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I review in this paper the basic Hebrew planetary terminology. To complete the picture I accompany it with some historical and cultural context, and compare it to the planetary terminology in Arabic, the most widely spoken Semitic language.
The Role of Astronomy in Society and Culture
Proceedings IAU Symposium No. 260, 2009
D. Valls-Gabaud & A. Boksenberg, eds.
International Astronomical Union 2011
Hebrew names of the planets
Shay Zucker
Department of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences,
Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences,
Tel Aviv University, Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel
Abstract. I review in this paper the basic Hebrew planetary terminology. To complete the
picture I accompany it with some historical and cultural context, and compare it to the planetary
terminology in Arabic, the most widely spoken Semitic language.
Keywords. history and philosophy of astronomy
1. Intro duction
As part of the International Year of Astronomy activities in Israel, a public competition
was announced, whereby the public was invited to propose Hebrew names for the planets
Uranus and Neptune. All the other major planets have Hebrew names, dating back even
to biblical times. On the other hand, Uranus and Neptune, which were discovered at
times when Hebrew was not considered a living language, are simply termed ‘Uranus’
and ‘Neptune’
In this contribution, I will review the origins of the Hebrew names of the planets and
their context, as well as some related notation. Appropriate historical consideration of
the Hebrew language cannot ignore related languages, and thus I will also review the
relevant Arabic notation.
2. Historical and linguistic background
A thorough account of Hebrew origins and history is definitely beyond the scope of
this contribution, so I will give here a very brief description, with only the very broad
details, accounting for the major developments in the history of Hebrew.
Hebrew is a member of the Semitic languages family. The most widely spoken Semitic
language today is Arabic, followed by Amharic, Tigrinya, and then Hebrew, usually
considered the historic language of the Jews. Other important Semitic languages that
played an important role in the history of the Middle East were Akkadian, Assyrian,
Babylonian and Aramaic, most of them are now considered dead languages.
Between the 10th and the 4th century BCE, classical Hebrew flourished in ancient Israel
as a spoken language. This was the language in which the bible was written. During the
Hellenistic and Roman periods one finds the next phase of Hebrew – Talmudic Hebrew,
between the 3rd century BCE and the 4th century CE. After this period, Hebrew ceased
being a spoken language, and its use was generally confined to liturgical purposes and
philosophical and scientific writings. This is Medieval Hebrew.
During the late 18th century, as part of the Enlightment movement, Hebrew was
revived as a journalistic and literary language. This tendecy culminated in the 19th
century in the work of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who aimed to revive Hebrew as a mother
tongue, as part of the Zionist ideology. Nowadays modern Hebrew is one of the two official
302 S. Zucker
languages in Israel (the other is Arabic), and most of Israel’s 7 million citizens speak it
(S´aenz-Badillos 1993).
Modern Hebrew still has to rely on borrowing vocabulary from other languages, mainly
European languages, and the process of adopting new words is constantly on-going. The
Academy of the Hebrew Language is an official Israeli institute, one of whose directives
is the development of current Hebrew vocabulary (Fellman 1974). The acceptance of the
new vocabulary by the general public is usualy a very slow process, which is not always
3. Astronomy and judaism
Astral beliefs were prevalent among the nations that surrounded the ancient Israelites.
The Mesopotamian religions were completely astral, where each deity had a specific as-
tronomical manifestation, and the motion of heavenly bodies was considered a practical
means of the gods to communicate with Man. The Jews oscillated among adopting char-
acteristics of the surrounding beliefs of the Canaanites, the Phoenicians and their likes,
the strong Assyrian influence from Mesopotamia, and their own unique monotheistic
culture (Ness 1990, McKay 1973).
In this context, the main use of astronomy was for calendrical purposes, using methods
developed by the Mesopotamians. However, astrology in its simplest form also infiltrated
strongly to Jewish culture.
During the middle ages, Jews participated in the Islamic astronomical endeavor, and
many renowned Arab medieval astronomers were Jews, such as Masha’allah Ibn Athari,
Maimonides, Levi Ben Gershom, etc.
4. Astronomical terms
In what follows I will review the main planetary terminology, as well as basic as-
tronomical terms, in Hebrew and in Arabic. I will present the words in the alphabet
each language uses today, and I’ll use English spelling as an approximate pronounciation
guide. I preferred not to use a formal phonetic alphabet as the target readers of this
publication are not necessarily linguists. I give the modern pronounciation of the Hebrew
words, which is strongly influenced by European languages, and is probably extremely
different from the original pronounciation in ancient times.
4.1. Star, Planet
The Hebrew word for star is
(kokhav), while planet is referred to as a ‘walking star’
Curiously, Arabic uses the same root to refer to planet (kawkab),
while the word for star is
(najm) or (najma). The common root for the Hebrew
star and the Arab planet probably originates from the Akkadian word ‘kakkabu’ for star.
