The Etymology of Totafot

By Rand, Herbert | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

The Etymology of Totafot


Rand, Herbert, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


FOR MORE THAN TWO CENTURIES, THE Hebrews lived in the region of the Nile Delta, first as invited guests of the Pharaoh and, later, as slaves. During that time, the Hebrew and the Egyptian languages borrowed words from each other. More than three hundred words and expressions that are included in the Hebrew Bible, some intact and some in modified form, have been recognized by Egyptologists as Egyptian loan-words.(1)

Some words, borrowed intact from another language, may be given an equivalent pronunciation. The Englishman speaks of Paris but the Frenchman pronounces the word as Paree. The dialect spoken in Lower Egypt differed from the way some words were pronounced in Upper Egypt, so that an Israelite living in the region of the Delta would hear a word pronounced in the Memphite dialect, which differed from that of Thebes. For example, the letter written as "p" would be pronounced as "f" in the Delta.(2)

The word "totafot" appears for the first time in the Bible in Ex. 13:16. Its pronunciation was fixed by the Massoretes (6th -- 10th Century, C.E., rabbinic scholars), who inserted diacritical points in the text for vowel sounds. Both the Hebrew and ancient Egyptian written language were consonantal; the vowels were supplied by usage.(3) The Hebrew pronunciation of an Egyptian loan-word is a key as to how that word was spoken in Egyptian.

Totafot (hereinafter "the T word") has been interpreted as frontlets because, according to the Biblical text, it was to be worn "between the eyes." It was translated as phylacteries in Greek (amulets), and as tefillin (a post-Biblical, rabbinic word which connotes an aid in prayer). The etymology of the T word "is not clear," according to Cassuto;(4) it is regarded as an Egyptian loan-word according to Yahuda,(5) who offers no evidence to support that suggestion. Budge(6) states that no one seems to know the meaning of the word. Speiser says that, of the various etymologies that are proposed, none has been found satisfactory, but he makes the suggestion, which even he regards as "theoretical and speculative," that the origin of the T word will be found in Sumerian or Akkadian. He concludes that the word can never be altogether divested of mystery.(7)

Thus far, scholars have not been looking in the area from which a likely answer might be expected. All directional signs point to the Book of Exodus and to the impact of the culture and religion of Egypt on the Israelites.(8)

The T word is a coined word which had no prior existence before it appeared in Exodus. It is a dual-formed word known to grammarians as a reduplication -- where the sound of the first syllable is duplicated in the corresponding syllable of the added word. An example in English would be "hocus-pocus." The T word is Hebrew but the background is Egyptian. It would have been recognized at, or about, the time of the Exodus by anyone familiar with both languages and with the religion and gods of Lower Egypt. The two elements of the T word are Thoth and Ptah, the names of the primary gods in the Memphis cosmogony. Thoth was sounded without change, whether written in Hebrew or in Egyptian.

In the last line and elsewhere in the Hieroglyphic section of the Rosetta Stone (in the British Museum), one can observe a square, a semi-circle, and a twisted rope -- a combination which expresses the name of a god whose name appears in Greek letters having the sound of Phot, in the Greek section of the text.

There is no sure way of knowing exactly how the vowel sound in Ptah was pronounced in Egypt, but the long O sound of the Hebraicized word is, doubtless, the way an Israelite in Goshen would have recognized it as the name of the chief god of Memphis. Moreover, in writing the word Ptah in Hebrew in its position in the T word, the rules of Hebrew grammar (as well as the Memphis dialect) would substitute the sound of f for the letter p. See Gen. 41:44, where the word "Pharaoh" appears twice, once with the dot in the first Hebrew letter for the hard sound of p and, again, without the dot, giving the first letter the sound of f. …

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