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Rie and Fitches, or a Rye Smile for Accuracy

When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad the fitches, and scatter the cummin, and cast in the principal wheat and the appointed barley and the rie in their place? Isaiah 28:25.

A reader from California and a huge help to me in spotting misspellings and other gaffes in this blog, recently asked me about the two words, "rie" and "fitches" in the King James Bible. Both words are missing from modern translations. Rie (That is the English spelling that Cambridge uses.) is almost universally translated as "spelt". Spelt and rie are two distinctly different grains. Which one is correct here? What are fitches? Fitches is usually substituted with the word "dill" in new bibles although the NIV calls it caraway.

I did a little cursory research for Dido (Lolo Dido for those of you who speak Tagalog.) and I was unsatisfied with what I found. Rie and spelt are clearly not the same thing and the Oxford English dictionary was disappointing in defining fitches.

1-800-Avi-Gold (not a real number).

As regular readers of this blog know, we are blessed to have the occasional insight of Mr. Avi Gold of Be'er Shevai, Israel. I first met Avi a couple of decades ago when he was working for the State of Oklahoma to restore an Indian language. He has a lifelong interest in languages and an intellect to match his interest. My wife once asked him about the various kings in Esther and Ezra. He used a white board and instructed us in the dynasties of that era. He referenced kings' names in a few languages that predated modern Farsi (The language of Iran). When she asked him how he knew those languages he shrugged and said that a professor of those languages had been kind enough to let him audit those classes.

In that Mr. Gold is a Jew who takes the observation of his religion seriously, it is gracious for him to delve into the minor conflicts between various English Bibles written for Christians. I sent him an email asking if their is any justification in the English Language especially Early Modern English for using the word "rie" to signify grain in general. I also wondered if there was any justification in Hebrew for using the word "rie". He emailed back the following email.

Good afternoon, Pastor John,

There is actually a fair amount of documentation in terms of the Hebrew botanical terms in this case, and I think I can explain how this discrepancy developed between the King James and other English translations in Isaiah 28:25.

First, I am not aware of any usage of the word "rye" or "rie" which would apply to grain in general in English.

Second, however, the Hebrew usage is instructive here:

In the verse in Isaiah, the Hebrew word is כסמת. That is the same word as appears in Exodus 9:32, which happens to be the only other verse in the King James which has "rie", and there too, "rie" translates כסמת.

Interestingly enough, those two verses (Isaiah 28:25 and Exodus 9:32) are also the only two places in the Hebrew text which have the word כסמת. Incidentally, modern Hebrew has a completely different word for rye: שיפון.

Now, as for "spelt", I notice that the word does not appear at all in the King James. The word for "spelt" in modern Hebrew is כוסמין. This form does not occur in biblical Hebrew. However, there is one place where the close spelling כסמם appears. More about this in a moment.

The word "fitches" appears in the King James in three verses. One of these happens to be the very verse your question focused on: Isaiah 28:25. The other two are Isaiah 28:27 and Ezekiel 4:9.

In the two verses in Isaiah "fitches" translates the Hebrew word קצח, which refers to the species Nigella sativa. This species is often called "black caraway" in English. This is the meaning of קצח both in classical and modern Hebrew. The word "fitches" in English is well-established as referring to the same species: Nigella sativa.

The connection with rye and spelt will become clear in a moment, when examining the third verse: Ezekiel 4:9. In that verse the word קצח is not found, but instead the word כסמם appears. This is the word which King James translates as "fitches" in Ezekiel 4:9, but which the NIV, for example, renders "spelt"! (NIV also renders כסמת "spelt" in the verses in Exodus and Isaiah).

This can be explained by noting a detail in terms of the Hebrew and a detail in terms of the English. In Hebrew, the spellings of כסמת and כסמם are similar, but not identical. Some translators have taken the latter merely to be the plural form of the former ( thus translating them all as "spelt", for example, based on the meaning of כוסמין in later Hebrew), whereas others have recognized that the two words refer to different species.

There is no doubt from Exodus 9:32 that כסמת is a grain. Ezekiel 4:9, however, contains ingredients which are grains, such as wheat and barley, as well as ingredients which are clearly not (such as beans and lentiles).

Now, regarding the translation "fitches" for both קצח and כסמם, there's an interesting twist in English. It just so happens that the English word "rye" is sometimes applied to black caraway - Nigella sativa! In the King James, however, the two usages "rye" are distinguished. When it refers to a grain, King James uses "rie", and when it is not clearly a grain, King James prefers "fitches"- the same word King James uses when the meaning is unambiguously Nigella sativa - or "fitches" in King James' English.

So, to recap:

The Hebrew text has כסמת twice (once in Exodus and once in Isaiah). King James renders both of these "rie".

The Hebrew text has קצח twice. Both of these are rendered "fitches" by the King James. Both the Hebrew word קצח and the English word "fitches" refer to the same species- Nigella sativa, or "black caraway".

The word כסמם appears once in biblical Hebrew. It too is translated as "fitches" by King James.

Rye in English has a secondary meaning of Nigella sativa - black caraway, but King James carefully distinguishes rye as grain (rie) and rye as black caraway (fitches).

Rye in modern Hebrew is שיפון.

Spelt in modern Hebrew is כוסמין.

Be well,


I want to make a point here. Avi didn't just explain why the King James Bible is right here. He also gave us an insight into why the other translators stumble:

"In Hebrew, the spellings of כסמת and כסמם are similar, but not identical. Some translators have taken the latter merely to be the plural form of the former ( thus translating them all as "spelt", for example, based on the meaning of כוסמין in later Hebrew), whereas others have recognized that the two words refer to different species." (Underlining by me).

This is how the world of versions works. Somewhere, somebody thinks that they are clever and in doing so mistakes one word for the plural of another. He then writes a dictionary to which all the others refer. Then naive students pay big money to sit in classrooms learning the error as truth, or more than likely they read some little thing somewhere and are now self appointed experts. The following picture was on Avi's Facebook this morning.

Another thing to note is that there is no biblical Hebrew word for "spelt" which is a another type of grain. You can be sure that if the Jews who wrote the bible had no word for a particular grain, that that grain was unknown to them.

And now, my own note about fitches. The farthest back that the Oxford English Dictionary goes in defining the word "fitches" as a plant, is they define it as leaves that are twined together for basket making. It is interesting to note that the leaves of Nigella Sativa are described as "finely divided, linear leaves".

Once again, we see how that the King James Translators understood the Hebrew Bible they were reading. Once again, the new translators are exposed as lemmings scrambling to dive off of whichever cliff their dictionaries suggest.

One last thing, please do not be taken in by the Orthodox Jewish bible. It is about as orthodox as bacon soaked in milk and served with a side dish of shrimp. I had made the error of referring to that bible to see how Jews translated a word. It was translated by a modern group of Messianic Jews who want to sing Hava Nagila and Kumbaya at the same service.

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