I Threw a Word in the Air…
What do Moses, urban planners, health professionals, strict teachers and Torah chanters have in common? Well, if you throw these words into the air—along with a dozen more—they will fall to earth in the vicinity of the Hebrew root ז– ר– ק (zayin-resh-kof), to throw, sprinkle.
In Scripture, the root has several distinct meanings. In Leviticus, priests are ordered זָרְקוּ אֶת הַדָּם (zarku et ha-dam), sprinkle sacrificial blood (against the altar walls), using a special מִזְרָק (mizrak), bowl. In Egypt, Moses is charged to take a handful of soot וּזְרָק…הַשָׁמַימָה (u-zerako…ha-shamaimah), and throw it toward the sky; when it falls to Earth, it brings on the sixth plague—boils. In a strange linguistic twist, the prophet Hosea, using a bakery metaphor, compares sinful Israel to a rotting cake, on which שֵׂיבָה זָרְקָה (seivah zarkah), mold (some say, “gray hair”) is scattered. Legendary 20th-century Bible educator Nechama Leibovitz was reputed to have a disciplinary quirk: If you came to her class without a Bible text in hand, נְחָמָה זרֶקֶת (nehama zoreket), the beloved teacher would throw you out.
The Talmud uses our root allegorically, to teach discernment. One should eat the nutritious part of the fruit, to be sure, but קְלִיפָּת זוֹרֵק (kelipato zorek), throw away the unpalatable peel. Tractate Hullin, for its part, warns of unintended consequences. Do not be like one who, thinking he’s doing a righteous act, זרֵק אֶבֶן לְמֶרְקלִיס (zorek even le-merkolis), throws a stone at a pagan statue of Mercury, because, unknowingly, he is committing idol worship. When medieval Masoretic scribes created a system of musical cantillation for the public chanting of the Torah, they used the Aramaic word זַרְקָא (zarka) to indicate a “scattering” of five different notes. In an orchestra, string instruments have a pair of זַרְקָתַיִּם (zarkatayyim), sound holes, through which the violin’s music resonates.
Today, a health care worker at the clinic will fill a מַזְרֵק (mazrek), syringe, with תַּזְְרִיק (tazrik), serum, to administer a זְרִיקָה (zerikah), injection. In scornful slang, a זָרוּק (zaruk) is a drug addict. To project light distantly, use the portmanteau word זַרְקר (zarkor), light thrower, i.e., searchlight. In 2015, urban planners in Eilat installed a flashy מִזְרָקָה (mizrakah), ornamental fountain, called the Musical Fountain, which sprinkles water, light and music on tourists. Then there is the tiresome זרֵק שֵׁמת (zorek sheimot), name dropper, as well as the colleague who asks you לִזְרק מִלָּה (lizrok millah), to throw in a good word with the boss. As for this column, (lo lizrok), don’t throw it in the trash. It contains much Hebrew nourishment.
Joseph Lowin’s columns for Hadassah Magazine are collected in the books HebrewSpeak and HebrewTalk.