Jewish words

Adam

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, April 15, 2010

In the Bible, Adam was the name of the first human and is also the generic Hebrew word for humans in general. The etymology and associations of the word say something about the biblical view of humans. 

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Tal

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, April 8, 2010

On Pesach we switch from mentioning rain in the Amidah to speaking of tal, dew. Instead of adding the words mashiv haruach umorid hagashem, "who makes the wind blow and the rain to fall", we begin saying instead morid hatal, "who causes the dew to fall".

Asking for rain, or dew, in England never seemed to make much sense. In Israel, however, dew is crucial for the growth of entire ecosystems. In parts of the Negev the average annual dewfall is greater than the average annual rainfall, and plants that grow there use every drop.

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Bachatzi halielah

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, April 1, 2010

At night's midpoint, bachatzi halielah, is when the Exodus began according to Exodus 12: 29.

Bachatzi halielah has its counterpart in Exodus 12:51; "Be'etzem hayom hazeh," (at the heart of this day - according to some readings), the Lord freed the Israelites from the Land of Egypt. Daylight redemption is the fruit of the process begun bechatzi halielah.

Be'etzem hayom hazeh is about redemption openly triumphing over the doubters and oppressors. Bachatzi halielah is a quieter form, the first steps toward freedom even in darkness.

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Ot

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 25, 2010

An ot is a sign, and the Exdous story abounds in them. From Moses's initiation at the burning bush to the splitting of the Red Sea, God took the Israelites out of Egypt with otot and moftim (signs and portents).

To assuage Moses's initial fears, God tells him: "I will be with you, that shall be your ot that it was I who sent you"(Exodus 3:12). According to Exodus Rabbah (3:4), the ot was God's commitment to support Moses. Others point to the burning bush as the ot - his future trials will not consume Moses and God will be in the flames with him.

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Avodat parech

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 18, 2010

When my kids do not want to do their household chores, they complain that I am giving them avodat parech – the term the Torah uses to describe the slave-labour conditions of the Israelites in Egypt: "The Egyptians imposed upon the Israelites avodat parech" (Exodus.1:13).

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Matzpun

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 11, 2010

Matzpun is the Hebrew for conscience. The word first appears in the Book of Obadiah(1:6), who predicts the downfall of Edom. "How thoroughly rifled is Esau, how ransacked [matzpunav]." Obadiah uses matzpun to refer to hidden treasure. The part of the Passover Seder in which we eat the hidden afikoman is called tzafun, meaning hidden.

Tzafon means "north" and derives from the Ugaritic for the "hidden or dark region", hence its additional Hebrew meaning of concealed.

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Katonti

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 4, 2010

Recently, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat issued a halachic ruling prohibiting smoking. He also managed to convince 70 per cent of the cigarette vendors there to stop selling them. Israel Army Radio interviewed MK David Rotem, a smoker and Efrat resident. He said, "Katonti from disputing Rabbi Riskin's rulings." What MK Rotem meant was that he felt too small to argue with the great Rabbi Riskin.

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Lo naim

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, February 25, 2010

When inquiring of an estate agent whether I could visit a certain property, I was told that the owners had had a family emergency and that it would be lo naim for the agent to trouble them.

Lo naim means more than "unpleasant" and has no exact English equivalent. Lo naim covers the whole jumble of feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment, compassion and even anger.

Instead of saying "It would put me in an awkward position," Israelis opt for the more personal, "lo naim li", whose closest translation is, "It would make me feel icky inside."

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Saba and savta

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, February 18, 2010

Grandpa and grandma, zeidy and bubby, opa and oma — grandparents have many names among Jews. In Hebrew, they are called saba and savta.

Leviticus (19:32) tells us, “You shall rise before sevah”. Sevah means aged or gray. Abraham was blessed to pass away b’sevah tovah­, “at a ripe old age” (Genesis 15:15).

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Ramach and shesah

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, February 11, 2010

“He serves God with all his ramach and shesah,” said the barmitzvah boy’s uncle, who was addressing the guests. What he meant was that his nephew worshipped God with his whole body.

According to the Mishnah (Ohalot 1), we have 248 limbs (evarim), the numerical equivalent of the word ramach. In addition to ramach limbs, we have 365 sinews and ligaments (giddim), the numerical value of shesah.

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