Librarian’s Lobby
By Daniel D. Stuhlman
December 2008
What is the Hebrew Word for Librarian?

Last week someone asked me via e-mail what is the Hebrew word for cataloger. Even though I feel that I am a cataloger, I didn’t know the answer. I know the general word for librarian, (safran) and I even use it as part of the name of my blog. The Hebrew word for catalog, (katalog), is borrowed word from English. This question should have been an easy one to answer with one word. Since the verb meaning to catalog is (kat-leig) , I guessed that the person who performs this activity is (mikat-leig). I thought the best way to find the answer was to check a dictionary. I checked four. Even Shoshan1 and Webster's New World2 didn’t have an entry and the other two disagreed. Alacalay3 has an entry: “cataloger see catalogist.” “Catalogist” is not a word we use. While we know what it should mean, it is just not used. That leaves me suspect of Alacalay’s Hebrew translation, (ka-ta-lo-gan). Since I didn’t have a definitive answer from a dictionary, I asked an Israeli what he thought the term should be. I showed the entry I thought was the most logical, (ka-ta-lo-gan) and he said that is sounded right. Since language is not always a simple as checking a dictionary, I tried using Google to find documents using as a type of librarian. I didn’t find any.

A couple of days later I asked another Israeli and he said, “ (Safran), when you’re a librarian don’t you know everything?” This reminded me of the book, How the Hebrew Language Grew, by Edward Horowitz4 . Language grows both by following rules and organically, not following rules. This book explains how the Hebrew language develops new vocabulary from roots and rules for modern terms and ideas. The book has a section on nouns used for people making a living.

The word, cataloger in English to a non-library person could also mean a person who reads catalogs from businesses. Reference librarians, rare book librarians and administrative librarians have no special English words for them. There is no such word as, “ referencer” or “rare-booker.”Administrator”  does not have a meaning specific to librarians. Now the search is not only for the Hebrew term, but also for the source of the best term in English.

The word, library, is from the Latin, liber, which means book, but once meant the bark of a tree used for writing. Library has three basic definitions in English, 1) The building or room to hold a book collection, 2) A collection of books (such as the “ Loeb Classical Library”); and 3) A scribe, which is an obsolete usage. Livre is the French for book. The Greek word for book is βιβλίο (biblio). βιβλοσ (Biblos), a diminutive of biblio is the word was used by the Greek translation of the " (Tanach) as the title of the work. Bibliois the root for Bible, bibliography, and bibliographer5. Jerome used Bible as the title of his Latin translation. When I teach cataloging I tell the students that the Bible is an early example of ordering books in a logical order. This is an early form of cataloging. Latin has another word for book, codex. Both in Latin and English, codex is a form of a book with pages bound at the spine. This compares to a scroll or volumen in Latin, which rolls and may or may not be on a stick. Volumen is the source of volume in English, another word for book. Codex gives uscode in English meaning a body of knowledge such as moral code or law code.

The Latin word for library is bibliotheca based on the Greek biblios. This is root for Bibliothek, bibliothéque, and bibleoteca, in German, French and Spanish respectively. The words for library in Slavic languages such as Russian and Lithuanian are similar. In Latin libraria was used for a bookseller hence in French libraire and libreria in Spanish mean book store or book-trade.

The Vulgate translation of Esther 8:9 uses “librariisas the translation of (sofre) means the scribes of the king. The Wycliffe Bible 6 of 1382 translated this phrase as: “The scribis and the librariis.”

In English we have occupations that take a verb and add an – erfor the noun meaning a person who performs the action. Examples are: work – worker; talk – talker; walk – walker; farm – farmer. Some occupations take a conceptual noun add –ian to create a word meaning a practitioner of that concept. Examples are: contrary – contrarian; sect – sectarian; and library – librarian. There are some occupations that have no etymological connection between the person and the act. Examples are: comedian – teller of jokes or stories; rabbi – one who teaches, preaches and leads; psychologist – treats mental problems.

