Davar and dever: Hebrew and the plague

Teaser image of Etgar ordering his speech balloon for Ep. 12-1

It’s a bit off-topic from “Milhamah” stuff, but the coronavirus inspired some recent articles on Hebrew and plagues. The connection makes sense, as the word davar (for “word” or “thing”) shares the same ד-ב-ר root as dever (“plague”). The root already debuted in the “Milhamah” comic.

But David Curwin, author of the Balashon Hebrew blog, writes that the two words’ origins differ despite the common root:

More surprisingly, it is not cognate with the word hadbara – “extermination.” That word comes from a third Hebrew root, which meant “to follow behind” or “to push forward.” This meaning led to the word midbar – “desert,” which was a place where cattle were pushed forward to graze. In the more intense hifil form of the verb, hidbir, “pushing forward” became “subdue, overwhelm,” and from there came the meaning “to eliminate, exterminate.” (“Yadber sonenu,” we recite in the Prayer for the I.D.F., asking God to “subdue our enemies.”)

Meanwhile, Daniel Kennemer writes in The Times of Israel about the etymology behind the root ר-ש-ף. It can mean fire, plague, birds, demons and even a Canaanite god named Reshef or Rishpu:

“He spread epidemics and death. […] He is represented with a shield, a club and a lightning bolt,” according to one summary.

Lastly, author Jeremy Benstein writes about the linguistics of infection related to the root ד-ב-ק, tying it to Deut. 28:21. He also notes the root’s sexual and secular meanings, as well as spiritual ones such as “spiritual closeness with God” and the antithesis of:

when an evil spirit clings to a person, a sort of demonic possession, known as a דיבוק dybbuk, made popular in the play by S. An-sky of that name.

Whether our modern anxieties call to plagues, pagan gods or demons, the sickness of our age is obvious. It’s all the more reason why we need heroes armed with candor and dedication.