Blog , Balashon - Hebrew Language Detective, September 27, 2009,
cherem and harem
The Hebrew word cherem חרם is familiar to most of us as a ban, an excommunication. This type of censure developed in Talmudic and Medieval times. However, the Biblical word also means "to ban". Klein says that in Biblical Hebrew it meant to ban, devote, confiscate. (There is a discussion here as to whether the meaning "to destroy, exterminate" has the same origin, for in Arabic the two meanings are spelled differently.) In Talmudic Hebrew it also began to refer to a type of vow (as we find in the Kol Nidrei prayer.)
Even-Shoshan, in his Concordance, notes that of the 51 occurrences of the Biblical verb, all but three of them have a sense of "to destroy". One (Yishayahu 11:15) means "to dry up" and two (Micha 4:13 and Vayikra 27:28) refer to dedication to God. This meaning is reflected in the Arabic cognate harim - "sacred, forbidden". This root appears in a number of Arabic phrases, such as Al-Haram ash-Sharif - the Arabic name for the holy Temple Mount.
The English word harem also derives from this root:
1634, from Turk. harem, from Arabic haram "wives and concubines," originally "women's quarters," lit. "something forbidden or kept safe," from root of harama "he guarded, forbade."
Another related word is Marrano - the Jews of Spain and Portugal who were forced to convert to Christianity, but secretly observed Judaism. It has a fairly distasteful etymology:
1583, from Sp., lit. "pig, swine," an expression of contempt, from Arabic muharram "forbidden thing" (eating of pork is forbidden by Muslim and Jewish religious law), from haruma "was forbidden".
Because of this origin, the term is not commonly used today. Hebrew uses Anusim אנוסים - those forced to convert. In English, Crypto-Jews has become an acceptable alternative.
Three place names are related to this root as well. Mount Hermon - הר חרמון, Israel's tallest mountain and the only snow-capped one, is generally assumed to derive its name from חרם. Some say that this is due to it being inaccessible, unapproachable, "off limits". Others say that it served as a holy site to the Canaanites who lived in the area (see Shoftim 3:3, where it is called Har Baal Chermon הַר בַּעַל חֶרְמוֹן, indicating worship there). The Ramban, in his commentary to Devarim 3:9 reflects both of these theories. (A third theory is mentioned in the apocryphal book Chanoch (Enoch) I, chapter 6 and quoted in Hebrew here, where it is written that the mountain is called Hermon because the angels took a vow there).
Another location that derives its name from this root is Wadi Haramia ואדי חרמיה, north of Jerusalem (near the towns of Eli and Maaleh Levona.) As described here, it
literately means the valley of the bandits. This narrow passage through two very high mountains leaves no room for detours. As mentioned earlier, this road is historically the highway of the bible. Throughout the ages pilgrims and travelers would pass though this valley on their way to Jerusalem. Local bandits would take advantage of the topography and take their toll from the travelers.
These bandits would "confiscate" the property of their victims. The valley was also the site of an important battle in the time of the Maccabees.
A different type of place name related phrase is the Hebrew ad chorma עַד-חָרְמָה - meaning "until complete destruction." This phrase is found in Bamidbar 14:45 and Devarim 1:44. However, this actually refers to a Canaanite city called Hormah - about 25 kilometers to the east of Beer Sheva.