A genuine Aramaic term for “propitiatorium”: חסא
The cultic realities of this epoch are partially reparable from the much more late Christian tradition. In fact, one of them is the only channel by which AA itself came down to us.
As to the late Jewish Aramaic terminology, one of the channels of its transmission is Christian Syriac. Syriac-speaking Christian milieu was developing on the ground of early Semitic-speaking communities, and their Western Aramaic dialects were influencing early Christian Syriac, an Eastern Aramaic dialect.
The only Western Aramaic term for “propitiatorium” known to us through the Jewish rabbinic tradition is a Hebrew loanword, כפרת. It is of no help to us. But it is also without a trace in Christian Syriac.
In Christian Syriac the term for “propitiatorium” is ܚܣܐ or its derivate ܚܣܝܐ. It is important to note that Syriac ܚܣܐ is the only term for “propitiatorium” known to this language. There is no alternative term that might be borrowed from Greek, despite the fact that the Syriac Bible has been translated from the Greek versions and that Christian Syriac is very rich of the Greek loanwords. It is a priori likely, that Syriac ܚܣܐ belongs to the earliest layer of the Christian vocabulary of the Syrians, that is, that it goes back to the earliest Aramaic-speaking Christian and pre-Christian communities.
In Aramaic of the rabbinic tradition a liturgical connection of the corresponding root (Hws) makes felt itself only obliquely.
There is, in rabbinic Western Aramaic, a verb חוס with the basic meaning “to protect”, with no specific liturgical connections, likewise its homographic counterpart in Biblical Hebrew. Oddly enough, a derivate of the same root, חַסָּא, an exact equivalent of Syriac ܚܣܐ, has a meaning apparently unrelated to “protecting”, namely, “lettuce”.
However, both Syriac ܚܣܐ and Western Aramaic חסא are going back to the Jewish liturgy. In fact, in rabbinic Aramaic, חסא is a more liturgical than botanic or cooking term. There is a normal term for the corresponding botanic species, חזרת, and so, another term, חסא, is used only as superfluous and needing to be explained. This is what has been done in the Babylonian Talmud (bPesachim, ch. II, 39a): “Even Rabha said that lettuce (חזרת) is called hassa (חסא), which signifies, ‘God has mercy on us’.” The whole context is a discussion on the bitter herbs necessary to the preparation of the lamb for the Pesach.
This etymology of חסא connected to “mercy of God” is here exactly the same as that of the Syriac ܚܣܐ. Moreover, it is the same as in Greek ἱλαστήριον calquing Hebrew כפרת “propitiatorium”. It is important to note, that there is here something more than simple linguistic etymology to a root with general meaning of “protection” or “having mercy”. The “mercy” dealt with here is precisely the mercy of God.
The mercy of God is the main theme of the Yom Kippur, the only feast when the propitiatorium was in work, but the same theme is not foreign to the Pesach as well, not to say, that in some pre-Christian Judaisms the feasts of the Pesach and Yom Kippur were interferential in such an extent that even the expiation performed by Christ Himself, the main ritual of the Yom Kippur, has been presented as a sacrifice of the Pesach lamb… Avoiding going deeper, I note this here only to point out that we have not to overestimate the distance between the Pesach and the Yom Kippur in the pre-Christian Jewish traditions.
In result, we have to consider the meaning of “lettuce” as a rather late acquisition of Western Aramaic חסא and specific to the rabbinic tradition only. Before this, that is, before its rabbinical use, the word was a liturgical term connected to the rituals of asking of mercy or forgiveness.
The very existence of the same word in Syriac with the meaning “propitiatorium” makes very likely that such was an original meaning of Western Aramaic חסא, even if its initial spectrum of meanings could be broader. This supposition is corroborated by the fact that in Aramaic of the rabbinic tradition the only term for “propitiatorium” is a Hebrew loanword כפרת. A native Aramaic term for the same liturgical device, חסא, has been almost completely (while still not completely!) “deritualised”.
So, my first point consists in the following. There was a genuine Aramaic term for “propitiatorium”, preserved by the Christian Syriac vocabulary and still faintly discernible in the rabbinical sources, חסא (or *חסיא, like Syriac ܚܣܝܐ).