Languages are logical, they say. The development of a language, on the other hand, often defies logic. How else can we account for the existence of four Hebrew words for "crown" in a culture that, to say the least, is wary of kingship?

Each of these four has developed in its own way. The Shabbat morning amidah prayer tells us that Moses wore a (kelil tif'eret), "crown of glory," on his head. This word has to do with wholeness, perfection and culminations. Perhaps that is why it is also related to the word for bride, (kallah), who, it appears, in ancient times, would wear a(kelil), crown, on her head during her (kelilut), nuptials.

A second term for crown is (atarah), from the verb (atar), "He encircled." The (atarah) was the crown given to King David.[1] In the Torah, the word is often found coupled with a word for beauty, as in the metaphorical expression(ateret tiferet), "crown of splendor." Obviously, a crown is an adornment of great significance. For example, the famous expression (ateret zekenim benei banim), "The crown of the elderly is their children's children."

(atarah) is not only a crown. It is more and more frequently a name given by proud parents to their daughter. The word also designates a rectangular-shaped piece of cloth adorned with silver or sometimes hand-embroidered and attached to the edge of the (tallit), prayer shawl. There are those who would argue that the most culturally significant use of the word (atarah) can be found on the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall in Jerusalem. There, in the always-bustling Cafe Atara, you can rub elbows with Israeli poets, novelists and journalists.

The least common word for crown is(nezer), the word used for the diadem brought to King Joash at his coronation.[2] Strangely, the word most associated with a crown, (keter), has nothing to do with David, Solomon or any other king of Israel. (keter) is found in Scripture only once – in the Book of Esther. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) tells us that while there are traditionally three (ketarim), "crowns," in Judaism – the crowns of Torah, priesthood, and kingship – there is a fourth crown that supersedes all three, and that is (keter shem tov), "the crown of the good name."

In modern Israel, (keter) is the very good name indeed of a distinguished publishing house. If you look at the spine of one of the volumes of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, you will see the letter "EJ" surmounted by a crown; the logo indicates that this important reference tool was published by the Keter Publishing Company.

Speaking of publishing, (koteret), a word derived from the root (khaf, tav, resh), denotes the headline of a newspaper or the title of a book. A slick, glossy magazine in Israel, now defunct, was called (koteret rashit), literally, "head headline." The word (koteret) can also be found in an architectural drawing, where it depicts the capital of a column in a building, and in the garden in the flower's corolla.

The verb(le-hakhtir) originally meant to surround, to encompass. This meaning had both a bad sense the wicked (makhtir) the righteous (Habbakuk 1:4) – and a good sense – the righteous (yakhtiru) the Lord (Psalm 142:8). This latter sense, which implies glorification, can also be found in modern Hebrew headlines, in the phrase, for example, (hikhtiru et malkat ha-yofi), "Beauty Queen Crowned."

A interesting false cognate is found in the Hebrew word for village leader,(mukhtar), which sounds as though it should come from our root, but doesn't. Rather, it derives from an entirely different Arabic root for chosen one, hence, "Mukhtar."

There are crowns and there are crowns. If you overhear an Israeli say (hu sam li keter zahav), be assured he is not talking about being the succussor to King David but rather about the gold crown his dentist put in his mouth. One of the most beautiful of the Sabbath table songs contains the verse (de'eh hokhmah le-nafshekha ve-hi kheter le-roshekha), "Seek knowledge for your soul and it will be a crown for your head."[3]

To see how quirkily languages develop, we need only remember a fifth Hebrew word for crown. During the British Mandate, one might speak of a(kra'un), "crown," a coin that was worth five shillings. That the word no longer exists is a logical development not only of language but of history as well.

footnotes [1] II Samuel 12:30 "The crown was taken from the head of their king and it was placed on David's head." [Back]
[2] II Kings 11:12 [Back]
[3] 10th-century Hebrew Spanish poet Dunash ben Labrat, in his Sabbath song, Dror Yikra [Back]

Dr. Joseph Lowin is Executive Director of the National Center for the Hebrew Language (NY). He has written extensively (in both popular and scholarly formats) on Jewish narrative, modern Jewish literature, and Hebrew language. His most recent book is Hebrewspeak: An Insider's Guide to the Way Jews Think (Jason Aronson, 1995). You can visit his site at

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