Jewish words


By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, July 11, 2008

Tefillin are the black boxes attached with leather straps that Jewish men wear for morning weekday prayers. The boxes contain four crucial passages from the Torah (Exodus 13. 1-10, 11-16; and Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21) that mandate awareness of God.

Each box is called a tefillah, identical to the word for prayer, which is the activity during which we wear tefillin. The root of the word for prayer is pilel, meaning to intercede, or judge. The verb “to pray” l’hitapalel, means to judge oneself.


Kein Yirbu

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, July 4, 2008

A blessing often heard on the state of Israel’s celebration of its 60 years of independence was, “Kein yirbu”, “so should they multiply”.  This expression harks back to the beginning of Exodus. 


Nogeia b’davar

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, June 20, 2008

Nogeia b’davar, is how you say in elegant Hebrew that someone is biased or interested in a matter in such a way as might affect their judgment. For example, “obviously he shouldn’t be on the search committee for the job he wants — he’s nogeia b’davar.” Nogeia is also used to mean “relevant”, as in “that question is simply not nogeia to the subject”.



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, June 13, 2008

Klitah, meaning immigrant absorption, was an important part of the lexicon of old-fashioned Zionism. New immigrants were received in mercazei klitah, absorption centres, that were a little more welcoming than army barracks. When I made aliyah 15 years ago, people would enquire, “How’s your klitah going?”, which was a way of asking, “Have you learned Hebrew, do you have a job, have you met the love of your life and how are you dealing with the crazy bureaucracy?” all in one question.



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, June 6, 2008

Among the wonderful things about speaking Hebrew as an everyday language, there are also occasional jarring moments. These occur when a word of exalted origin descends to a particularly grubby station.

An example is the word parashah. In Modern Hebrew, it has come to mean an episode or story, particularly of a scandalous nature. So having endured the parashah of Ehud Olmert’s various luxury homes, we are now in the midst of the parashah of the envelopes stuffed with wads of cash, which really ought to send him packing.



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 30, 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”.



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 23, 2008

Having a mangal, a barbecue, is the traditional way to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day, in Israel. There is much fruitful disagreement in Israel about the significance of the day and hence the proper way to mark it. The mangal is a unifying tradition as one of the few Independence Day observances on which most people can agree. The word comes from the Turkish for “small oven” and must have made its way into Hebrew in the Ottoman period. 



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 16, 2008

To “give tochahah to someone” means to reproach them for their behaviour, usually of a moral or religious nature. The word means, literally, to prove or compel. It is a commandment, from Leviticus 19:17, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall surely reprove your neighbour and not bear sin on his account.”

The existence of this mitzvah reflects all Jews’ fundamental responsibility for one another. The bad behaviour of another Jew impacts on us directly.


Acharon acharon chaviv

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 9, 2008

It would not do justice to acharon acharon chaviv to translate it merely as the Hebrew equivalent of “last but not least”, which, although alliterative, is rather flavourless. On the other hand, acharon acharon chaviv harks back to Jacob and his profound love for Rachel, a love that led him to cry upon first meeting her.


Pirkei Avot

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 2, 2008

Usually translated as “Chapters of the Fathers”, Pirkei Avot is a Mishnaic tractate that comprises aphorisms on the topic of ethics. Among the celebrated sayings of Pirkei Avot is: “Hillel would say, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’” (1:14).