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Vegan or vegetarian: The juicy origins of the Hebrew words that describe meat/animal free diet

Did you know Tel Aviv has one of the highest vegan populations in the world per capita? For years now, the Hebrew terms צִמְחוֹנוּת וטִבְעוֹנוּת are commonly associated with the dietary requirements. But these words had a different meaning way before the vegan diet was popularized.


The scene at Meshek Barzilay, one of Tel Aviv's famous vegan restaurants.

The word ‘טבעי’, or ‘natural’, isn’t a new Hebrew word. We first see it at the end of the 19th century, just not with the same meaning it has today. In 1896, Yosef Klauzner published in the “HaTzvi” newspaper a list of new ways to grow one’s modern Hebrew vocabulary. One of the ways was to add the suffix ־וֹנִי to create names for workers and their craft, for example, טִבְעוֹנִי, or Physiker (the nickname for a natural scientist in the 18-19th century), or a היסטורוני, or Historier (today, known as a historian).


The word טבעוני isn’t just for a profession, it was also used to describe anything within the discipline in the early 20th century. Another example can be see


n in the newspaper “HaHerut”, containing a "natural (טבעוני) and a linguistic article" by Israel Eitan, that critiqued the book "Torat Hai" by the zoologist Israel Aharoni (March 17, 1916).


The term טבעוני continued to describe the natural sciences until the 1930s, it seems that today’s meaning 'as it is in nature' was added. Naturalists are those who examine the world as they were created - stark naked.

Veganism, or טבעונות, isn't the original meaning of the word in Hebrew.

This return to nature movement did not ignore nutrition either. Moshe Wilbushevich, a food engineer and pioneer of nutrition publications in Hebrew, published words against "the extreme method of 'naturalism' (טבעוניות), which rejects meat completely" (Daver, June 23, 1930).


So what was the meaning of טבעונות (tivonut) and טבעוניות (tivoniut) during those years? (Spot the subtle difference between the two).


Of the many uses of the term vegan in the first half of the 20th century, two new uses continued from then until this day: natural medicine (הרפואה הטבעונית) was used until the end of the 1980s, and veganism (התזונה הטבעונית) continues to be used even today, but it too underwent changes of meaning too. Until the late 1970s and early 1980s, a vegan diet in Israel ranged from one that included small portions of eggs and dairy products to one that completely prohibited animal foods and products. In the early 80s, the vegan diet as we know today came into effect,, and thus became associated with veganism, also an English term that was adopted into other languages.


In terms of the lifestyle, טִבְעוֹנוּת overtook טִבְעוֹנִיּוּת from the mid-50s. צִמְחוֹנִי and טִבְעוֹנִי as used today are problematic in terms of linguistic and semantic logic. This is because צמחונות comes from the word צמח, or plants, yet vegetarians eat animal products such as eggs and dairy products. Despite the inaccuracy, it does not seem to bother either vegans or vegetarians!


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