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Sat, Apr. 17th, 2010, 11:22 pm
What's black and white and read all over?

I was struck this morning by the fact that there were five explicitly named colors in today's Torah reading -- white, black, yellow, reddish, and greenish. (Yes, we were reading about different kinds of rashes and skin diseases. Per our community's custom, a dermatologist read the portion. But I digress.)

This got me wondering if any other parsha is more colorful, as well as whether any of the nine "main" colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, white, black) are missing. For purposes of this query, I'm disregarding words for items of a particular color, such as techelet, when that word refers to the item and not to the color in general. (For an English example, if a passage refers to the sapphire on the breastplate of the High Priest, I don't count that as the color "sapphire.")

Edited to add: OK, the concordance considers techelet to be a color name. Who am I to argue? Well, it's really the dye; as argaman is to purple. The table has been updated to reflect that.

Looking at my concordance, which lists inflected forms together and which enumerates homographs separately by meaning, I found the following results:

Color   tzeva     Total    Tazria-Metzora    Notes
Blue*   techelet    49        0   Refers to a blue dye. Paired with argaman 15 times.
Purple* argaman     38        0   Refers to a purple dye. Sagol never appears.
White   lavan       29       18   A sizable total, and over half are in Lev. 13-14!
Red     adom        21        6
Black   shachor      6        2
Yellow  tzahov       4        3   The 4th is a verb, "to cause to turn yellow", in Ezra 8
Green   yarok        4        2   3 of the 4, including both Lev., are y'rakrak, "greenish"
Brown   chum         4        0   All four are in Gen 30
Blue    kachol       1        0   A hapax legomenon, in Ezekiel 23,
                                  in an inflected construct form meaning "blue-eyed"
Orange  katom        0        0
Purple  sagol        0        0

Sun, Apr. 18th, 2010 03:56 am (UTC)

I was just (unsuccessfully) trying to remember the Hebrew word for green the other day! You'd probably never forget that one...

Sun, Apr. 18th, 2010 11:50 am (UTC)

I consider techelet to be a color name. It's a particular SHADE of blue/royal blue/royal purple/something like that. The color only comes from the specific dye also called techelet, so I can see your point, but I would have thought of it as one of the most important colors in the Tanach -- and your count would confirm that.

(For what it's worth: a number of years back, a rabbi claimed to have re-discovered techelet, and, unlike previous claims, this one seems legit. Legit enough that I chose to have my tzitzit on my talit have a thread of this purported techelet. So, I believe that I actually have a genuine techelet talit.)

Sun, Apr. 18th, 2010 01:39 pm (UTC)

Obviously I considered techelet close enough to a color word that I included it in my survey, but I think it (and argaman) deserve the asterisk because, as far as I can tell, they are only ever used in this corpus to refer to the dye and not as the equivalent color. Another way to put it would be that when translating into English, you'd never create a false translation if you always translated techelet as the phrase "snail dye".

The English equivalent, I think, would be if a corpus contained phrases like "indigo dye", "indigo threads" [meaning specifically threads that had been dyed with indigo dye], but never a phrase like "the indigo sea".

Sun, Apr. 18th, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC)

True -- I think you can find later poetry using techelet purely as a color, but not in the Tanach itself. I mean, there are prayers talking about Mordechai, for instance, robed in techelet -- but that's clearly a reference to the dye, and not the color per se.

I wouldn't be surprised if you have to go to medieval or later to find techelet used to refer just to the COLOR of techelet.

Sun, Apr. 18th, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC)

Note the linguistic pattern for basic color terms: if a language only has three high-frequency simple words for colors, those words will refer to white, black/blue/green, and red/yellow.

Is there a Biblical Hebrew word for “dark-colored” that isn’t being picked up in this list?