Etymology of Modern Hebrew: Memory

Yom Hashoah v’Hagevurah (Holocaust and Heroism Day) and Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror) fall in the Hebrew month of Nissan. 

Hebrew words are built upon root letters—a shoresh (שורש, “root”)and are formed in such ways where small manipulations can create many different but related meanings. Israel’s memorial days offer an opportunity to see the adaptive use of Hebrew rootsmost of them ancient in originfor modern usage. Below are some of the words which are commonplace during the days of remembrance in Israel.


Zikaron (זכרון)

The three-letter root of this Hebrew word zikaron (זִכָּרוֹן) is ז-כ-ר. These three letters alone also spell out the word zachar (זָכַר, “male”). Other words coming from the same root include mazkir / mazkirah (מַזְכִּיר/מַזְכִּירָה, “secretary”), mazkeret (מַזְכֶּרֶת, “souvenir”), and tizkoret (תִּזְכֹּרֶת, “reminder”).


1. It has been said that the Jewish People do not have history, but rather have memory. Does having zachar (“male”) at the root of the word zikaron (“memory”) mean that Jewish memory is gender-based (as in “HIS-story”)? Why might those two words be connected?

2. How do the words “secretary,” “souvenir,” and “reminder” connect to the word zikaron (“memory”)?


Beit Almin (בית עלמין)

Israeli soldier plants flag at an Israeli soldier's grave

On Yom Hazikaron, many people visit military cemeteries, with the official State ceremony taking place at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Soldiers place Israeli flags with a black ribbon on every grave so that no one is forgotten.

A modern Hebrew term for cemetary is beit almin (בֵּית עָלְמִין). It derives its root from the Aramaic term for cemetary, beit olamim (בֵּית עוֹלָמִים).

This phrase with the root ע-ל-מ, shares those root letters with some other words, including olam (עוֹלָם, “world”), elem/alma (עֶלֶם/עַלְמָה, “a young man/woman”), l’hei’aleim (לְהֵיעָלֵם, “to disappear”) and l’hitaleim (לְהִתְעַלֵם, “to ignore”).

Photo Credit: Wikimedia


1. In what ways are these words connected?

2. Why might these words all share the same root letter?



TORCH: משואה

Masuah (משואה)


In both Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron ceremonies, it is customary to light a memorial torch—in the same way that it is customary to light a memorial candle in homes and graveside.

The three-letter Hebrew root for this word, strangely, is נ-ש-א (note that the first letter of the root, נ, is not found in this word). There are other words that share this root and you might be surprised by what they are:

The word masa (מַשָּׂא, “burden”) has the same root, as does the word masa’it (מַשָּׂאִית, “truck”). The Hebrew word for president (Nasi, נָשִׂיא) comes from this root, as does nisuim (נִשּׂוּאִים, “marriage”).

Photo credit: Wikimedia


Milchama (מלחמה)

While we continue to hope and pray for peace, these remembrance days exist because of war.

The shoresh of the word milchama are the letters ל-ח-מ. Sharing those root letters is the word lochem (לוֹחֶם, “fighter”). Other words with the same root include lechem (לֶּחֶם, “bread”) and lehalchim (לְהַלְחִים, “to weld or solder”).


Mishpachot Sh’kulot (משפחות שכולות)


As we remember the fallen, we also remember those who are living with loss.

The shoresh of sh’chol (שְכּוֹל, “bereaved”) is ש-כ-ל. Sharing this root is the word seichel (שֵׂכֶל, “intellect” or “common sense”). Another word is haskalah (השכלה, “education”), which in colloquial Hebrew refers to higher education, and is also the Hebrew term for the Haskalah (period of Jewish Enlightenment).


1. In what ways are these words connected?

2. Why might these words all share the same root letter?



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