Jewish words

Benoni

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 13, 2008

Benoni is the word you would use in Israel to ask for a medium-sized cup of coffee. The word connotes something medium, or average. It comes from the proposition bein, meaning in between.

The benoni plays a central role in Jewish ethical literature. He or she is the average person, neither completely righteous nor completely wicked, who has to struggle to try to be better. Maimonides famously defines the benoni as one whose merits and faults are equal. Therefore everyone should see themselves as a benoni at all times; one good deed can tip the balance.

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Wandering Jew

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 6, 2008

Wandering Jew is a phrase that trips easily off the tongue and can be heard to describe the most trivial situations such as having to change tables at a wedding to a busy travel schedule, as I once heard someone say, "With bookings in London, New York, LA, and Johannesburg, I'm going to be the Wandering Jew this year." But did this self-important lecturer know to what millennia-long antisemitic legend he was referring?

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Frum

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

If you're Jewishly observant, you are liable to be called a frummer. In Britain in particular, you may be called a meshuganner frummer.

In America, frummie means sanctimoniously frum. Frumkeit is the way of life of the frum, and Frumster is a dating website for the frum which boasts hundreds of successful matches.

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Freier

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

Freier is a key concept in understanding Israeli society and psyche. It is best translated as mug or sucker. The freier is the one who waits patiently in line at the supermarket and would not dream of leaving his trolley to zip around the aisles for the last few vital items.

The freier in the army is the one who asks the "she'elat kitbag" (kitbag question, another crucial term; the sergeant orders everyone to run three times around the base, to which the freier queries innocently, "Is that with or without our kitbags?").

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Etzem

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

Etzem means what is inner and essential. In modern Hebrew, politicians will frequently say "etzem ha'inyan", which means roughly, "the essential fact of the matter", and is equally vacuous and clichéd. The word itself means bone, and we see the similarity to the now archaic English phrase, "the marrow of the matter".

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Etzah

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

Thank you, but I don't need your etzahs," you might say more or less politely to an interfering, but well-meaning, family member.

Etzah means a piece of advice, plan or counsel. Giving advice seems to be a characteristic Jewish practice. There is even a Yiddish word for someone who does so habitually: etzahgebber.

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Etrog

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

The lemon-like etrog is one of the four types of vegetation that we hold together and wave during Succot to fulfil one of the most picturesque mitzvot. The Torah (Leviticus 21: 40) tells us to take a pri etz hadar, the fruit of a beautiful tree. How come everyone calls it an etrog?

The word appears to derive from the Persian, trunga, meaning a citrus fruit. (The Talmud calls it an etrunga.)

Great care is taken in selecting an etrog so that it should be beautiful. Since even small blemishes can render the etrog invalid, it is scrupulously protected.

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Eshet Chayil

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

Eshet Chayil means "woman of worth," "valour" or "strength." The phrase comes from Proverbs 31:10, where it introduces a paean to her manifold virtues. "Who can find her," the author asks rhetorically. She rises while it's still night to bring food for her household, her lamp never goes out, her mouth is full of wisdom, and teachings of lovingkindness are on her tongue, and much, much more.

There is a widespread custom of singing Eshet Chayil on Friday nights at home before kiddush, as a song of praise to the woman of the house.

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Emet

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

"Emet" means "truth." In strictly Orthodox circles, it's pronounced "emes," and used with strong emphasis in phrases such as "the emesdicke truth."

Truthfulness is a high value in Judaism. We run together the last words of the Shema, "the Lord your God" with the first word of the following prayer, "emet," to affirm, according to the Talmud, that "the seal of the Holy One is truth."

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Ellul

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

Ellul, the final month of the Jewish year begins today. Ellul is not just a month; it's also a mood. It initiates the period of self-reflection and transformation which culminates in 40 days time on Yom Kippur.

The shofar is sounded in shul every weekday morning during Ellul as a summons to spiritual awakening.

Religious Jews will try to intensify good deeds, Torah study and refinement of character traits in anticipation of the Days of Awe.

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