Monday, November 14, 2011

So what's up with 'Shamshon'?

So what's the deal with the name "Shamshon," which somehow only seems to be applied to Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch?[1] Now, here is a case where that "drop of tradition is worth a ton of acumen," as Ludwig Blau reputedly would say. A living tradition would be best. Lacking that, let's apply some acumen.

It seems that "Shamshon" is simply how the name was pronounced in Lithuania, and indeed, Russia. For example, we find the historian Jacob Schamschon of Kovno:

One might surmise that the Lithuanian tendency to exchange /sh/ and /ss/ sounds was at work. (Most people know that Lithuanians did not pronounce the shin. Less well known is their tendency to change a sin to a shin. Sibboleth, indeed.) So "Shamshon" was simply the pronunciation of "Samson" in that particular Yiddish dialect. Do not be surprised at the idea of a "Yiddish" name being based on the Gentile version of the name (Zalman = Salomon). Here's a page from a subscription list from an 1818 edition of the Five Megillot:

And these are only some of the Moses. (Or is that Moseses?) The next page has 17 more.

An extremely useful book, published in Warsaw, 1908, makes it clear that this is the pronunciation in what it calls Russia (Rusland):

And note that it also transliterates it Schimschojn, the Polish (or shall we say Pojlish) pronunciation. (See יודישע שפריכווערטער און רעדענסארטען by Ignatz Bernstein and B. W. Segel)

So we've solved that element. If anyone wants to know why yeshivishe people say "Shamshon Refoel," it's because that's what the man was called in the heartland of where yeshiva culture developed.

But it's not as simple as that. Although I surmise that Rabbi Hirsch actually went by Samson - pronounced something like Zamzun, but with the "u" being more like a combination of the English "u" and "o" - there are also many sources indicating that "Schamschon" was a German pronunciation as well.

Before I get to these, let's go back to the beginning. Although the Masoretic text of the Bible spells it with a chirik, and thus "Shimshon," the vocalization in Tanakh is late. So although an ounce of tradition is worth a ton of acumen, and we are not to disregard this, the Septuagint is an earlier vocalized source, and it uses an alpha - Σαμψών, not Σιμψών. This is why the name is "Samson" in English and the various other tongues. Interestingly, with the rise of Protestantism and an interest in the Hebrew Bible, the alternate form Simson, based on the Masoretic text, entered the Christian consciousness. See, e.g., Luther's Bible, where he writes "Simson." I guess we have to thank Martin Luther for the Simpsons, whom otherwise might be the Samsons, or more likely, the Smiths.

In any case, there are a number of (Jewish) German sources which use "Schamschon." For example, this excerpt from an 1887 article in the Israelit refers to Rabbi Schamschon Ostropolle:

Lest it be argued that this was an attempt to give his name in "Jargon," as he was a 17th century Polish rabbi, here is an anecdote about the 17th century Viennese Court Jew Rabbi Samson Wertheimer, where he is called "Rabbi Schamschon Wien," evidently his 'traditional' name:

Thus, it seems to me that there was at least the perception that this was the traditional way in which German Jews pronounced the name, no less so than in Rusland. In reality, probably many German Jews pronounced it that way still in 1905, which is when the excerpt above appeared. Since it is a great anecdote, I will explain what it says.
Rabbi Samson Wertheimer employed a tutor for his family named David, who was an apt Talmudist. He later received a position in the rabbinate, on R. Samson's recommendation. Since he was just the tutor working for him, he couldn't bear to call him "Rabbi," but continued to call him David, as before. Once R. Samson was on a trip, and stayed in the community where David was. He visited him, and saw that Rabbi David was studying Mishnah Shabbat 3:12, where it says "If he wrote [two letters; the name] 'Shem' (shin-mem) of 'Shimon' or of 'Shemuel'." So he asked Rabbi David, why didn't Rabbi, the Redactor of the Mishnah (and in fact the direct source of this statement!) say "Shimon, Shmuel, or Shimshon"?

David answered, "The reasons seems to be that Rabbi did not say "Shimshon," because Shimshon did not say "Rabbi!"
Here is what "Reb Shamshon Wiener" looked like, by the way. From Wikipedia.

