vollidiot. The usual etymology involves a racist insult from South Africa, Kaffer, itself is of course from the Arabic for “unbeliever”; that would have happened by way of a misunderstanding of southern dialectal /ɒ/ as Standard /ɔ/. But maybe Vollkoffer is simply from Yiddish?

    Edit: Koffer as a random insult also occurs alone when there’s enough context.

    * Anybody know how widespread it is?

  3. Stu Clayton says

    Anybody know how widespread it is?

    The first so-and-so-many hits say it’s primarily a Viennese “swearword”. I’ve certainly never heard it on the left side of Germany. Here it has been mobilized.

    It’s curious that there is no single English verb with the generality of schimpfen, or noun with the g. of
    Schimpfwort, according to the reports that have reached me from introspection and internet dictionaries.

  4. Kofrim is not a generalized term of abuse, and I am not familiar with it being used in Yiddish, so I doubt that could be the origin. On the other hand, kaffer was very common in East Africa, so an origin in Tanganyika sounds quite reasonable. (I don’t know about Namibia.)

    EDIT: On the other hand, if, as Stu Clayton says, we are talking about a specifically Austrian insult, then who knows?

  5. Stu Clayton says

    “Insult” covers a lot of uses, “scold” others. A mother can schimpfen mit ihrem Sohn.

    I should have written Austrian insult, who knows why “Viennese swearword” came out. Think I’ll go back to sleep.

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    This is also suggestive (especially the photo). But platt gaper to Austrian Koffer is a long stretch.

  7. Lars (the original one) says

    Connecting the dots here, He kofrim (כּוֹפֵר ?) would be cognate to Ar kāfir (كافر ?) which would be the source of Du kaffir which might be that of G Koffer in this pejorative meaning. So cognacy achieved while evading Yiddish.

    (What is a nice two-letter abbreviation for Hebrew? He is the ISO 636-1 language code, of course, but e is not a very distinctive letter — on the other hand there aren’t really any possible collisions, so no need to go to Hb or Hw).

  8. David Marjanović says

    The first so-and-so-many hits say it’s primarily a Viennese “swearword”. I’ve certainly never heard it on the left side of Germany.

    Vienna would argue for a Yiddish connection (though still not terribly strongly). Austria generally less so, but of course many things have spread from Vienna…

    Here it has been mobilized.

    Ha! „Wieviel verblödenden Stumpfsinn erträgt diese Welt noch?“

    is not a generalized term of abuse, and I am not familiar with it being used in Yiddish, so I doubt that could be the origin.

    Meaning shifts in borrowings from/through Yiddish have been common, though.

    On the other hand, kaffer was very common in East Africa, so an origin in Tanganyika sounds quite reasonable. (I don’t know about Namibia.)

    I should add that the word was pretty widely known in German a few decades ago. The Cape buffalo is still Kaffernbüffel, and I once read some kind of Great Scouting Book – already half a century old at the time – that explained basic cryptography and used ZULUKAFFER as the random example word. Apparently South Africa once was in the news a lot…? Maybe the Nazi film Ohm Krüger stoked a fascination that I’ve only seen the last glimpses of?

    platt gaper to Austrian Koffer is a long stretch

    Not that much. Gaffer is attested, most recently in media reports about people who stand by and gaze at car accidents and the like and prevent help from reaching the victims. And in all of eastern Austria, the g/k distinction has disappeared.

    But the geography argues against it: these gaper figures only occur in the Netherlands and Flanders, says the Pffft! article.

    would be cognate to Ar kāfir

    Of course.

  9. Hebrew minim in the negative sense does not occur in any known second Temple period text. E.g., it is not used that way in Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls. The Birkat ha-Minim, blessing/curse on minim, is post-70ff. Apparently, minim and Greek for heresy developed negative senses in “conversation” starting during the second century. It does appear, e.g., in a baraita (b. Qiddushin 66a) as minut (heresy) in a story about a dinner hosted by Alexander Jannaeus (who, by the way, may be the Qumran-view “wicked priest”), but that was written after the second Temple period. Quite right that it changed senses over time.

  10. John Cowan says

    but e is not a very distinctive letter

    No worse than “No” for Norwegian, especially with a following period, which has made some of Trond’s posts very confusing to me when they begin with that. We do have “nb” and “nn” for the different written versions.

    The complete H set is Hausa (ha), Hebrew (he), Hindi (hi), Hiri Motu (ho), Croatian (hr), Haitian Creole (ht), Hungarian (hu). I think all are pretty mnemonic except ‘ho’, but it’s not clear what would be better: ‘hm’?

    “Rabbi, I can remain with you no longer, for I have become an apikoros!”

    “Tell me again, how long have you studied Talmud?”

    “Ten years, Rabbi.”

    “Ten years …. And already an apikoros?”

  11. Trond Engen says

    Sometimes i do think of it and use “Norw.” instead. Consistency is not among my superpowers, but I’ll try.

  12. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament:

    The etymology of mîn is yet unclear. Various attempts derive the root from an Arabic etymon myn in the sense of “create; fruitfulness, procreation of living beings of the same species.” (Otherwise Arab. māna[i] means to “lie, tell a falsehood,” though also “split, divide, plow”; cf. Ethiop. mēna, “lie.”) References have also been made to Akk. mīnu, “portion, number,” and minûtu, “numbering, figuring” or “number, amount; accounting; shape, figure” (probably from manû, “count”). William F. Albright’s citation in KBL³ (547) is incorrect, and the meaning of Ugar. mnm is similarly uncertain. The only undisputed point is its etymological connection to tᵉmûnâ [picture].

    Klein also notes:

    For sense development cp. Arab. farā(y) (=he split, invented, fabricated).

    I don’t see the connection between splitting and inventing/lying, but the fact that the polysemy appears in two different Arabic roots is notable. Maybe one is an old homophony and the second is a calque upon the first.

  13. I briefly discussed “minim” on pages 535-6 in “Others and Intra-Jewish Polemic as Reflected in Qumran Texts” (1999) here:

  14. That’s interesting, thanks.

    My understanding (based on somea vague memory) is that Hebrew words occurring no earlier than Mishnaic Hebrew are not likely to be old etymons which somehow went unrecorded in the Old Testament. The semantic shift ‘varieties’ > ‘various heretical sects’ fits nicely with goyīm ‘nations’ > ‘non-Jewish nations’ and even ‘ārōb ‘mixture’ > ‘various vermin’ or ‘various wild beasts’ (in the fourth Egyptian plague).

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