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Shibboleth

The Hebrew word neat The word which the Gileadites under Jephthah made use of as a test at the passages of the river Jordan after a victory over the Ephraimites. The word has two meanings in Hebrew: First, an ear of corn; and second, a stream of water. As the Ephraimites were desirous of crossing the river, it is probable that this second meaning suggested it to the Gileadites as an appropriate test word on the occasion. The proper sound of the first letter of this word is sh, a harsh breathing which is exceedingly difficult to be pronounced by persons whose vocal organs have not been accustomed to it. Such was the ease with the Ephraimites, who substituted for the aspiration the hissing sound of s.

Their organs of voice were incapable of the aspiration, and therefore, as the record has it, they "could not frame to pronounce it right " The learned Burder remarks (Oriental Customs ii, page 782) that in Arabia the difference of pronunciation among persons of various districts is much greater than in most other places, and such as easily accounts for the circumstance mentioned in the passage of Judges. Hutchinson (Spirit of Masonry, page 182), speaking of this word, rather fancifully derives it from the Greek Gags, I revere, and a stone, and, therefore, he says Sibbolithon, Colo Lapidem, implies that they--the Freemasons--retain and keep inviolate their obligations, as the Juramentum per Jovem Lapidem, the most obligatory oath held among the heathen."

It may be remarked that in the instructions of the Fellow Graft's Degree where the story of the Ephraimites is introduced, and where Shibboleth is symbolically interpreted as meaning plenty, the word waterford is sometimes used incorrectly, instead of waterfall Shibboleth means a Stood of water, a rapid stream, not a ford. In Psalm lxix, 3, the word is used in this exact sense. Shibboleth shetafatni, meaning the Stood has overwhelmed me.

And, besides a waterfall is an emblem of plenty, because it indicates an abundance of water; while a waterford, for the converse reason, is, if any symbol at all a symbol of scarcity. This explanation by Doctor Mackey has been criticized, the first comment being that the passage of Scripture cited here contains no allusion whatever to a waterfall. Of course it does refer to "the passages of the Jordan" which were certainly waterfords. At these places the test was made to ascertain whether those who came to cross were Ephraimites. Further comment made is that Doctor Mackey seems to have based his opinion on the assumption that the symbol of plenty referred to an abundance of water, and it is urged as opposing this conclusion that an abundance of water is nowhere else a Masonic suggestion of plenty, while corn is so employed in speech. The further point is made that if the reference were to the quantity of water the reasoning is not conclusive.

A running stream may have as much water at a ford as at a fall. All the running water must pass the ford as well as at the cataract.

The water at the ford may be more shallow, but there i8 just as much of it. Indeed it often happens that a fall does not extend entirely across a river, so that the quantity passing over it may not be equal to that at the ford. For this reason it is claimed a waterfall is not a symbol of plenty any more than a waterford. This reasoning is said to be strengthened by consideration of the Hebrew meaning of Shibboleth. One authority gives two meanings, an ear of corn and a stream.

The first is translated oftener. These suggestions have much value for us, and we may add that the references by Doctor Mackey to water, are as with all his comments, very much to the point. Water in some form is essential to life. The fertility of the ground depends upon the use of water. The scarcity of water gives importance to the use of the word as a symbol. The rainfall in Palestine was limited and uncertain, and the rivers few, and of very limited use. A waterfall became a symbol of abundance while a waterford indicated the Scarcity of water in the river, permitting its passage. The two are not the same thing by any means in their allusions.

They do suggest, as Brother Mackey pointed out, the difference between scarcity and abundance. If we consider the reference by Brother Mackey in this light, we see the force of his reasoning very clearly. It is true that the same body of water may at one place widen out and be shallow and then it is crossed at that point by easy passage, while at another place the same amount of water may tumble over a rock and form a waterfall.

If we start out by supposing the same amount of water is falling in each ease, we get the understanding of the critic, but this was not Doctor Mackey's argument. He was thinking of that abundance of water which tumbles plentifully over a precipice, and comparing it with a river which is almost dry and permits easy passage, the one indicating plenty and the other scarcity.

Let it not be forgotten that nowadays we look upon the slaughter of the Ephraimites somewhat differently than formerly. We are told that at that time there fell forty and two thousand. This was once generally understood as meaning forty-two thousand, but it is today usually accepted as two thousand and forty only. The pronunciation of the word Shibboleth is usually with the stress on the first syllable, the I short, and the o obscure as in the word theory.

Doctor Young's Analytical Concordance puts the stress on the first syllable and gives the o as obscure in sound, but he also places on record an alternative pronunciation in which the o is marked long. Another authority, Concise Dictionary of Hebrew and Chaldee Terms in the Bible, Hunt and Eaton, 1894, puts the stress on the second syllable with the o long. Here the word is traced to a Hebrew one, pronounced showable, from a root meaning to flow, and therefore shibboleth as meaning a stream that is flowing, an ear of corn groung out, and by analogy a flood; an ear of corn is given as shibboleth, with the o long. But a careful search among English Bibles including the Jewish Encyclopedia unearthed no alternative pronunciations.

However, the Fonolexika Langenscheidt,, Hebrew English Dictionary, a vocabulary of the Hebrew Old Testament based upon the pronunciation of the Sephardirn or Jews of Western Europe, does give on page 339 the word with the stress on the second syllable and the o long, the definition being ear (of corn), point, branch, stream, water-course. For those who may hear the alternative pronunciation and are tempted to mention it, then it is well to understand that both sets of sounds and stresses of syllables have substantial support, one from Jewish authority, the other from English acceptance. In any event, there is nothing to justify between critic and speaker a repetition of the Bible history as told by John Milton:

That sore battle, when so many died Without reprieve, adjudged to death For want of well pronouncing Shibboleth.

In commenting upon the use of picturesque phrases the London Times, 1924 asked: How many of those who talk glibly of shibboleths have before them the picture of the wretched Ephraimites at the for d striving frantically to frame the word which is going to be the arbiter for them of life and death? Rev. Walter Crick, of Oving Vicarage, in answer, mentions a striking repetition, not of the word, but of the facts which the word connotes, as related to him by Major General Sir George Mac Munn:

After Lord Allenby's final routing of the Turkish forces broken parties of fugitives arrived at the fords of Jordan. There were many Arabs and Syrians conscriptioned in the Turkish Army. The fords were held by our Arab allies, and when Turkish soldiers tried to pass they one and all said they were Syrians. So the Arab guards said, " Say now, Bozzel" meaning onion, and they said 4' Bossel" for no Turk could pronounce it right.

History is said to repeat itself, adds Mr. Criek, and, if this is so, no more singular illustration of the fact could well be imagined than is presented by this picture of the Turkish soldiers "striving frantically to frame the word which is going to be the arbiter for them of life and death." just as did the Ephraimites, three thousand years ago, and probably at the selfsame ford. The curious instance of the Ephraimites is not the only one related in history. The Builder, 1923 (page 31), records that during the awful days of the Sicilian Vespers a suspect was similarly tried. The name of dried peas among the Sicilians was ciceri: if the man pronounced the c with a chee sound he was allowed to pass as being a Sicilian; but if he gave it an s sound, he was captured as being a Frenchman. During a battle between the Danes and Saxons on Saint Bryee's Day in 1002, if tradition is to be trusted, the words Chichester Church were employed as a like test.

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