Hopefully we have proved our case, that "Shamshon" is simply what the Jews over a wide geographic area actually called their Shimshons.

Finally, I came across the following in a list of Jewish folk expressions, from 1898.

Schimschon in Ruh und Schamschon in der Wickel.

Something like "Shimshon in calm, and Shamshon in distress." Does anyone have any idea what this is supposed to mean? If I had to guess, I would say that it is like a reference to correctness, Shimshon, and the vulgar jargon, Shamshon. When calm, he is a sedate gentleman, and he says Shimshon. Rile him up, and he reverts to the ghetto Jew, Shamshon.

[1] Of course, strictly speaking this is not true. There are many people today who are named for him, or named for those named for him, who also use the form "Shamshon."


  1. I was always told that people called Shimshon went by slight variations of the name, such as Shamshon (or Shimmy, in my father's case), since Shimshon Hagibor led a hard life.

  2. Interesting. I can think of very few Hebrew names that retained the correct pronunciation according to the nikkud in the traditional pronunciation of European Jews.

  3. What was the point of saying the Masorites invented the vocalization of the name? The custom of giving names after people in Tanach was only after the Masoretic text was fully embraced. So it couldn't have been the source of Samson.
    Besides that I think for those that didn't know this fact it is more the discontenting to find out. The way I see it why tell them? I know I was most disappointed to find out that while we make a big deal of saying Zey'cher or Ze'cher it most probably was pronounced in one syllable, which is neither.

  4. I didn't say the Masoretes invented the vocalization of the name. They invented the vocalization in its written form. We have no idea how ancient this pronunciation is, we only know that it is as early as its written form (and with some justifiable license we can conjecture that it predates the nikkud by at least some time). I merely pointed out that we have no witness in Hebrew earlier than the written vocalization. The earlier witness is the Septuagint (assuming, of course, that we're sure how to pronounce the alpha - but even if we can't be 100% certain, an iota is isn't).

    I didn't mean to imply that the Septuagint (or a hypothetical ancient Hebrew) is the source of Shamshon per se. I assume that Shamshon is modeled in some form after the most common way it is pronounced in all of Europe, which is ultiimately based on the Septuagint. This would make the form of the name little different from Zalman, which is just Salomon (or Solomon).

    As for telling people, I haven't told anyone anything.

  5. So like I assumed you didn't mean that it was the source of Shamshon. So then what was it? A slice at the Masorites? Or a haha just so you know what we do was probably invented a thousand years ago? Otherwise I doubt deer the relevance.

  6. Huh? In a roundabout way it probably is the source of Shamshon. I was explaining why it is that Shimshon is Samson in the European languages. My conjecture is that it became so in Yiddish or Judeo-German, whatever you want to call it, in the same manner that the kinnui for Shlomo became Zalman and so forth. Judaizing a vernacular name.

    I don't get what your problem with my reference to the Masoretes are. Is it so shocking to the system to read that the Masoretes added the nikkud to the written text several centuries after the Septuagint was written?

  7. I'm sure I have heard that his name was Shimson ben Refoel, not Shimshon Refoel, and the idiom of the time was to put the father's name second.

    I think this is true of the Adlers too.

  8. My understanding, probably folklore,is that Germans did not like to name somebody after someone whose life was shortened. Hence Shamson, and not Shimson

  9. Re the duel name thing - it wasn't only in Germany, but in Holland too. Greater Ashkenaz. It requires more research. But the blogger at Treasures of Ashkenaz shared with me his thoughts, which seems like the right track to pursue, that this custom arose out of a need to identify people in a better way, before stable surnames were common. You can see a hint of this in the official government practice of referring to Jews by their name and their father's name. For example, R. Yaakov Emden was known to the wider world as Jacob Hirschel. Not to mention the fact that many Jews, in Germany and in England and Holland, took their father's name as a surname (often simply adding a -s suffix).

    Re the Adler's specifically, every one of the brothers used Nathan as a middle name.

