Greek and Latin among the Jews


Genesis. Pentateuch. Bible. Aphikoman.


What do these words have in common?  They are all originally Greek, and have been used by Jews for centuries. 

In the ancient world, the common language was either Aramaic, if you lived in the Eastern Mediterranean, or Greek, if you lived in the West. As Jews moved to various countries between the second century B.C.E. and C.E., common words were picked up from the vernacular. Everyone in those days knew where the words came from; we, in modern America, have forgotten our roots in the ancient Near East.

The Bible itself is the Greek biblos, meaning “book.”  Another term for the Bible, the Septuagint, comes from the Latin number 70: septuaginta. The story is that it took 70 (or 72 in some versions) men to translate the Hebrew into Greek in 70 (or 72) days.

When we speak about the five Books of Moses, we use the word Pentateuch: penta, added to teuchos, a case to hold scrolls; thus, the Case of the Five Scrolls. Within those scrolls are Genesis, or “origin,” Exodus, which means “a going out,” especially in the context of an army or on a difficult journey; and Deuteronomy, from the Greek deuteros, second, and nomos, which means “law.” The word Testament, as in Old or New, comes from Latin, meaning a legal document, often a will. 

Another word frequently used in the Bible is angel, from angelos, which actually means “messenger.” Thus angels are really messengers of God. 

The Apocrypha, the “hidden” books of the Bible, whose authenticity and value were sometimes questioned, comes from the Greek apokruptoapo meaning “away,” and acting to intensify the verb, and krupto, meaning “hide.” 

The synagogue is a place of worship, and in Greek it is sunagoge.  The word is based on the Greek verb sunago: sun meaning “together” and ago meaning “come,” for a combined word: to “come together” or “unite.” The word “temple” is from the Latin templum, and has the same meaning in English as in Latin.   

Phylactery is the composite term for tefillin.  In Greek, phulakteria, a feminine singular noun, is the word for “guard” or “watch.”  My Greek dictionary, dated 1858, also lists the word phulakteria (as a neuter plural noun) separately, with the following meaning: “bands with the sentence of the law of Moses on them, worn on the forehead by the Jews, phylacteries, preservers, charms, amulets.”  Some dictionaries add “believed to be of efficacy against evil spirits.”       

A Jew who is a non-believer is called an apikoros. While the origin of this word is not definite, many believe it is a form of the name of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Because the Epicurean philosophy was so contrary to that of Judaism – that one should follow pleasure over pain, and withdraw from society in order to maximize that pleasure – a follower of Epicurus would be considered a heretic, or one who is involved in heresy. 

One of my favorites is afikoman. When I first studied Greek, I had a “eureka” (from the Greek for “I have found it”) moment: The word comes from the verb afikneomai in its past tense: afikoman, meaning “I have arrived.”  It is often translated as “dessert” or “entertainment,” but its basic meaning is that we have arrived at a certain point – in this case, at the end of the meal.

This is a brief discussion of some of the words from Greek and Latin that appear in our texts and common usage.  Nun eis telos afikoman – now I have arrived at the end!

RUTH BREINDEL is the president of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association. She taught Latin and Greek at Moses Brown School before retiring in June 2015. For more information, contact the RIJHA via or 401-331-1360.