We often use strange sounding words in our Masonic lore. Sometimes they are fugitives from a previous generation and are linguistic anachronisms. From our great Masonic lectures we are told that Shibboleth is a password used by the ancient men from Gilead to distinguish themselves from the Ephramites. In Judges 12:5-6, the Gileadites used the word as a linguistic pass-code to separate themselves from their enemy.
“Whenever a fugitive from Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the Gileadites asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he answered, “No,” they told him, “Please say Shibboleth.” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce it correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.” (Judges 5-6, HCSB http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Judges+12&version=HCSB)
The Ephramites could not form the words correctly and instead of being able to articulate a “Sh” sound they could only make an “S” sound. This gave them away and the fugitive would easily be apprehended. The aspirate sound is missing – and is a key.
We are told that the word, in Hebrew, means “Ear of Corn”. In reality it means the part of a plan that bears grain, like corn or wheat. What we are not told is that this word can also mean “stream” or “torrent” of water or place where you cross the water. In the time of Solomon the ear of corn represented plenty and was often used to pay laborers wages. Entemologically the word derives from the Hebrew Sihlet-Shabioth, which is derived from the root word Shabal, meaning “to go”, “to go up”, or “to grow”. There has been much discussion about what the word really means but to a Mason it should mean “plenty”.
Albert Mackey and others take some stab at including the concept of watershed or waterfall as part of this definition and it is found in some regional US ritual. I would argue that it really doesn’t add or detract value but ignores the real purpose for freemasons as being the concept of plenty.
Mankind has adopted this word Shibboleth to mean word or practice that is indicative of someones origin. For example jargon or modern bonding jokes may mean something to one group of people but seem totally foreign to someone else. During battles American soldiers often use baseball or other sports terms to tell if someone is an American or not (Battle of the Bulge). Also consider that there are many regional dialects that have specific sounds “House vs. Haus”, “Pop vs. soda”, etc. You may also find the term Shibboleth used in a variety of technical applications and products as there is a high sensitivity to security and electronics.
Of particular interest to me in the study of this word is the relative usefulness to modern Masons. We are known as a secret society and often times found to have particular modes of recognition, but how exactly does this word apply to us? Why didn’t operatives pick something else, say block or tackle or any number of useful tools in the trade?
I wonder if maybe this term was chosen to remind us of two basic elements of communication: there must be a speaker and a listener. Someone must convey the message and another must interpret the message.
Shibboleth, http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Words/shibboleth.html (03.13.2011)
Shibboleth, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shibboleth (03.13.2011)
Jephthah, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jephthah (03.13.2011)
Masonic Sheaf of Corn, http://www.masonic-lodge-of-education.com/masonic-sheaf-of-corn.html (3.13.2011)
Masonic Symbolosm, Charles Clyde Hunt, http://books.google.com/books?id=f62CKhtfC2kC&pg=PA420&lpg=PA420&dq=shibboleth+masonic+meaning&source=bl&ots=93mh8rFraS&sig=yg4LKarNMukLBOz5BVrUQVoH2fs&hl=en&ei=DX5-TYmzMsyKrQG7t4XcBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&sqi=2&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=shibboleth%20masonic%20meaning&f=false pp 420-430. (03.13.2011)