Jewish words

Am ha’aretz

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 28, 2008

Am ha'aretz means an "ignorant," or "boorish person." In a culture that has always prized learning highly, it is quite a put-down to call someone an am ha'aretz.

The literal meaning of the phrase is "people (am) of the earth (aretz)." To the rabbis of the Talmud, an am ha'aretz, by virtue of his ignorance, was deemed likely to be lax in his observance of the commandments. One common implication of this was that one couldn't count on an am ha'aretz separating tithes from his produce.

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Aliyah

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 28, 2008

Aliyah" means "going up." In the Torah we receive the mitzvah to go to Jerusalem for the three festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot (Deuteronomy 16:16). The Mishnah in Hagigah 1:1 calls this "aliyah l'regel," which means "going up by foot." (For most of us now, it is by plane.)

Aliyah l'regel was a literal ascent, to one of the highest places in Israel, and a spiritual ascent - to the holiest place in the world.

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Ahavah

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 28, 2008

Ahavah means "love" in Hebrew. The Jewish mystics remark on the affinity between the word ahavah, "love," and "echad," one. The numerical value of their letters is the same: 13.

Oneness, unity, is the aspiration of love, and love emerges from a perception of unity. This insight is also expressed in the Shema: its first line declares God's unity, and ends with the word "echad." Then follows the mitzvah to love God. Love comes out of a sense of God's unity pervading all things.

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Afikoman

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 28, 2008

The afikoman is the piece of the middle matzah at the Pesach Seder which ends up being pulverised under the carpet, in the DVD player, or in whatever other brilliant hiding place Dad thought of this year.

Its etymology is unclear. It appears to come from Greek: one theory is that it is derived from "epi," meaning "around" and "komao," "to revel." Jastrow's Talmudic Dictionary quotes Plutarch using the Latin version "commessatum," to mean "to the after-dinner entertainment."

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Achrayut

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 28, 2008

"Achrayut" is usually translated as "responsibility," though its connotations are subtly different. It is widely used across the Jewish world.

In the Orthodox communities, "achrayus" is employed colloquially as the religious responsibility you have to improve or rectify a given situation.

In modern Hebrew, "achrayut" is a much-used word in political and military circles, denoting the responsibility of commanders for the successes and costs of their decisions.

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Hechsher

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 23, 2008

A hechsher is a stamp, symbol or label denoting that a product is kosher. It comes from the word kasher, meaning fitting, right, pleasing, and, in matters of food, kosher.

There is a plethora of hechsherim available: K's in triangles, K's in circles, a U in a circle that is one of the best-known kosher logos, from the Orthodox Union in the United States. In the UK we have our very own KLBD symbol from the London Beth Din.

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Chol Hamoed

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 17, 2008

Chol Hamoed is the name for the days during Succot and Pesach that fall in between the Yomtovim at the beginning and the end. In Israel there are six days of Chol Hamoed in Succot; outside Israel, there are five.

The name Chol Hamoed contains within itself a tension. Chol means secular or profane - the opposite of kodesh which is holy. Moed means a meeting, or a special time - thus moedim is the collective name given to the Jewish holidays as a whole. So Chol Hamoed, means the secular time within the holidays.

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Ushpizin

By Rabbi Chaim Kanterovitz, October 8, 2008

The Ushpizin are the seven mystical visitors whom we welcome to our succot throughout the holiday, They are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. Abraham visits on the first night, Isaac on the second, and so on.

Ushpizin comes from the Aramaic word, ushpiz, meaning a guest and also a lodging place or an inn. In modern Hebrew, the related word ishpuz means hospitalisation.

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Kapparah

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 3, 2008

If you lose some money or cut your finger, someone might say to you in a comforting tone, "It should be a kapparah." They would mean by this that they hope the annoying, but relatively minor loss or damage will offset and so avoid the occurrence of something worse.

The word itself comes from the verb kiper, meaning to cover or ignore. (It can also mean to deny; one who is "kafar b'ikar" denies the existence of God.) From this kapparah comes to mean "expiation;" something that wipes out or erases guilt or sin.

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Siman

September 25, 2008

A siman is a mark, sign or omen. The root is the verb soom, which means to put or place and so also to mark or distinguish. The best known simanim in Judaism are the fruits and vegetables eaten on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. (Some eat them on the second night as well.)

The custom is based on a talmudic teaching of Abaye, who said: "Since you say that omens are significant, you should eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets and dates at the start of the year" (Horayot, 12a).

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