Hebrew also has patterns for forming occupations. One pattern is the (pa-al)






Photographer, one who makes images.


Judge (one who interprets the law)


Tailor (one who pulls thread)


Barber (one who cuts)




Soldier (one who has power)

Some of these occupations are from Biblical Hebrew. The word (tselem) appears in Biblical Hebrew (see Genesis 1:27) meaning image. In later Hebrew it generalized to mean picture. Thus one who makes a picture is a Tsalam. Dayan appears in this form only twice in the Tanach in 1 Samuel 24:16 and in Psalms 68:6 with the meaning of judge (presiding officer of a court). The root is very old and has cognates and sources in other ancient Semitic languages. As an ancient word it developed several meanings, starting with “to cut.” Later sapar meant “to count” as in numbers and “recount” as in telling stories. Sapar in Biblical Hebrew is a verb and later the name of someone who cuts (a barber) or someone counts (a census taker). The tool that a baber users, a scissors, is misparayim. Sofer is the word for both scribe and enumerator. Since enumerators need to write down their count is a logical progression to call what they write, sepharim .

Dag appears many times in the Tanakh meaning fish (as the noun). In Nehemiah 13:16 it is spelled . Dayagmeaning fisherman appears in the plural Isaiah 19:8 and in Ezekiel 47:10 . There is no instance of singular in the Tanakh. The root also gives us Dagon, the Philistine, god. appears in many places in the Tanakh meaning strength and army. The meaning of soldier is post-Biblical. The pa-al form is well established in Biblical and post-Biblical Hebrew as a way of indicating occupations or tasks.

The root appears many places in the Tanakh with several meanings. In the Biblical world what we call a book was written on parchment and rolled up. From the root < > meaning to roll we get a scroll. This word did not become our word for book. In the Tanakh sefer has many meanings including document, written orders, letter, and book. It has cognates in other Semitic languages and is possibly borrowed from Assyrian. In Exodus 17:14 sefer has the meaning of preparing a document for remembering. We use (sefer Torah) as the holy scroll we read from in the synagogue. Sefer is established with the same meaning that we use today.

We couldn’t use the words sapar or sofer for librarian since they are used in Biblical Hebrew and not available for us. There is another pattern, called pa-alan that takes personal characteristics and creates the name for a person with those characterizes. This pattern creates very elegant words when compared to the awkward English expression. Examples are:






One who is merciful


An angry person


A learned person


One who negotiates, a matchmaker


One who has a good memory


One who works with books, a librarian

Thus the use of Saf-ran for librarian is established. In order to figure out the terms that modern Hebrew speaking librarians use I sent a query to the reference librarians at Bar Ilan University Library. Here is what they use: Cataloger - safran mekatleg - ; Reference librarian safran ya'atz - The Hebrew term follows form of English; two words rather than an elegant Hebrew construction.

Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. Visit the web site at to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at:

1 1966 \ -. : -,

2 Webster's New World Hebrew Dictionary / Hayim Baltsan. New York : Macmillan, 1992.

3 The Complete English-Hebrew Dictionary / by Reuben Alcalay. Hartford, Conn. : Prayer Book Press, 1965. Alcalay usually follows British spelling and usage.

4 New York : Jewish Education Committee Press, 1960.

5 A bibliographer is a special kind of librarian who is a subject specialist who makes lists of books for purchase and collection building.

6 The Wycliffe Bible was translated from the Latin Vulgate, not the Hebrew original. The quote I used is from the Oxford English Dictionary. Another version that claims to be the Wycliffe Bible has: “whanne the dyteris and `writeris of the kyng weren clepid.”

Note: On December 26, Yoel Sheridan sent a comment on the original column. He said that Babylon English-Hebrew Dictionary , a Hebrew-English dictionary avaliable on line at, entry for "cataloger" is .

seems a better translation. is the simple borrowing of the English word. While that is an interesting translation and agrees with logic, it does not trump the actual usage in an Israeli academic library.

Last revised Dec. 27, 2008

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