4.2. Constellation
Originally Hebrew used the word
(mazal) for the zodiacal constellations. In modern
Hebrew, this word means ‘luck’, probably hinting at the astrological context of the word.
This context is also related to the expression ‘worshippers of stars and constellations’:
(ovdey kokhavim umazalot), a derogative name for pagans. The word
probably originates from Akkadian, where ‘manzaltu’ means the place, or the home
of the gods. This meaning is probably related to the Arab word
(manzil), which
means a home, a dwelling, but also refers to a part of the Qur’an.
Hebrew names of the planets 303
4.3. Earth
The Hebrew word for Earth is
(eretz), and inspite of the similar sound, it is probably
not related to the English word. Instead, it is definitely related to the Arab word with
the same meaning
(ard). In both languages the word also means ‘land’, ‘ground’ and
‘country’. Another hint to the ancient origins of the word is its appearance in the first
sentence of the Bible.
4.4. Sun
The Sun is called
(sheme1sh) in Hebrew and (shams) in Arabic. The similarity
is obvious, and it goes back even to Mesopotamian mythology, where Shamash is the sun
god . An alternative Hebrew name, with Talmudic origins, is
(khamma), meaning
‘the hot one’. The Sun is considered one of the two luminaries whom God created on the
fourth day of Creation. This year, on April 8th, Jews held
(birkat hakhama).
This is a rare ceremony which Jews celebrate every 28 years, when, according to an old
tradition, the sun returns to its location and configuration at the moment of its creation.
4.5. Moon
The principal Hebrew notation for the Moon is
(yareakh), while in Arabic it is
(qamar). Obviously, the Moon is also mentioned in the story of the Creation, where it
is termed ‘the lesser light’. An alternative biblical name which is also used in modern
literary Hebrew is
(levana), meaning ‘the white one’.
The word
is also related to the word (=yerakh), meaning ‘month’. Another
term for the Moon is
(sahar), which is closely related to the Arab words (shahr)
meaning ‘month’, and
(sahra) meaning ‘evening’. Another interesting relation is
between the principal Hebrew word for ‘month’
(khodesh), which has the same
root as the word
(khadash), with the meaning ‘new’, probably beacuse of the relation
to the new moon.
The Moon has a central role in both Jewish and Muslim worship. The Hebrew calendar
(originally Mesopotamian) is lunar-solar, while the Hijri calendar is completely lunar. A
possible relic of the pagan Moon worship exists in Judaism in the form of the Benediction
over the New Moon. The blessing is said outside the synagogue, in the light of the waxing
moon. Therefore, it is written in large letters, with a special large font, termed ‘moon
benediction letters’
(otiyot kidush levana), in order to ease the reading.
It can sometimes be found written on the wall of the synagogue or on a marble plate.
4.6. Mercury
Mercury is called in Hebrew
(kokhav khamma), i.e., the Sun’s star. Sometimes
it is simply referred to as
(kokhav) ‘star’, with a similar usage by the Assyro-
Babylonians, who called it simply ‘kakkabu’. I am not familiar with an etymology to
explain the Arab name
(utared), which is also used in Turkish and the other
Turkic languages.
304 S. Zucker
4.7. Venus
Venus has several Hebrew notations. The one most commonly used is
(nogah). The
equivalent Arab word is
(zuhra). Both the Hebrew and the Arab terms carry the
meaning of ‘brightness’, ‘shine’. It seems that in Hebrew, at least, there is a mix-up in
the terminology between the planet Venus and the zodiacal light (Gandz 1970).
Other speculated biblical terms for Venus include
(=ayelet hashakhar) and
(heilel ben shakhar). This last expression refers to the Canaanite myth of
Heilel, the son of the dawn god (Shakhar, which is also the Hebrew word for dawn
), who rebelled against ‘Elion’, the chief god, and was expelled from heaven as
punishment a Canaanite version of the myth of Lucifer. In this context, it is interesting
to see that the Hebrew word for ‘dawn’, and the Arab word –
(fajr), are both built
by different roots who carry a similar meaning of ‘liberation’, ‘discharge’, ‘turning loose’.
4.8. Mars
The name for Mars is
(ma’dim), with a pretty obvious etymology it simply means
‘reddenning’. On the other hand, the Arab word is
(mirrikh), and I have not found
any plausible etymology for this name. The possibility that it relates to the Babylonian
god Marduk, is somewhat dubious, since Marduk is already associated with the planet
Jupiter. Another possibility is that it is some kind of a mispronounciation of the name
4.9. Jupiter
Jupiter’s Hebrew name is (tzedek), whose usual meaning is ‘justice’. The Arab name
(almushtari), which means ‘the buyer’ or ‘the owner’. A possible hint to a relation
between these two seemingly different etymologies is mentioned in one tradition, accord-
ing to which Jupiter shined all night during Abraham’s fight with Chdarlaomer, king of
Eilam. In the biblicat text it is not mentioned, but it is mentioned that ‘Malkitzedek’
), king of Shalem (=Jerusalem) blessed Abraham. It is said that Malkitzedek is
a priest of the god ‘El Elion’, who was described in an Ugaritic text as ‘buyer (owner?)
of the heaven and earth’.
