What Does the Almond Do?

I’m reading Bunin’s “В саду” [In the orchard], in which a canny old merchant stops by to visit some peasants who are working for him and starts complaining about various people of his acquaintance. His wife is always suffering from some ailment or other, his daughter is dissatisfied with her life for no good reason (“горе от ума Грибоедова, видимое дело” [grief from the mind of Griboyedov, that’s what it is]), a servant not only can’t cook but can’t even mix swill for swine (“сама как мясопотам какой” [she’s like some mesopotamus] — that folk-etymologized mashup of мясо ‘meat,’ гиппопотам ‘hippopotamus,’ and Месопотамия ‘Mesopotamia’ made me laugh out loud), and a rich shopkeeper named Shurinov has gone completely around the bend with religious mania, telling everyone they should stop thinking about money and start worrying about the grave, using the rhyming expressions Russians love (“нонче ты с дружьями, а завтра с червями, нынче в порфире, а завтра в могиле” [today you’re with friends, and tomorrow with worms, today in purple, and tomorrow in the grave]). He continues:

Теперь, говорят, одно твердит: амигдал да онагрь, велбуд да тля, скимен да вретище…

Now, they say, he keeps repeating the same things: almond tree and wild ass, camel and aphid, schema and sackcloth…

The rest of them were clear enough, but what was the almond tree about? (He uses the Church Slavic word амѵгдалъ/амигдалъ rather than the normal Russian миндаль.) It turned out to be a reference to Ecclesiastes 12:5:

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets

The Church Slavic version of “and the almond tree shall flourish” is “и процвѣтетъ амѵгдалъ.” Which is well and good, but what is so ominous about an almond tree flourishing? So I dug deeper and found that the original Hebrew has וְיִסְתַּבֵּ֣ל הַשָּׁקֵד֙ ‘and the almond tree is a burden.’ Well, which is it, flourishing or a burden? [I got this entirely wrong; see comments below.] Anybody know what’s going on here?


  1. Kate Bunting says

    There seems to be a wide variety of English translations of the whole passage…


  2. They’re almost all variants on “flourishes/blossoms/buds,” some adding a dubious “hair turning white” motif that is not in the original, but the Literal Standard Version has “And the almond-tree is despised,” which I guess is their take on וְיִסְתַּבֵּ֣ל.

  3. By the way, I wrote an essay a few years ago on the Hebrew words for “almond.” Here’s the version that made it to the Times of Israel: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shaked-and-the-luz/

  4. The verb וְיִסְתַּבֵּ֣ל wəyistabbēl (rendered “be a burden” in the KJV) goes with the grasshopper; the structure of the text (וְיָנֵאץ הַשָּׁקֵד וְיִסְתַּבֵּל הֶֽחָגָב) is the following (with KJV translation):

    וְיָנֵאץ הַשָּׁקֵד
    וְיִסְתַּבֵּל הֶֽחָגָב

    wəyānēʾṣ haššāqēḏ
    wəyistabbēl heḥāḡāḇ

     the almond tree shall flourish,
    and the grasshopper shall be a burden

    Here is the discussion of the problematic verb וינאץ in וְיָנֵאץ הַשָּׁקֵד (transliterated as pointed, wəyānēʾṣ haššāqēḏ ) in Choon-Leong Seow (1997) Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible 18c), p. 361f.:

    Reading with Ketib (wynʾṣ) and taking the verb as a Hiphil: wĕyanʾēṣ, lit. “and [the almond] causes one to reviled, be repulsed.” Many commentators prefer to read with h Qereh : wĕyānʾēṣ, assuming nṣṣ “to blossom.” This reading (“blossom”) is supported by LXX, SyrH, Syr, and Vulg. But the explanation of the ʾalep in Ketib as merely orthographic (so Cordis and others) is unconvincing; all the examples cited are Middle-Weak, rather than geminate roots, and in each case the ʾalep indicates a not e. It is doubtful if ʾalep ever indicates a long vowel in a geminate verb. The reading of Ketib is probably correct, although it may not be the only reading intended by the author.

    Scholars who take the passage as a depiction of the woes of old age assume the text to be saying that the almond nut has become unpalatable to the aged: the almond is “despised.” The word šāqēd “almond,” however, may refer either to the nut (Gen 43:11; Num 17:23) or to the tree (Jer 1:11). If the former is meant, the point is that the nut that is regarded as one of the choice fruits of the land (see Gen 43: 11) will become repulsive. One can only speculate if that means the nut has become rotten or if the nut is despised because it cannot be eaten by the aged, whose “grinders” have become few (see 12:3). The almond tree may be meant, however. If so, the point is that the tree that is so appreciated for its lovely blossoms, somehow becomes revolting. Almond trees are known for their beauty; they do not look bad even when the blossoms fall off. Yet, they are susceptible to extreme cold and to a variety of fungal diseases that may cause the tree to rot and become unsightly. The rare sight of a repulsive-looking almond tree is, thus, an ominous sign.

