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An Etymologist’s Take on Childbirth and Sabbath

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Today on Tablet, Allan Metcalf takes a look at etymologist Gerald Cohen’s work in deciphering the fascinating origins of some pretty important everyday words. (You’ll never guess where “hot dog” and “shyster” come from.)

As bonus material, Metcalf sent along an explanation of Cohen’s collaboration with Nathan Süsskind, in which the two looked into biblical texts and developed some fascinating ideas:

Genesis 30: “She Shall Bear On My Knees” and “I Will Be Built Up.”

When Sarah asks Abraham and later Rachel asks Jacob to beget a child by her slave-girl, which she will then raise as hers, the words are “I’ll be built up by her.” Rachel also says: “She shall bear (children) on my knees.”

Süsskind explains, “precious experiences of untold generations were preserved in a ritual where a barren woman would seek to become fertile by receiving a child directly as it came out of the womb into her lap ‘on her knees,’ and raise it from that moment on.” That action (birth + raising the child) would “build her up,” that is, make a barren woman fertile.

“Today many infertile women have become fertile after adopting a baby and caring for it,” Süsskind writes. “It is still not sufficiently known even by gynecologists and adoption agencies. It needs to be shouted from the roof-tops: Most infertile women would become fertile (they would be built up) if they would take full care of a very young infant. Their ovaries would begin to ovulate and their periods would return . . . their wombs would be opened. But not if the care of the baby would be left to a nurse-maid.”

Jesus, The Super-Pharisee

In Mark 13, Jesus describes the horrors preceding the coming of the Messiah. Such will be the severity of the affliction “as was not from the beginning of creation,” and he advises his disciples to “pray that your flight (to the mountains) be not in the winter.” Meanwhile, in Matthew (24: 20) Jesus urges, “Pray ye that your flight be not in winter neither on the Sabbath day.”

Susskind comments, “Now, one may debate whether or not the words ‘neither on the Sabbath day’ were deliberately ‘edited out’ of Mark, but there can be no doubt on the authenticity of Matthew’s tradition. He didn’t interpolate these words – in direct contradiction to his own stories of Jesus breaking the Sabbath!

“Jesus, therefore, is saying that the Sabbath would make the pre-Messianic horrors even more horrible, apparently because in his practice the Sabbath should prevent the sufferers from doing anything to get relief. But even the strictest Pharisee preached that ‘danger to life suspends the Sabbath restrictions.’ Therefore, for a Pharisee these sufferings would not have been worsened because of the Sabbath. Jesus must therefore have been even stricter in the prohibitions of Sabbath work than the strictest Pharisee.”

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An Etymologist’s Take on Childbirth and Sabbath