Soaking It Up
Have you heard about the latest Hanukka miracle? Some bakeries in Israel are claiming that סוּפְגָנִיּוֹת (sufganiyyot), jelly donuts, are healthful.
We won’t go into the validity of this claim about the traditional pastry used to celebrate the miracle of Hanukka in the Jewish state. We are concerned here only with the way the root ג-פ-ס (samekh, feh, gimel), to absorb, sits at the center of this delicacy.
This root, which comes from the Greek for sponge, is not found in the Bible. It is, however, sprinkled all over rabbinic liter-a-ture, where we learn that before the jelly donut there was a סוּפְגָנִית (sufganit), a prototype of today’s sponge cake. The rabbis of Pirkei Avot used the root metaphorically, indicating that among the four types of students is the סְפג (sefog), sponge, the type who סוֹפֵג אֶת הַכֺּל (sofeg et hakol), absorbs everything that is taught, including the trivial and the false. Aside from its presence in rabbinic thought, the root was found in daily life, e.g., at the bathhouse, where it was the job of the סַפָּג (sappag), bath attendant, to towel off the bather. Rabbi Hanina loosened a halakhic knot by declaring that, indeed, מִסְתַּפְּגִין (mistapgin), one may dry oneself with a towel on Shabbat. Much rabbinic ink is spilled in another halakh-ic debate, about the number of lashes a sinner סוֹפֵג (sofeg), absorbs, in punishment.
In her song “Hevelei Mashiah” (birthpangs of the messiah), Naomi Shemer exhibits charming sweetness when using our verb to describe Jewish tribulations. When she writes , אַנִי סוֹפֵג מַכָּה אַחַר מַכָּה (sofeg mak-kah ahar makkah), “I endure blow after blow,” this national adversity signals the coming of the Messiah. In his monumental 1958 novel, Days of Ziklag, about the birthpangs of the State of Israel during the War of Independence, S. Yizhar adapts the root to modern times when a soldier tells his battle-weary comrades הִסְפִּיגוּ לָכֶם כַּהֹגֶן (hispigu lakhem ka-hogen), “They gave it to you but good!”
Today, one may use the word מַסְפֵּג (maspeg) for blotter. Only a purist who delights in etymology would use maspeg for tampon or סְפִיגָה (sefigah) for osmosis. Back in the day,פִּטְרִיּת (pitriyyot), mushrooms—because they are very absorbent—were called סְפוֹגִים (sefogim). The purist who lived in a humid climate could use a סוֹפֵג לַחוּת (sofeg lahut), dehumidifier, or, when driving on a bumpy road, סַפָּג זַעַזוּעִים (sappag za’azu’im), shock absorbers.
A piece of halla is all that is necessary for the person who contentedly ספֵג (sofeg), sops up, the gravy on his plate. And so, after all this, we are back to “healthful” eating.