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Understanding the Heatwave Terms in Hebrew: שרב or חמסין

In Hebrew, the terms שָׁרָב and חַמְסִין are used to describe a heatwave. But are these terms correct?

The transitional seasons and early summer days in the Land of Israel are accompanied by very hot and dry days. Many refer to this weather as חַמְסִין, but the correct term is שָׁרָב. The term חַמְסִין has a different meaning: a hot and dry southern wind typical of Egypt.

The word שָׁרָב originates from the Bible and is commonly interpreted as heat and dryness: "They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat down on them" (Isaiah 49:10), "The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs" (Isaiah 35:7). In other Semitic languages, words from the same root carry a similar meaning ('heat' in Aramaic of the Land of Israel, 'hot desert wind' in Syriac, and more).

The word חַמְסִין came to us from Egyptian Arabic – probably during the British Mandate period (it is believed that British soldiers who served in Egypt brought it to the land). This word denotes the hot and dry wind blowing in Egypt from the south, carrying dust and sand. On the origin of this wind's name, linguist Chaim Blanc wrote:

The popular language linked it to the period between the Coptic Easter (Christians of Egypt) and their Pentecost, a period of fifty days, hence the name of the winds: the fifty days' winds, or the fifty winds ("Arayah al-Khamsin").

Blanc notes that in the language of the Arabs of the Land of Israel, there is no special name for this southern wind, unlike the hot and dry eastern wind known as שַׁרְקִיָּה (its name also spread to Italian: Scirocco). The Hebrew name for this eastern wind is רוּחַ קָדִים (from קֶדֶם = east) – a combination originating from the Bible. Therefore, when there is a heatwave, one should say: "יש שרב היום" and not "יש חמסין היום."

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