    In this connection, one may note that Akkadian nâṣu (from naʾāṣu) may be used of something that is revolting to look at: “if the appearance of the house is repulsive (nāṣ)” (CT 38, 14:4,22; see AHW, p. 758). In a lexical text cited in CAD XII2, p. 53, the word is listed with other terms for “trembling.” Although one cannot be certain of its meaning, one may conjecture that it means “shuddering,” or the like.

    In any case, it is possible that the author of our text intends a wordplay, substituting the verb yanʾēṣ “it becomes revolting” (causes one to shudder?) for the expected form yānēṣ “it blooms.” The two verbs are homonyms: the almond blooms (yānēṣ), but it will become revolting (yanʾēṣ). It is easy to see how such a wordplay might have generated the genuine variants now reRected in the different witnesses.

    Alternatively, one may posit that the verb was originally yānēṣ “blossom.” If so, the imagery here may at one time have been an allegory for old age, as many commentators have suggested: the white blossom of the almond tree is a figure for the white hair that one gets in old age. A Sumerian wisdom text, likewise, uses allegory to describe the white hair of old age: “My black mountain has produced white gypsum” (B. Alster, Studies in Sumerian Proverbs [Mesopotamia 3; Copenhagen: Akademisk, 1975], p. 93, line 28). One Talmudic passage cites an allegory for old age, where the white hair of the aged is likened to a mountain covered with snow (b. Sabb. 152a). The allegorical meaning, however, lies only in the background, as the author now speaks not of the white blooms of the almond tree, but of its decay. Along with other eschatological signs, the almond tree will become revolting. If this reconstruction is correct, the original text had yānēṣ“blooms” (appropriate when the text was used as an allegory of old age), but it was subsequently read as yanʾēṣ “becomes repulsive” (when the text was read eschatologically). The presence of the ʾalep is, in fact, a clue as to the interpretive process.

    Apologies for any uncaught OCR errors.

  5. from a look into Jastrow, it seems like what’s up with the almond tree is a verb for bearing a load – so “the almond tree is bearing heavily” could be a more literal english gloss.

    so, aside from the grasshopper (which according to the JPS Tanakh may want textual adjustment), it’s a contrast between plants that bear fruit or flowers again and again and humans who age and die and do not revive.

  6. 1) You got the Hebrew backwards, literally. “וְיִסְתַּבֵּ֣ל” (burden) goes with the next word (grasshopper), the part you want is “וְיָנֵאץ הַשָּׁקֵד”

    2) According to traditional readings https://www.mgketer.org/tanach/33/12/5 it’s definitely not “flourished”. The root means “bright”, and the more sensible (IMHO) options read this as something to do with grey hair, thus old age (which this whole part is about).

  7. The verb וְיִסְתַּבֵּ֣ל wəyistabbēl (rendered “be a burden” in the KJV) goes with the grasshopper


    You got the Hebrew backwards

    Oops! As is obvious, my Hebrew is so shaky as to be worthless. Thanks to all for the explanations, and especially to Xerîb for that long and helpful quote!

  8. мясопотам

    This made me so happy! Thanks for drawing our attention to it!

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    The NETS Englishing of the LXX has “Indeed, they will see from heights, and terrors will be in the road; when the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper becomes fat, and the caperberry is scattered, because mortals went to their eternal home, and the mourners circled in the market.” I see from biblehub that the caperberry (which wikipedia tells me was believed in Biblical times to have aphrodisiac properties) does appear in a number of modern English translations from the MT where others just go on about lack of desire.

    But what I more wanted to mention was the interesting fact that this more obscure verse is immediately followed by a more poshly-poetic one that I think has been the object of fairly frequent literary allusions in the Anglophone world at least, and not just in the title of that James novel, viz. (to stick with KJV): “Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.”

  10. Löw, Die Flora der Juden, has a lot to say about capers, including (I, 326):

    Hebr. heißt die Frucht (BACHER Perser p. 34 hebr.) אביונה (nach der Massora): ʾabijjōnā,*) aramäisch: buṭṭitā. Der hebr. Name hat mit der √אבה begehren, zu der man ihn stellt, nichts zu tun (WETZSTEIN zu DELITZSCH Koh. 450) und ist auch kein hetitisches Lehnwort (GRIMME ZDMG. 68, 269). Es dürfte Deminutivform von חבית, Fäßchen sein, wie חביונות Kel. 2, 2, dafür אביונית (LA. אוב׳ KRAUSS Arch. 2, 277, auch Hg. 7ᵇ Ven. Gaon. HARK. 196 אבינות und אוב׳). Hg. 56₂₃ HILD. אבִיוֹנות. EPSTEIN Hal. Pesuk., Frankfurter Jhrb. XII 107₂₁ אביאנות. Hieronymus: abiona. Hieher gehört vielleicht der punische Name ερβιαραουθ (LA. — λους und ερβαιαθουμ Pf. 406).