  10. Early surnames were often the father's name, and in many European cultures patronymics are still commonly used.

    Russia - (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, ie Vladimir son of Ilya Ulyanov)

    Iceland - (Wikipedia - "For example, a man named Jón Stefánsson has a son named Fjalar. Fjalar's last name will not be Stefánsson like his father's; it will become Jónsson, literally indicating that Fjalar is the son of Jón (Jóns + son).") Formerly, all of Scandinavia used this system.

  11. Yeedle said...

    being on the topic of last names, does the suffix 'vitch' or 'witz' as in Yakobowitz/Yakobovitch Lefkowitz/Lefkovitch Lebowitz/Lebovitch etc mean son of as in Jonsonn?

  12. Exactly.

    and scroll down for the Ukranian version.

  13. Along the lines of the first comment, I recall hearing a Shamshon once say, citing the sefer Taamei Haminhagim, that the pronunciations of certain names are altered since their Biblical bearers had unpleasant ends, shall we say.

    In addition to Shamshon/Shimshon, the name שאול gets that treatment as well. There may have been another example as well, but it doesn't come to mind now.

  14. Not to mention the fact that many Jews, in Germany and in England and Holland, took their father's name as a surname (often simply adding a -s suffix).

    Name + s is usually mother's name, e.g. Edel --> Edels, Basheve (בת-שבע) --> Bashevis.

  15. Samuels, Lions, Michaels, Jacobs, etc. Maybe it was more of an English thing.

  16. Yeedle said...

    Why English thing? Mother: Maharsha = Eidel's, Bach = Saraka's. father: Rema = Isserel's.

  17. I know a great-grandchild of RSRH who insists his name was not Shimshon. This descendant is adamant that it's Samson or Shamshon but not Shimshon.

    I agree that a child is different than a great-grandchild, but still, I would argue that this is a tradition within the family that should be taken seriously.

  18. > "Iceland - (Wikipedia - "For example, a man named Jón Stefánsson has a son named Fjalar. Fjalar's last name will not be Stefánsson like his father's; it will become Jónsson"

    Yep. I spent three days in Iceland a few years ago, and looked up a phone book. I wanted to see if the above was an urban legend, or if it was in fact true. IIRC, all the names ended in son or dottir.

    Re Samson - the literature says the name is based on the sun. (Shemesh). He lived near Beish Shemesh, and his affair was with a woman named Delailah, ie, contrast of sun/good vs. night/bad. I dont know dikduk well enough to say for sure, but if this is true, doesnt being named after the shemesh indicate the name should be shamshon, not shimshon?

  19. Baruch, I'm not really sure that one great-grandchild qualifies as a family tradition, but yes, of course a family tradition is good.

    In any case, I don't doubt that his name was "Shamshon, not Shimshon" any more than I don't doubt that the Satmar Rav's name was "Yoyl, not Yoel." As I was saying in the post, this appears to have been the traditional pronunciation in much of Europe.

  20. treasuresofashkenaz:

    Right on! Shaul is one famous example, where many chassidim would change it so Shoel. Same goes for Miriam > Mariam.

  21. In CH where I grew up there was R' Shamshon Charitonov, from Nikolayev in the Ukraine (passed away in 2009). But I think that for an aliya they called him shimshon.

  22. Point taken.

    Nonetheless, considering that this great-grandchild was born in Frankfurt and was part of that community, I would think that this does count as a tradition of sorts.

  23. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)6:18 PM, November 15, 2011

    I'm pretty sure i've heard Yekkes in Frankfurt-de‘al-Hudson pronounce it 'Shamshon'.