4.10. Saturn
The current Hebrew name of Saturn is
(shabtay), and one can easily hear an
allusion to
– Shabbat, the holy day of rest, saturday. This name appears first in the
Talmud. It seems that at some point during the Talmud period the Jews adopted the
planetary week, where Saturn rules saturday, and thus the Hebrew name actually means
‘saturday’s planet’ There is one appearance in the Bible of another name, with unclear
, which may read ‘kayun’, or ‘kiwan’ (Schiaparelli 1905). The source is
probably Akkadian, where ‘kayamanu’ means ‘the steady one’, which is similar to Hebrew
(qayam) ‘exists’, or Arabic (kawn) ‘existence’. A relic to this ancient word
exists in modern Persian, where Saturn is named ‘kayvon’. It may well be that the name
was chosen to refer to the fact that Saturn is the most ‘stable’ planet, i.e., it changes its
position relatively slowly. As for the Arab name
(zukhal), I suggest its meaning
may be related to the same root in Hebrew, where it means ‘to crawl’, ‘to advance very
Hebrew names of the planets 305
5. Summary
I have introduced in the previous paragraphs the basic planetary terminology in He-
brew and in Arabic. One can clearly see that contrary to the western planet naming
scheme, which names all the planets afer Roman gods, the Semitic ones are not as sys-
tematic. Each name of a planet carries its own unique story. The stories behind the
names tell us of a distant past, the past of Mesopotamia and the Middle East, the ‘cradle
of civilization’ (as some scholars call this area), with spicy scents of the Bible and very
ancient lore. Astronomy certainly played a central role in those early civilizations, in the
time keeping techniques and in the myths. It is interesting to see whether the names that
will be elected for Uranus and Neptune in Israel this year will gain public acceptance
among speakers of modern Hebrew, thus forming a continuing bridge to the beginning
of Man’s fascination by the stars and planets.
Fellman, J. 1974, Linguistics, 120, 95
Gandz, S. 1970, Studies in Hebrew Astronomy and Mathematics (New York: Ktav Publishing
Mckay, J. W. 1973, Religion in Judah under the Assyrians, 732–609 BC, (London: S.C.M. Press)
Ness, L. J. 1990, Astrology and Judaism in Late Antiquity, Miami: Ph.D. Dissertation, Univeristy
of Miami
aenz-Badillos, A. 1993, A History of the Hebrew Language, (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Schiaparelli, G. V. 1905, Astronomy in the Old Testament, (Oxford: Clarendon Press)
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
A History of the Hebrew language is a comprehensive description of Hebrew from its Semitic origins and the earliest settlement of the Israelite tribes in Canaan to the present day. Although Hebrew is an 'oriental' language, it is nonetheless closely associated with Western culture as the language of the Bible and was used in writing by the Jews of Europe throughout the Middle Ages. It has also been newly revived in modern times as the language of the State of Israel. Professor Angel Saenz-Badillos sets Hebrew in the context of the Northwest Semitic languages and examines the origins of Hebrew and its earliest manifestations in ancient biblical poetry, inscriptions, and prose written before the Babylonian exile. He looks at the different mediaeval traditions of printing classical biblical Hebrew texts and the characteristic features of the post-exilic language, including the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He gives particular attention to Rabbinic and mediaeval Hebrew, especially as evidenced in writings from Spain. His survey concludes with the revival of the language this century in the form of Israeli Hebrew.
Thesis (Ph. D.)--Miami University, 1990. Includes abstract. Includes bibliographical references (p. 281-320). Photocopy.
Religion in Judah under the Assyrians Astrology and Judaism in Late Antiquity
  • J W S C M Mckay
  • Press
  • L J Ness
Mckay, J. W. 1973, Religion in Judah under the Assyrians, 732–609 BC, (London: S.C.M. Press) Ness, L. J. 1990, Astrology and Judaism in Late Antiquity, Miami: Ph.D. Dissertation, Univeristy of Miami Sáenz-Badillos, A. 1993, A History of the Hebrew Language, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  • J W Mckay
  • L J Ness
Mckay, J. W. 1973, Religion in Judah under the Assyrians, 732-609 BC, (London: S.C.M. Press) Ness, L. J. 1990, Astrology and Judaism in Late Antiquity, Miami: Ph.D. Dissertation, Univeristy of Miami Sáenz-Badillos, A. 1993, A History of the Hebrew Language, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)