    Für die Bibelstelle, Koh. 12, 5 ותפר האביונה hat F. PERLES Anal. 30 ותפרה vorgeschlagen. Da aber ʾabijōnā nicht der Strauch, sondern die Frucht ist, kann vom Blühen nicht die Rede sein, obwohl „das Blühen des Mandelbaumes“ dafür spricht. „Die Kapernfrucht platzt“ (BUDDE) wird wohl die richtige Übersetzung sein. Die beerenartige Schote platzt bei der Reife (siehe oben zu צלף S. 323): es geht mit ihr zu Ende. Dabei kommen die rotgoldenen Samenkörner zum Vorschein (WETZSTEIN a.O. 451).

    * Assaf nennt irrigerweise den Strauch so p. 144. 172. VENETIANER.

    I didn’t track down the references. There are other Hebrew and Aramaic terms for capers, the plant and the fruit, all of which Löw discusses in exhaustive detail.

  11. John Cowan says

    the silver cord be loosed

    That at least I understand: it is the cord that joins body and soul and that is broken by death. Though whether this interpretation came earlier or later I don’t know.

  12. jack morava says

    I’m surprised no one has cited `The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ by Hawthorne Abendsen….

  13. From the context, I suspect that חָגָב ḥāgāḇ refers not to ‘grasshopper’ at all, but to a plant (maybe one that fruits, then dies?) and is either an obscure word, or a misspelled one. The etymology for the ‘grasshopper’ word is unknown.

  14. Tangentially, הַשָּׁקֵד – or rather its nearly identical Punic counterpart – was borrowed into Berber during the classical period, and survives in at least one Kabyle variety as isiɣid “almond”.

  15. The silver cord is the mystical tether by which someone remains attached to their native plane while astrally projecting or whatever. I don’t think it’s a particularly venerable piece of terminology, probably having originated among late-nineteenth-century Theosophists. I learned about silver cords from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. (Woe unto the group of Astral travelers who cross paths with a party of Githyanki knights!) Literal “Silver Belts” for dimensional travel and return also manifest the trope in the 1931 science fantasy story “Devil Crystals of Arret” by Hal K. Wells. (It’s not a great story, and I’m only familiar with it because it came up as a possible answer to a story identification question on Stack Exchange. However, I think the allusion is interesting.)

  16. I’m surprised no one has cited `The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ by Hawthorne Abendsen….

    Indeed. What took you so long? (☺)

  17. jack morava says

    Too many hobbyhorses to ride at once… <3

  18. הַשָּׁקֵד – or rather its nearly identical Punic counterpart – was borrowed into Berber during the classical period, and survives in at least one Kabyle variety as isiɣid “almond”.

    It’s interesting that the sibilant in Kabyle isiɣid is s /s/ and not c /ʃ/. I learn from Blažek 2014 that Berber /s/ from Punic š can also be seen in a widespread Berber word for ‘cucumber’ (or sometimes rather ‘Armenian cucumber’ (Arabic فقّوس faqqūs, قثّاء qiṯṯāʾ)?): Central Moroccan aγessim, Siwi aḫassim, Tahaggart taγǝssimt, etc. This would reflect a Punic plural *qšʾm ‘cucumbers’, equivalent to Hebrew קִשּׁוּאִים qiššûʾîm ‘cucumbers’ (Num 11:5).

    If I had ever seen Berber forms cited before as evidence fitting into the constellation of facts in favor of the generally accepted view that the pronunciation of Phoenician and Punic 𐤔 š (the reflex of Proto-Semitic *ṯ, , and ) was /s/, then I had forgotten all about it.

    However, is it known whether a */ʃ/ contrasting with */s/ existed in the Berber varieties in contact with Punic at the appropriate time? From a quick look at Kossmann 2020 ‘Proto-Berber phonological reconstruction: An update’, I gather that there is not much secure evidence for the reconstruction of a Proto-Berber */ʃ/ (changing his opinion from Kossmann 1999 Essai sur la phonologie du proto-berbère, p. 225 : ‘Tout de même, il y a un nombre suffisant de mots, probablement non expressifs, où š est attesté dans plusieurs parlers. De ce fait, il est nécessaire de reconstruire š en proto-berbère comme une consonne de fréquence basse.’)

    It’s also interesting to learn that it is claimed that the Tifinagh letter ⵛ with the value /ʃ/ continues Phoenician 𐤔 š, although I have no expertise allowing me to evaluate this proposal. (If this is in fact the origin of ⵛ, perhaps the discrepancy is due to the adoption of the Phoenician alphabet for writing other languages of North Africa sometime in mid 1st millennium BCE, earlier than the adoption of loanwords for ‘almond’ and ‘cucumber’, at a time when š was a more retracted [s̠]?)

    (For LH readers who are curious, cognates of Hebrew šāqēd ‘almond’ are listed here, and those of the ‘cucumber, melon’ word here.)

  19. John Cowan says

    There is a Wikipedia article “Silver cord” (which has the highest density of [questionable source] and [citation needed] tags I’ve ever seen) that gives no dates but does claim that modern use of the term is traceable to this passage.

  20. Yeah, that Wikipedia page is awful, but I don’t think it’s atypical for a page about a minor piece of woo terminology. So I don’t trust Wikipedia on the history of silver cirr, although I would be very surprised if the ultimate origin was not that passage from Ecclesiastes.

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