By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008
Follow The JC on Twitter

In the first of a weekly series, Cambridge University students' chaplain Rabbi Julian Sinclair takes a look at the meaning of key Jewish words and phrases.

Davar means "word," and it also means "thing." This fact reflects a deep facet of a Jewish world view.

Words are the creative energy of the world. God spoke, and through words brought the universe into being.

The kabbalists tell us that reality itself is forged from combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters. There is a mystical correspondence between a word and what it refers to.

We, too, create our world and the things of our lives through words.

As Wittgenstein and others teach us, the words we use are the way in which we each parcel out the amorphous stuff of experience into manageable, useful objects and concepts.

How we do this tells us enlightening things about our culture.

Eskimos have nearly 40 different words for snow, and English today has about 55 different slang expressions for throwing up. The Hebrew language has six words for "soul."

Our familiarity with, or distance from, Jewish words reflects a relationship to the things of Jewish life.

Trivial example: how many people think that you schlepp naches? No, you schepp naches. Schlepp means "carry," "schepp" means "draw out" or "derive." Look it up, or ask any great-grandparent.

Thinking about Jewish words, whether familiar, strange, abused or misused, recovering the fullness and depth of their meaning, is a way of restoring and reinvigorating our connection to the life that they carry.

    Last updated: 1:50pm, November 5 2008