Jewish words

Zimun

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, January 22, 2009

Eating together, according to Jewish law, means thanking God together, and a zimun is how you do it. One companion (in the literal sense of one with whom you break bread) invites the others to thank God or bensh together.

Zimun is the mishnaic Hebrew for invitation.  In modern Hebrew, we say hazmanah. The root of both the ancient and current terms is the same: z’man, meaning time.  

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Oferet Yetzukah

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, January 14, 2009

Children throughout Israel sing the Chanucah ballad by the great modern Hebrew poet Haim Nachman Bialik: “Teacher bought a spinning top for me, solid lead — in whose honour, do you know? In honour of Chanucah.”

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Nezikin

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, January 8, 2009

On December 30, the seven-year daf yomi cycle of studying a page of Talmud each day began the talmudic order of Nezikin. It will take almost two years to complete.

Nezikin means damages, from the verb l’hazik, to hurt or damage. The tractates comprising Nezikin discuss the whole gamut of civil and financial law, covering contracts, employment, civil damages, damages from personal assault, theft, robbery, returning lost objects, property rights, disputes between neighbours and much more.

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Techelet

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, December 30, 2008

Techelet is the sky-blue dye colour that was familiar in ancient Israel, best known from the Shema’s command to “put upon the fringe of each corner a thread of blue”.

For centuries the practice of putting a blue thread on the corners of the tzitzit lapsed. Under the Romans, blue and purple signified imperial power. Wearing those colours was restricted to Roman elites and the Jewish techelet industry was apparently suppressed. The midrashic Bamidbar Rabbah (17:5) put it: “Now we have only white, for the original techelet has been hidden.”

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Pekeleh

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, December 23, 2008

So similar to the English, package, and yet pekeleh has endured as an endearing term for a parcel. Pekel is the original Yiddish form of the word, deriving from the German word pack. The eleh suffix turns it into something warm and fuzzy. English does not have a strong tradition of diminutive suffixes, which is perhaps one of the reasons for the survival of pekeleh, for who could keep a straight face while saying, “Look what Daddy has! A cutie packagey!”

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Apocrypha

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, December 18, 2008

From the Greek for “those having been hidden away” — apo means away, and crypha is related to script and encrypt — Apocrypha refers to books not included in the biblical canon, which was closed around 100 CE.

Whereas the Five Books of Moses were shoo-ins for inclusion, the Book of Esther and Song of Songs were subjects of debate among those of the Great Assembly. Acceptance into the canon required indubitable prophetic inspiration and eternal relevance. In the words of the Talmud, “it must be needed for generations to come”.

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Ani Ma’amin

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, December 11, 2008

During these pre-election days in Israel, one hears many politicians declaiming his or her “ani ma’amin”, by which they mean their credo. Ani ma’amin means “I believe” and is taken from the Thirteen Principles of Faith of Maimonides. The most famous principle is the twelfth: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. How long it takes, I will await his coming every day.”

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Ma'apilim

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, December 4, 2008

On the shores of Israel’s Mediterranean coast lies a defunct detention camp that now serves as a museum of the legacy of the Ma’apilim. These were the immigrants who, in spite of Britain’s strict limitations on Jewish immigration from 1934 until 1948, came to Israel, often in old, damaged boats.

One of the ships carrying hopeful immigrants was called Hama’apilim, hence the name for the entire movement.

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Shmittah

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 27, 2008

Shmittah is the sabbatical year for the land of Israel. It happens once every seven years and the most recent has just finished. According to the Torah, during the shmittah year, farmers are to take a break from actively cultivating their land. Whatever grows on the land without cultivation is open to everyone, especially to the poor, to come and take. (Leviticus 25). In a parallel to the weekly Shabbat, shmittah is a septennial Shabbat for the land and those who work on it.

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Tzedek

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 20, 2008

Tzedek meaning justice, has been a mark and aspiration of the Jewish people since its beginning. When God "decides" to share his plan to destroy Sodom with Abraham, He gives the reason that He has commanded Abraham and his descendants "to do tzedakah and mishpat", righteousness and justice. Therefore, God invites Abraham to take part in the process of moral decision-making about the fate of Sodom.

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