Jewish words

Dikduk

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, June 24, 2010

Dikduk, a scary word for generations of Jewish day School pupils, means grammar in modern Hebrew. It carries connotations of narrow distinctions between verb formations and subtle differences in tense structures. The origins of the word and even its sound fully express these associations. Dikduk comes from the word dak, meaning fine or thin.The word dikdek means to grind or crush - that is to make something fine or thin. From the literal act of grinding and crushing, it also comes to bear the psychological sense of broken, humiliated and afflicted.

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Eshtonot

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, June 17, 2010

To "lose it" in English means lose one's temper. In Hebrew we say "labed (to lose) eshtonot".

Although most Israelis have lost their eshtonot at one time or another, do they know what the literal meaning of eshtonot is? The word appears just once in the entire Bible: "Put not your trust in the great, in mortal man who cannot save. His breath departs; he returns to dust; on that day his eshtonot are lost" (Psalms 146:3-4). In contrast to humanity's impermanence, God "keeps faith forever" (146: 5).

Most commentators (Rashi, Ibn Ezra for example) define eshtonot as thoughts.

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Sambatyon

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, June 10, 2010

The Sambatyon is a mythical river separating the Ten Lost Tribes from the rest of Israel. The first mention is in the Targum Yonatan on Exodus 34:4, "I will remove them from there and place them beyond the River Sambatyon."

Rabbi Akiva remarks on the river's Sabbath observance when he tells his Roman interlocutor Ternius Rufus that the Sambatyon ceases to flow on Shabbat (Genesis Rabba 11).

There is some argument about the Sambatyon's location. Josephus places it in Syria, Nachmanides names Media, and others suggest India or Ethiopia.

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Yachad

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, June 3, 2010

Yachad means "together" and comes from echad, one. The most famous pair who were beyachad - as one - was Abraham and Isaac, "And the two of them walked together, vayelchu sh'nehem yachdav" (Genesis 22:8). Rashi explains yachdav as with an equal heart. This expression is used frequently in Israel as a title to lectures on seemingly contradictory concepts. For example, for years after Yitzchak Rabin's assassination, people asked "Democracy and Judaism, will the two walk yachdav?"

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Ploni Almoni

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 27, 2010

While English uses phrases like John Doe or A N Other to refer to an unnamed or unspecified person, in Hebrew we say ploni almoni or just ploni. In discussing hypothetical scenarios, the Talmud uses ploni to refer to a witness, a bridegroom, or whatever the case maybe.

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Mikdash Me'at

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 21, 2010

Synagogues, study houses, and even homes are called mikdash me'at, a small temple. According to the Talmud (Megilah 29a), God will dwell in the holy spaces we create, for they are the Temple in miniature.

Ezekiel cries out (11:13), "Lord God, you are wiping out the remnant of Israel." God responds by declaring that He has "removed them far among the nations and have scattered them among the countries, and I have become to them a mikdash me'at, a small sanctuary".

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Madda

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 13, 2010

The Yeshiva University school of modern Orthodoxy uses the term Torah umadda to encapsulate its vision of the relationship between Judaism and the secular world. Referring to these two realms, its Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm wrote, "Each alone is true, but only partially true; both together present the possibility of a larger truth." The approach aims at a synthesis between the worlds of Torah and secular wisdom.

Madda means science in modern Hebrew. Science and madda are rooted in ancient words for knowledge - science in the Latin and madda in the Hebrew.

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Peleh

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 6, 2010

A peleh is a wonder or a miracle. At the splitting of the Red Sea, God is praised "awesome in splendour, working peleh [wonder]" (Exodus 15:11).

When Manoah asks the name of the angel who has come to announce the conception of Samson, the angel refuses, claiming that his name is peli - unknowable (Judges 13:18). A peleh is a type of miracle that is beyond our understanding, as in Leviticus 17:8: "if a case is too baffling - yipaleh mimcha davar".

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Dor

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, April 28, 2010

Dor is "generation" in Hebrew. It is related to the word kadur (ball) and therefore implies a cyclical perception of generations rising and passing away. As Kohelet proclaims, "One dor goes; another dor comes." (Ecclesiastes 1:4).

Psalm 24 asks, "Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?": after listing some lofty attributes ("he who has clean hands"), it concludes, "such is the dor of those who turn to Him." Here, dor means a cadre of worthies, a closed circle and not the entire generation.

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Bor

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, April 22, 2010

The Mishnah Avot (2:5) teaches, "A bor cannot be sin-fearing". A bor is an ignoramus, a metaphor borrowed from agriculture. Literally, bor means an unfarmed field, which is left to lie fallow. During the years of famine, the Egyptians begged Joseph for seed (Genesi 47:19) "that the land may not become a waste."

Onkelos translates "waste" into Aramaic as tvor. Leviticus Rabbah discusses leaving fields bayra during the Sabbatical year.

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