This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

What's in a Name?*

A friend recently asked me to verify a theory he had heard, to the effect that the name of the Spanish town Toledo had originally been derived from the Hebrew Toledot, which denotes "generations" or "history." While the idea immediately struck me as a historical impossibility, I felt that it nonetheless was deserving of further investigation.

A quick glance at the Encyclopedia Judaica did not uncover any support for that explanation of the name, but it did mention that a similar tradition was recorded by one of Spanish Jewry's Jewish luminaries, the noted statesman and exegete Don Isaac Abravanel. Abravanel reports that the city of Toledo had been named by Jewish exiles following the destruction of the first Temple. The name by which it is usually referred in medieval Hebrew writings is "Tulitela" which Abravanel derived from the Hebrew root "tiltul," which denotes wandering or exile.

The explanation is reminiscent of many similar traditions, all of which reflect the Jews' firm conviction that their communities dated back to hoary antiquity. Accordingly there could be no doubt that Jews had been responsible for first assigning the names of the respective places. A similar theory derives the name "Polin" (Poland) from the two Hebrew words "po lin" "Rest here for the night!" reportedly uttered by early Jewish immigrants from Central Europe upon first reaching that land.

Though none of these supposed etymologies is likely to be historically authentic, it is true that some locales in Spain do bear Hebrew-sounding names. For example, the name of Cadiz is generally believed to be derived from the same root as the Hebrew "kadosh," "holy." The connection however is not a Jewish one, but goes back to the ancient Phoenicians, the great maritime empire centred in what today is Lebanon. The Phoenicians spoke a language akin to Hebrew and built colonies throughout the Mediterranean basin as far west as Spain.

Another important Phoenician port was Carthage, or as it was called in its original Semitic form "Keret Hadashah," "New Town," a popular name for ancient cities, equivalent to the Greek "Neopolis," which in Italian became "Naples" and in Arabic "Nablus" (i.e., Shechem).

Carthage of course posed a serious threat to the imperial aspirations of Rome and came close to overcoming Rome altogether. In light of later Jewish suffering at the hands of "the wicked empire," the defeat of Carthage should be viewed as something of a historical tragedy for Jews.

An old history teacher of mine liked to point out a further dimension of the campaign: Had Hannibal succeeded in overrunning Rome, then chances are that the entire western world would today be speaking a language that is substantially identical to Hebrew!

The Talmudic Rabbis enjoyed suggesting Hebrew explanations for the names of the cities in which they lived, even if the names were obviously of Greek or Latin origin. For example, the name Tiberias, the Galilean town built by Herod to honour the emperor Tiberius, is explained in the Talmud as referring either to its beautiful view (tovah ra'ayatah), or to the fact that it sits at the navel (tibor) of the Land of Israel.

The process could work in both directions, and was indulged in by non-Jews as well. The first Greek-speaking travellers to Jerusalem were so impressed by the religious character of that city, dominated as it was by the Temple and the priests, that they never doubted that the name Yerushalayim came from the Greek "hiero" meaning "holy."

Or to take a more recent example, a movement in nineteenth-century England wished to trace the origins of the ancient Britons back to the "ten lost tribes" of Israel. For these followers of the "British Hebrew" movement there was no question that the very name "British" was of Hebrew origin, a combination of the words brit (covenant) and ish (man)!

The quest for Hebrew etymologies did not cease with the migration of Jews to America though these were often voiced with tongue firmly in cheek. The very name "America" appears in some parodies of American Jewish life as Amma Reqa, "the empty people." I personally have always been impressed at the appropriateness of the name of a popular Jewish seaside resort: Me-ami, "waters of my people."

Closer to home, the Jewish agricultural settlement at Edenbridge, Saskatchewan was intended by its founders to be read as "Yidden-bridge," the closest that the Canadian government would allow to an explicit reference to its ethnic make-up.

And who knows if, when the first Jewish exiles arrived at the junction of the Bow and Elbow rivers, they were not subjected to a volley of hostile arrows, causing them to name the place Kol Girei, (later: Calgary), Aramaic for "all the arrows?"

Presumably, their brethren to the north had a more fortunate experience, inspiring them to dub their new home "the land that He has given" --in Hebrew: "Adama natan" (which later became "Edmonton").

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, December 18 1990, p. 12.