When an Israeli novelist creates a character with a fiery personality and a name to go with it he has taken the opportunity to teach an interesting Hebrew lesson about fire. In David Grossman’s recent novel, The Zigzag Kid (1993, English 1997), his heroes father and son are called Feuerberg, in German, “fire mountain,” i.e., volcano. When Grossman finds it necessary to give a Hebrew version of the name “Uncle Feuerberg” to one of peripheral characters, he is faced with an embarrassment of riches. Shall he use the common word (esh), fire, or shall he reach perhaps for (delekah), or (serefah), or (tav’erah)? He might also consider (lapid), torch, or (medurah), campfire, or even, reaching back to the Latin word for hearth, (focus).

That Grossman chooses to name his character (dod shilhav), Uncle Shilhav and to call his character’s activity(shilhuv), “Shilhavization,” from the root (lamed, heh, vet), flame, leads us to some interesting insights into the Hebrew language.

We discover that the verbal form of the root (lamed, heh, vet), flame, quite likely originally meant “to be thirsty.” It is easy to see how that led to “to burn with thirst,” and from there to “to blaze fiercely.” It is also perhaps not too difficult, with a bit of imagination, to see how the word (lahav), flame, came to mean, in addition, the blade of a sword. Not surprisingly, a unit of the Israeli army, playing on this coincidence of vocabulary, has on its shield both a sword and a flame. (That it also has an olive branch tells us not a little about Israeli culture.)

Speaking of weaponry, modern arsenals often come equipped with a piece of machinery whose Hebrew name is taken from our root. The word for flame-thrower, (lahavyor), is made of two words, (lahav), flame, and (yoreh), shoot.

(shalhevet), torch, another word deriving from our root, has two interesting extensions, one containing God’s name and one doing God’s work. The first is the word for “powerful flame,” (shalhevet-yah), literally, a “God-flame,” a phrase we first come across in Song of Songs (8:6). The latter refers to an experimental Jewish Day High School in Los Angeles, California, Shalhavet, which carries a torch for encouraging and enabling students to make ethical choices independently.

There is another way of “burning” with our root that has nothing to do with physical fire. You will find this in an expression such as (ani nilhav me’od me-ha-tokhnit ha-hadashah), “I’m very enthusiastic about the new program.” Or, a newspaper might report that the speaker at the convention (hilhiv et shom’av), “fired the imagination of his audience.” In Hasidism, profound joy in God rooted in an inner fervor is known as (hitlahavut); the term, meaning literally "enthusiasm," may be translated "religious ecstasy." Finally, the word (hitlavut), enthusiasm, from the (l-h-v, flame) rootword, makes its way into modern Israeli slang: teenagers express their scorn for excessive displays of enthusiasm or braggadocio with the words: (hu mitlahev ka-zeh), "He's so enthusiastic!" How dreadfully uncool.


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: http://www.ivrit.org

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