  24. Many thanks for your cogent explanation of a phenomenon that has bothered me for years. SRH was my grandmother’s great-grandfather, and our branch of the family has not preserved a “Shamshon” mesorah, maybe because our branch abandoned Yiddish more than 100 years ago. My grandmother did have a brother Samson who was known to the family by his nursery nickname “Tompy,” but this was most likely some sibling’s attempt to pronounce the Germanic “Zahmzon.”
    On the other hand, a distant cousin of mine is named Shamshon (nickname “Shahm”), and his branch of the clan does maintain that mesorah. Then again, family traditions can splinter, offering a less than certain guide for pronouncing names. Apparently descendants of Don Isaac disagree as to whether their surname is “Abarbanel” or “Abravanel.”
    For whatever reason, the /a/ - /i/ vowel shift turns up repeatedly in Hebrew names. “Mariam” is still heard as a Yiddish variant of Miriam, and S. would probably agree that this pronunciation seems to be based in a “roundabout” way on the Septuagint. Though no one now says “Kaslev” for Kislev, the form “Casleu” appears in the Septuagint and also the Douay-Rheims Catholic version of Maccabees (or “Machabees,” as D-R would have it). The Greeks did funny things to Hebrew words, and I see no reason to assume that “Shamshon” is older or more correct than “Shimshon.”
    As for the dikduk question that DF raises, consider the noun “kemah.” Should the adjectival form be “kimhi” or “kamhi”? Apparently it could go either way. Radak’s name is always given as Kimhi, but there are lots of Sephardim named Camhi.

  25. some genius in my shul named his daughter Surl'ka -after his grandmother at the qiddesh genius' father was overheard saying "Surl'ka ? Surl'ka? you dope that was her nickname; bubbys name was Sarah Leah!"

  26. Radak's name is given as Kimhi by Jews. Non-Jewish Hebraists used both. I am under the impression that it is similar to the Ibn/ Aben question, and at least in that case, there is some evidence that the Spanish Jews did prefer Aben.

    The /i/ /a/ switch is definitely a linguistic phenomenon. Although it doesn't *really* figure into the question, but it also almost can be applied to the /ribbi/ /rabbi/ thing.

  27. I've often wondered why people who name their child after RSRH name them Samson Refoel (or some variation thereof) when the name was Samson and Refoel was the name of his father which was appended to his own as was the practice then. This is even true in his own family as was the case with R. Dr. Samson Refoel Weiss. Concurrently the same thing sometimes occurs in Sephardic circles where a child would be named Yosef Haim after the Ben Ish Hai although his own name was Yoseph and Haim was the father's (or possibly family) name.

  28. My guess is that many people don't know, or if they do know, they wouldn't feel it was truly like the child is named after them. There are loads of Shimshons and loads of Yosefs, but you instantly know why a person is named Shimshon Refael or Yosef Haim. I would say both aspects apply, even among their own descendants. Besides, they - at least RSRH - used Refael.

  29. Fotheringay-Phipps2:04 PM, November 16, 2011

    "If anyone wants to know why yeshivishe people say "Shamshon Refoel," it's because that's what the man was called in the heartland of where yeshiva culture developed."

    I doubt it. The only yeshivish people named Shamshon are named after RSRH (or his namesakes) and the rest are Shimshons. FTM, it's very common in yeshivish circles to pronounce RSRH as R' Shimshon Rafael Hirsch.

    FWIW, I have a copy of a postcard that RSRH wrote to his daughter & SIL in London (Levy) and he wrote a postscript to his grandson. He signed the postscript Shamshon, with a pasach under the shin. (It's not completely clear, since he wrote the letter using German words and Hebrew letters. So it might be that he used his German name Shamshon, but that his Hebrew name could have been Shimshon.)

  30. Ah, F-P, my faithful dissenter.

    "I doubt it. The only yeshivish people named Shamshon are named after RSRH (or his namesakes) and the rest are Shimshons. FTM, it's very common in yeshivish circles to pronounce RSRH as R' Shimshon Rafael Hirsch."

    So? This doesn't contradict anything I wrote. I said that "If anyone wants to know why yeshivishe people say "Shamshon Refoel," it's because that's what the man was called in the heartland of where yeshiva culture developed." and I meant just that - the reason why they call Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch - not all Shimshons - the one man - that is because they always did. If you learned in Torah V'Daas you would have heard R. Yaakov Kamenetsky call him that, and so on. This is the official, canonical, yeshivish pronunciation of this particular rabbi's name.

    As for other names? In hachi nami. No one says that the yeshivishe world preserved the names. When was the last time you met a 25 year old Yoshe, and so on?

    Re the postcard, that is very interesting indeed. If you would be so kind as to scan it I would be grateful. Perhaps you will even give me permission to post it - if not, I would at least love to see it.



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