Holy hyssop is za’atar!


Just before the Israelites escaped from their cruel Egyptian taskmasters in 1447 BCE, they were given instructions to paint lamb blood on their doorframes using אזוב (ezov).

וּלְקַחְתֶּ֞ם אֲגֻדַּ֣ת אֵזֹ֗וב וּטְבַלְתֶּם֮ בַּדָּ֣ם אֲשֶׁר־בַּסַּף֒ וְהִגַּעְתֶּ֤ם אֶל־הַמַּשְׁקֹוף֙ וְאֶל־שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֔ת מִן־הַדָּ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּסָּ֑ף וְאַתֶּ֗ם לֹ֥א תֵצְא֛וּ אִ֥ישׁ מִפֶּֽתַח־בֵּיתֹ֖ו עַד־בֹּֽקֶר׃

The Greek Septuagint renders the word אזוב as ὕσσωπος (hyssop)… but the Septuagint is notorious for its numerous errors.

A number of texts in Ancient Babylonian Aramaic survive from when Daniel was the head of the Magi there, including one which translates a portion of Exodus. What Aramaic word is used to render אזוב? It is a word with which you may be familiar if you know Middle Eastern cooking. The Aramaic word is צעאתאר-יהודי, i.e. Israeli oregano. This word came to be adopted into Hebrew by 536 BCE and was later truncated to צעאתאר (za’atar).

Many centuries later, when the Arab language developed from a dialect of Aramaic to a language of its own, it also adopted the same Aramaic word already in use in Hebrew. Arabs more often use this word to connote a blend of spices containing oregano, marjoram, sumac, and thyme… but the Hebrew usage continues to preserve the original meaning shared with אזוב.

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