Jewish words

Ma'aser

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 5, 2011

As he began what would be a 20-year sojourn in exile, Jacob prays to God and promises, "Of all that You give me, I will set aside a tenth for You" (Genesis 28:22).  This is the first biblical mention of the mitzvah to donate one tenth or a ma'aser of your possessions.  In Temple times, farmers gave a tenth of their produce to the priests and Levites. In fact, all fruits and vegetables grown in

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Sefirat ha'omer

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, April 28, 2011

From the second night of Pesach, we count the Omer - counting off the days for seven weeks until Shavuot. Counting is an expression of anticipation. Grown-ups count the weeks until the next holiday; kids count the minutes until the end of class. It is also implies a sense of progress and direction.

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Mayim achronim

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, February 24, 2011

Many people have the custom, known as mayim achronim, to pour a little water over their finger tips up to the joints before saying grace after meals. You have probably seen the pretty silver cup and

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Darchei Shalom

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 22, 2010

Darchei Shalom means the ways or paths of peace, from the words derech, road, and shalom, peace. It is primarily a legal category rooted in Mishnah Gittin 5:8, which lists various halachot whose rationale is given as mipnei darchei shalom,  to avoid quarrels and contention.

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Ga'agua

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 14, 2010

Ga'agua means longing or homesickness. This talmudic word derives from the biblical ga'a, the low sound produced by cattle. The cows pulling the holy ark in the beginning of I Samuel are described as ga'u (moaning) as they went.

Midrash Tanhuma (Exodus 1) moralises on the importance of disciplining one's children. If you withhold the rod (or according to the non-violent interpretation, the rod of morality - shevet mussar), your child will take up bad ways: "That is what we find regarding Ishmael, who had ga'aguim for Abraham, who did not chastise him."

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Geshmack

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 7, 2010

Last week, I saw a sign in a religious neighbourhood of Jerusalem proffering advice for those who wanted a year of "geshmack Torah learning." In context, this probably means something like satisfying, enjoyable or delightful. But literally, the word means delicious or yummy in Yiddish. Geschmack in German means "tasty", from the verb schmacken to "taste."

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Chizuk

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, September 28, 2010

The other day I saw a poster in English on a wall in a religious area of Jerusalem, offering counselling and advice on how to achieve a year full of "geshmack [tasty] Torah learning". It was signed "The Chizuk Committee".

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Nafka Mina

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, September 21, 2010

Mai nafka minah is a colloquial, yeshivish question meaning "What's the practical difference?" It has no neat English equivalent. You might say "What's the nafka minah if she's Christian or Wyccan? The children still won't be Jewish" or "I still can't taste the nafka minah between Coke and Pepsi."

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Neilah

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, September 16, 2010

Weekdays have three services. Shabbat and Yomtovim have four. Yom Kippur is the only day of the year with five. The extra service is Neilah, prayed at the end of Yom Kippur as the sun is setting. Neilah means closing.

There are two views in the Talmud as to what is or was closing at this time. The first is that it refers to the Temple gates that were closed at the end of the day.

The second is that it is the gates of heaven that are closing as daylight fades (Yerushalmi Berachot 4:1). "Open the gates," our liturgy says, "For day is nearly past."

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Harat Olam

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, September 7, 2010

After blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah we say hayom harat olam. The word harat is connected to pregnancy and birth. Herayon means pregnancy in modern Hebrew, and horeh is the name for a parent. The medieval commentator Rashbam, on Genesis 49:26, further connects the word to har meaning mountains - parents and ancestors being the ancient mountains from which we are hewn.

Following these associations, English machzorim tend to render our phrase as "Today is the birthday of the world", which may conjure up images of a big cake with 5771 candles.

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