What's in a Word?

For the week ending 23 September 2023 / 8 Tishrei 5784

Enter the Garden (Part 1 of 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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When Hashem created Adam on the very first Rosh HaShannah, He put Adam in a place called Gan Eden (“the Garden of Eden”) to cultivate and guard (Gen. 2:15). On the selfsame day, Adam sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge and was booted out from that idyllic utopia. Ever since then, man has strived to perfect himself and the world in a bid to return to that blissfully ideal paradise. In this two-part essay, we focus on the word gan (“garden/park/orchard”) and how it may differ from its ostensible synonyms pardes and bustan. In doing so, we explore the etymologies of the words in question and discuss related cognates that can help us shed light on their core meaning. [For more on the word eden and its apparent synonyms oneg and pinuk, see my earlier essay “Indulging in Pleasure” (June 2019).]

Inflections of the word gan appears 41 times in the Bible (according to Even-Shoshan’s concordance). For example, the Bible refers multiple times to “the Garden of Hashem” (Gen. 13:10, Isa. 51:3, Ezek. 28:13, 31:8-9) and elsewhere refers to “the Garden of the King” (II Kgs. 25:4, Jer. 39:4, 54:7, Neh. 3:15). Cognates of this Hebrew word are also evident in various other Semitic languages, like Aramaic (gena), Akkadian (gannatu), Ugaritic (gn), and Arabic (janna). My cousin Yoninah Chagit Klein pointed out to me that the Arabic name of the West Bank city Jenin is actually a cognate of the Hebrew word gan. It’s no wonder that a 2023 IDF military operation in Jenin was dubbed “Bayit V'Gan” (literally, “house and garden”) — which is incidentally also the name of a prestigious neighborhood in Jerusalem. Scholars have identified the modern-day Jenin as the site of the Biblical Beit HaGan, to whence Ahaziah fled when running away for Jehu (II Kgs. 9:27), and possibly the Canaanite town Gina mentioned in the Amarna letters.

Although gan does not appear in the Mishnah, its cognate ginah appears numerous times in the Mishnah (Kilayim 1:2, Terumot 8:3, 9:5, Maasrot 3:10, 5:8, Shabbat 9:2, Eruvin 2:3, Ketubot 11:4, Bava Metzia 10:4, Bava Batra 1:2, 6:1, 7:2, Eduyot 2:4, Avodah Zarah 4:3, Ohalot 5:7, Uktzin 1:2). In Modern Hebrew, the term gan also refers to a “kindergarten” as a sort of calque from the from word kindergarten, which literally means “children’s garden” (in German).

The classical Hebrew lexicographers see the root of gan as the same thing as the root of the term haganah (“protecting/guarding”), with biliteralists like Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) tracing both to the biliteral root GIMMEL-NUN, and triliteralists like Ibn Janach (990–1050) and Radak (1160–1235) tracing both to the triliteral root GIMMEL-NUN-NUN. Anyone who has even some semblance of a green thumb can appreciate the connection in light of the fact that a “garden” is something that one would wish to “guard” and “protect,” so that its flora may flourish and not get destroyed. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 2:8) even explicitly notes that just like the Hebrew gan relates to the Hebrew haganah, so does the English word garden relate to the English word guard (see below)!

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) also makes this etymology explicit in his work Cheshek Shlomo, when analyzing the two-letter root GIMMEL-NUN. In that work, Rabbi Pappenheim submits that that root’s core meaning is “protecting/guarding,” with the verbs related to haganah like yagen (Isa. 31:5) and migen (Gen. 14:20) referring to the act of “protecting/guarding.” The most obvious tributary of this meaning is the word magen (“shield”), a tool used by fighters for protecting themselves. But our word, gan, is another off-shoot of this idea, because gan denotes a protected patch of land that has been designed as a “garden” for the cultivation of flora and, is thus “protected” by physical barriers (like fences or walls) from the treading feet of intruders who might ruin the garden.

Taking this a step further, Rabbi Pappenheim actually sees two more Hebrew words as tributaries of gan: The word agan (Ex. 24:6, Song of Songs 7:3) refers to a “container,” but Rabbi Pappenheim clarifies that it does not refer to just any container; rather, it refers specifically to the sort of container that one might use for watering a garden. Hence, the very word for this container is derived from the word gan. Additionally, Rabbi Pappenheim argues that the word niggun (“melody”) also derives from gan, because a niggun denotes a harmonious variety of musical sounds that mimics the variety of flora that grow within a garden.

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) adds that just as a “garden” is something precious that is hidden away from people who are denied access, so does a ganav (“thief”) hide himself to engage in his thievery clandestinely. Of course, in Rabbi Pappenheim’s etymological system, the word ganav cannot derive from GIMMEL-LAMMED, because biliteral roots can only be combined with the letters HEY, ALEPH, MEM, NUN, TAV, YOD, or VAV to create a triliteral root. But Rabbi Marcus understood that biliteral root can combine with any letter to form a triliteral root.

In his work Yerios Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim takes a different approach altogether to the word gan — tracing it to the monoliteral root GIMMEL. He explains the core meaning of that root as “softening/melting.” There is ample precedent for seeing the letter GIMMEL as an etymological root in its own right in Menachem Ibn Saruk's Machberet Menachem and in Rashi (to Zeph. 3:18 and Lam. 1:4).

