Having words, calling names

What does an IDF captain have in common with a tyrant?

IDF soldiers in training  (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
IDF soldiers in training
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
The rank of captain in the IDF is “seren” in Hebrew. This is a borrowed word from the dialect of ancient Greek spoken by the Philistines. “Syrenos” (the form may not be exact) was the title of the rulers of the five Philistine cities. That word, in another and eventually dominant version of ancient Greek, “tyrannos” – ruler – later came to convey all the negative connotations of “tyrant.”
In the Bible, the term is used in the plural: “the rulers of the Philistines” in Hebrew “sarnei plishtim.” (The five Philistine cities were Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath.)
Major is “rav-seren” – and for those who grew up thinking “rav” meant rabbi, that’s a later development, in the Talmud. But in TaNaKH, the Hebrew Bible, it means very great in number or in strength, and in a title, it is assigned to the man in charge. “Ravseren” is the officer in charge of the captains.
More on army ranks at another time.
“Rav” as “rabbi” is really an Aramaic term used for “master.” “Rab” in Arabic means God. Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic are cognates or related languages, as revealed by the similarity of these words.
Many of us know people by either the first or last name of Kalman. It has a noble derivation.
Kalonymos was the name of a family noted in Jewish history as poets, writers of prayers or liturgy, and scholars. The family name was obviously found in Greece because the name consists of two Greek words: kalo and nymos = good name. In Hebrew, “Shem tov” means “good name,” and is a family name in Sephardi communities, particularly in Bulgaria. Shem tov is also used in Sephardi synagogues when calling a man to a Torah reading, “Stand, the good name XYZ….”
The family name Kellman is often considered a Yiddish form of Kalman. Another Yiddishization: Bunem or in Poland and Hungary, Binem. It usually goes in tandem with the Hebrew name “Simha,” (joyous or happy) as “Simha-Bunem.” Bunem is a contraction of “bon homme” or perhaps “bon nom” meaning respectively “good man” or “good name.” The latter could very well be another equivalent of “shem tov.”
The importance of a good name or reputation (someone who is appreciated for the good he does) can be traced directly to Ecclesiastes (Kohelet): “A good name is better than good oil.” This is usually taken to mean that the finest commodity, such as olive oil, is eventually consumed; but a good name lasts. It is a basic tenet in Judaism, even older than Kohelet, and stems as a corollary of the Ninth Commandment: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
This is understood as meaning not to harm the name of a person by spreading false rumors or gossip. To demonstrate the gravity of harming a good name, it follows on prohibiting of murder, adultery and theft in the Ten Commandments.
Everyone should know that “Kohen” is Hebrew for Temple priest. We use the term “Temple priest” because unlike various Christian sects, in Judaism, the priests’ major role was to serve in the Temple and take part in its daily rituals. The Kohen was not by virtue of his priesthood a father, confessor or personal guide.
Thus Cohen, Kohn, Kan and other variants are names of people descended from Kohanim. We have, by the way, never met a Kohen who changed his name to Priest, but in Italy there are families by the name of Sacerdote (pronounced phonetically sa-chair-dot-eh). Those of us who recall our Latin will immediately recognize the word’s origin (sacerdos).
The priesthood, like all hereditary roles, eventually became corrupt. Thus being blessed by a Cohen may be a mixed blessing.
But here this writer may already have transgressed bearing false witness by blaming the entire caste for the sins of the venal.
“Venal” is a powerful word meaning corrupt, open to bribery. We have not found a single English word that means “giver of bribes,” but Hebrew has meshahed.
Returning to Kohanim, the words “ateret kohanim” mean “the crown of priests.”
The name is used for a yeshiva in Jerusalem that is preparing for the coming of the Third Temple and purchases buildings in and around Jerusalem’s Old City.
Another fancy and very useful word in English is “matronymic.” This is from the Latin “mater” (mother) and the Greek “nymos” (name), which we met earlier with Kalonymos. An example of a matronymic is Surkis, derived from Sarah’s (Sura’s or Soro’s in Yiddish) and is a family name.
Sorkin is the same as Surkis. There are patronymics as well, such as Chaimowitz, meaning “son of Chaim,” Jankelewitz, “son of Yankel=Yaakov,” or Jacobovitz, which you can easily recognize.
An expert on the subject, Rabbi Robert Layman of Wyncote, Pennsylvania has written about the origin of “Yakhne”: “Several sources derive it from the Hebrew name Yohanna, the feminine form of Yohanan. I wrote an occasional column for the ‘Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia’ called ‘Speaking of Names,’ for about 20 years (1978-98).
I have also lectured on the topic, ‘What’s in a Jewish Name?’ In my lectures, I have discussed Yakhne, saying, ‘You know what a Yente is; a Yakhne is one on wheels.’ However, I haven’t discovered the origin of the pejorative association with the name Yakhne.”
First of all, thank you, Rabbi Layman.
Your title and last name seems to be opposites, since layman means “a person who is not ordained.” The good rabbi must be tired of hearing that, but we beg his indulgence: Layman is probably the way the immigration authorities wrote Lehmann. Second, every Joanna or Johanna we know are the opposite of Yakhne.
And for a happy ending, “Bayla” is the Yiddish form of Bella, meaning beauteous one, and in Yiddish, Shayna, from the Germanic source “schöne.”
Could the South African expression “Shame” as in “Shame! What a good child,” meaning, “Wow, what a great kid!” in American be a bastardization of the word “schöne” brought by German immigrants to South Africa? 
Any comments? Write to jerusalemreport@ gmail.com