Jewish words

Egel Hazahav

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

Egel hazahav, "golden calf," is a phrase in modern Hebrew (which is full of bits and pieces of Bible and Midrash, in the same way as English contains unrecognised expressions from Shakespeare). You can hear it on the radio in the run-up to the Knesset elections: one candidate will describe another's values, policies or priorities as a golden calf, whether it's secularism or settlements.

The sense is of something like a totem or fetish bordering on, but not quite being, idolatrous in its importance to the opponent.

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Edah

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

How long shall I bear with this evil edah, who are complaining against me," exclaims God in exasperation after the episode of the spies (Numbers 14:27). The rabbis understand the word edah as referring here to the group of 10 spies who discouraged the people by testifying falsely to the invincibility of the inhabitants of the land.

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Dybbuk

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

In Jewish mysticism and folklore, a dybbuk is an evil spirit which enters a person, takes over their personality, precipitates mental illness, speaks through their voice and generally causes trouble. 

Dybbukim first appear in talmudic writings. According to early views they were devils or demons. Later mystics posited that dybbukim could be the spirits of dead sinners, who were so evil in their lifetimes that their souls could find no resting place in the world to come and were therefore compelled to take refuge in the bodies of innocent living victims.

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Dreidl

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

Dreidl is a children's game, played with a spinning top, that is universally associated with Chanucah. A popular legend ascribes its origin to the Jewish children at the time of the Hasmonean revolt. The evil Antiochus forbade the Jews to study Torah.

To evade the decree, Jewish children hid and studied in caves. When discovered, they would conceal their books, whip out their dreidls and pretend to be playing a harmless game.

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Drashah

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

Drashah, or droshah, is usually taken as synonymous with "sermon," (as in "couldn't make heads or tails of the rabbi's...") This isn't quite right. The Oxford English Dictionary defines sermon as "a discourse on a serious subject, containing (especially moral) instruction or exhortation. Also, a long or tedious admonitory lecture or harangue."

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D’Oraita

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

The word d'oraita, is often used colloquially to mean "very serious". You might say, half-jokingly, that parking on a double-yellow line or sitting in your father's chair are issurim m'doraita. (In fact the latter actually is.)

The Aramaic oraita means Torah or instruction, and derives from the Hebrew or, which means light. Therefore a law originating d'oraita means a law that is based directly on the Torah.

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Din Vecheshbon

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

Will publication of the final Winograd Din Vecheshbon (the commission of inquiry into last year's Lebanon War) spell the end of Ehud Olmert's political career? Many think so.

A din vecheshbon or doch for short, is a report. Prime Ministers are not the only people subject to dochot in Israel; illegal parking and crossing against the light can land one with a doch and a stiff fine.

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Derech Eretz

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

In contemporary Jewish parlance, derech eretz, (literally "the way of the land") means something like good manners or the done thing. If there's no other firm reason for disapproving of something, you might say, "It's just not derech eretz."

The traditional meanings of derech eretz encompass, but are also much broader than, this. Derech eretz covers the basic norms of decent human behaviour which the Torah teaches, but which also in a sense precede Torah in forming the human personality: hence the maxim, "Derech eretz comes before Torah."

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Davka

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

"Davka" is a word most Jews understand without necessarily being able to define it.

This is probably to do with the long, strange journey which the word has taken from its original roots.

As used today, "davka" means something like "just to annoy" (similar to "auftzuluchis"), or sometimes "in his own inimitable way." As in "She, ‘davka,' only wears green:" or "They drive on Shabbat, ‘davka:'" or sometimes even, "He'd be a nice guy if he wasn't so ‘davka.'"

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Daven

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

Daven is the Yiddish word for "pray," which has passed into common Jewish usage. But it doesn't quite have the same connotations as the English word.

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