There are many places in Rashi's commentary where he uses a foreign language to translate a word used in the Torah.

For example, Bereshit 6:14:

בכפר: זפת בלשון ארמי. ומצינו בתלמוד כופרא

With tar. This is the Aramaic word for tar. We find in the Talmud {Hebrew Ref} [for tar]

And Devarim 21:14:

לא תתעמר בה: לא תשתמש בה בלשון פרסי קורין לעבדות ושימוש, עימראה. מיסודו של רבי משה הדרשן למדתי כן:

You may not exploit her. You may not utilize her. In the Persian language, servitude and utilization is verbalized as imra'ah. From the commentary of R' Moshe Hadarshan I have learned this.

However, Rashi is translating a word in Lashon Hakodesh (Biblical Hebrew) using a word in another language. How does he know that the word is the same, and it is not a false cognate?

Rashi does say (Bereshit 11:1) that the original language was Lashon Hakodesh (Before G-d mixed up all the languages - Bereshit 11:6-9), but that obviously doesn't mean that every word that sounds the same as a word in Lashon HaKodesh means the same thing.

So the question remains, How does Rashi know that the words in a different language mean the same thing as the same words in Lashon HaKodesh?

  • 2
    Perhaps it would be instructive to see the words of R. Moshe hadarshan. They might contain the etymological principle he used in this identification.
    – WAF
    Commented Oct 25, 2011 at 22:21
  • @WAF unfortunately, Wikipedia tells us that his work on the Torah is only known through quotes in other sources, mainly Rashi. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_ha-Darshan - here's one of the books that collects the works of Moshe HaDarshan that's mentioned on the wikipedia page, I haven't had a chance to look at it yet: hebrewbooks.org/34038
    – Menachem
    Commented Oct 25, 2011 at 23:02
  • 1
    See also the comments of the Or HaChayim to VaYikra 13:30.
    – b a
    Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 22:41

3 Answers 3


The first thing to clarify is that Rashi is not making these connections on his own, they are sourced from his Rabbis, the Talmud, and other places.

With regards to the word Totofot, which Rashi Devarim 6:8 says is made up of two words, one Kafti and one African (Rashi is quoting Midrash Tanchumah Bo 14, Sanhedrin 4B, Menachot 34B), the Chumash Shai LaMorah brings an explanation from the Be'er Mayim Chaim.

He says that we're not learning Halacha from non-Lashon Kodesh words. Rather, the Rabbis had a tradition that these foreign words were really Lashon Kodesh words that had remained by the non-Jews from before G-d split up all the nations during the tower of Bavel, when all the nations still spoke Lashon Hakodesh.

  • +1 for the first two paragraphs, at least, as they answer the question asked.
    – Tamir Evan
    Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 14:07
  • @Menachem this explanation from the Be'er Mayim Chaim may be a source for the answer which I suggested a while back
    – Danield
    Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 20:46


The Talmud in Sanhedrin is concerned with the origins of the word Totafos, clearly it has no Jewish origin. The Talmud declares that Totafos is a compound word that combines two foreign words. The word Tot in Afriki (I assume Africa) means two, and the word Pas in the Coptic language means two. The Tefilin on the head has four compartments. Thus, tat-pas or totafos, means four.

From this I would conjecture that there are other words in the Torah that are foreign in nature. Rashi HaKodosh helped illuminate these difficult words.

  • 1
    Since when is Rashi "HaKodosh"?
    – Curiouser
    Commented Oct 25, 2011 at 22:23
  • But how does he know which words are foreign words? He knows Totafot, because the Talmud says it, but what about the rest of them?
    – Menachem
    Commented Oct 26, 2011 at 1:00
  • 3
    I grew up with "Zogt Der Heilige Rashi" which translates to Rashi HaKodosh. Commented Oct 26, 2011 at 1:01
  • 1
    If there is no basis in Hebrew, then it has to be foreign. Commented Oct 26, 2011 at 1:02
  • 1
    I don't see that it's the Talmud in Sanhedrin that "is concerned with the origins of the word Totafos". Sanhedrin 4b seems concerned with where we learn that "[t]he Tefilin on the head has four compartments" from. It'd be better to say :"Rashi on Devarim 6:8 is concerned with the origins of the word Totafos, clearly it has no Jewish origin ...".
    – Tamir Evan
    Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 14:02

I do not have a source for this answer, but here's my theory about this in any case:

All words in the Torah (including 'Totafot') are in Lashon HaKodesh.

The whole Torah is in Lashon HaKodesh... so why would there be foreign unholy words in the Torah??

Ok, so why does Rashi say that the word is from Persian, Afriki, Aramaic, Greek or whatever??

Well, I would say that originally the word in question was originally Lashon HaKodesh, but, at some time Jews stopped using that particular word (maybe because it was rarely used). As time passed the meaning of word became unclear to (most) Jews.

So where does the Persion, Afriki come in??

Well, until the tower of Babel incident, all humans spoke Lashon HaKodesh. Then, at Migdal Bavel, Hashem confused (BilBel = Babel) their languages. It seems that the meaning here is that Hashem scrambled the languages together somewhat (using Lashon HaKodesh as the base language) as apposed to inventing a new language for each nation. Notice the example that Rashi bring on Bershis 11:7

One asked for a brick, and the other one passed him mortar

well, this seems to mean that the other guy did sort of understand the first guy, just that the word for brick in the first language became the word for mortar in the second.

That's why we see that different langues are linked, and that's why we can say that ALL languages link back to Lashon HaKodesh.

So, in cases where Rashi couldn't find any source for a word, Rashi presumed that the word was adopted (at Babel) by another language, and then - using the context of that word in the verse - Rashi looked through other languages to see if they have a word - with that meaning which looks like the word as it appears in the Torah. (unless some earlier source had already made the connection - like R Moshe HaDarshan)

  • This seems like a farfetched idea to prove one point that nobody disputes (that everyone at one time spoke a single language) and another point that nobody has suggested needs to be defended (that every word in the Torah is in Hebrew - this is actually not true). Torah LeMoshe MiSinai does not have to mean that HaShem made up the word or the concept of Totafoth. It could very well be that, at that time, a thing known as Totafoth was worn by the noble and/or priestly class in society. (cont...)
    – Seth J
    Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 2:34
  • (cont...) Since we are a Mamlecheth Kohanim VeGoy Kadosh, it is perfectly reasonable for HaShem to assign us to wear that attire as part of our "uniform", much like Techeleth and Tzitzith generally. Just because society at large today doesn't recognize the head gear or the name of it, does not mean it was a new concept created at Sinai. Rashi could very well have been commenting for exactly that reason - by his day it was unknown, but he had a Mesorah that could answer the question.
    – Seth J
    Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 2:35
  • @seth so how do you answer this question: What is Rashi proving with words in different languages???
    – Danield
    Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 6:42
  • @seth also, apart from 'YGar Sahadutah' - which is a direct quote of Lavan - which other words are not Lashon HaKodesh?
    – Danield
    Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 6:44
  • @seth one more thing: did the Jews who left Egypt speak Afriki, Persion and Greek ? If not - why would the Torah contain these languages?
    – Danield
    Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 9:27

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