But Rabbi Pappenheim takes this idea a few steps further and offers a whole litany of terms that are derived from this meaning of GIMMEL: nemigah/hitmogeg ("melting" in a physical and metaphorical sense), yagon ("sorrow/sadness" by which one's heart becomes soft and melts away), niggun (because a musical "tune" or "melody" has the power to soften one's heart and melt away one's sorrows), gay ("valley," because this topographical area has especially soft and absorbent ground, making it particularly fertile), gat ("winepress," which is used to soften and smash grapes), gigit (the "container" into which grapes are placed after having been pressed in the gat), magen ("shield," a sort of armor that was often made from a soft piece of animal skin/hide), ge'ah ("high/haughty," because the growth necessary to achieve such heights stems from one's amenability or flexibility towards change one's current state and growing upwards), and gag ("roof," derived from ga'ah because it is the "highest" part of a building). Finally, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that gan refers also derives from this monoliteral root because a "garden" typically grows in a tract of land wherein the soil is especially soft and conducive to plant growth.

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras (an 18th century French grammarian and dayan) explains in Ohalei Yehuda that the word gan denotes a place with many trees whose shade can protect one from the sun. Alternatively, he explains that gan relates to the concept of “melting of the heart” in the sense that a garden is an enjoyable setting, such that its relaxing and leisurely aura — along with tis sweet smells — can help cure a person of his ailments. In this sense, a gan is the antidote to one whose heart was hitmogeg.

Interestingly, there are two more words related to gan which does not have an initial GIMMEL: Radak (to Ps. 8:16) explains that the word kanah (spelled with an initial KAF) is a form of the word gan (via the interchangeability of GIMMEL and KAF), even though most other commentators (including Radak himself in Sefer Shorashim) connect this word to the root KAF-(VAV)-NUN ("established/basis"). Likewise, Rabbi Hirsch (to Gen. 6:14) writes that the word ken (spelled with an initial KUF), which means “home/domicile” (often in the context of animals, like in kan tzipor “birdhouse/nest”) also relates to gan (as the letters GIMMEL and KUF are also interchangeable). The way he explains it, a ken is a more intense form of gan, because a gan is closed off by various barriers, while a ken is even more enclosed.

Earlier, we mentioned the notion that the English word garden is etymologically-related to the English word guard, just like in Hebrew gan and haganah share a root. However, this assertion does not pan out according to Modern Linguistics, which sees those two English words as derived from separate roots.

According to linguists, the English word garden derives from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root -gher, which originally meant "to enclose," and eventually begat many related words in all sorts of different languages. In the Germanic languages, this root gave way to the Frankish gard, which in Old English (in the Anglo-Saxon period) became yard. The Frankish gard was also borrowed by Old North French as gardin, which itself was subsequently borrowed by Middle English as garden. Both English words, yard and garden, refer to an area that is enclosed by a fence or barrier. In Latin, the g of -gher turned into an h, to become hort/hortus ("garden"). This gives us such words a horticulture and cohort, the latter of was shortened to court in French and then borrowed into English. So it comes out that the English word courtyard actually uses two words derived from the same PIE root. The English word orchard is also derived from two of these words, as its etymon ortgeard/orceard (in Old English) is ultimately a hybrid of the Vulgate Latin orto (derived from the earlier Latin hortus) and the Old English geard/yard.

In Russian, this PIE root is the forebear of the word grad, which means "group of houses enclosed within a wall or fortification"— in other words a "town" or "city." As you may have realized, -grad is also a common suffix in Russian place-names like Leningrad and Stalingrad. The Lithuanian town known as Novhardok in Jewish cultural memory is technically named NavŠ°gradak or Novogrudok, which means "New City" (just like Neustadt, Naples, Neapolis, Nablus, Newtown do), again using the -grad element.

On the other hand, the English word guard comes from the PIE root -wer ("to see/watch out"), which became garder in Old French. In this way, guard is more closely related to the English words ward and warden (derived from the proto-Germanic wardon) than to garden. Interestingly, the English word lord is actually a contraction of the Old English words hlaf ("bread, loaf") and weard ("keeper/guardian"), referring to the lord’s duty in protecting his constituents’ assets. (The phenomenon of the Germanic g becoming a w in Romance languages like French is also seen in the words guarantee and warranty.)

Before we conclude Part 1 of this essay, I wanted to offer another fascinating idea. In one particular passage in Song of Songs, a lover describes his beloved as a gan na’ul, “a closed garden” (Song of Songs 4:12). Based on this verse, rabbinic exegesis abound in expounding on how a woman might resemble a “garden,” with the rabbis even asserting that the word gan actually means “woman” (see Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer ch. 21, Shir HaShirim Rabbah §4:24). Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) explains this assertion as wordplay based on the similarity of the Biblical Hebrew word gan to the Greek word gini (gynaíka) which means “woman” (like in the second element of the word androginus, “androgynous”). According to linguists, that Greek word is derived the Proto-Indo-European root gen- which refers to the act of “giving birth.” It is the ultimate etymon of a whole bevy of English words, including: genesis, genus, genealogy, generation, generate, gentile, genetic, genital, gynecology, gender, gene, gonad, pregnant, and more. Kohut also notes that the Latin word hortus which literally means “garden” is also sometimes used euphemistically in reference to female genitalia (as also brought in Lewis and Short’s dictionary on Latin).

To Be Continued… In Part 2 of this essay, we will offer a look at another Biblical Hebrew word for “garden” — pardes. That installment will discuss the etymology of the word pardes and show it is not a perfect synonym of the word gan. We will also discuss the Talmudic Aramaic word bustan which also means “garden.”

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