Jewish words


By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, February 4, 2010

While many Israelis will grumble against an injustice with the words, “lo fair” (“It’s not fair”), there is an authentic Hebrew word for fair or appropriate: hogen.

Maimondies writes in his “Laws of Torah Study” (4:1): “We teach Torah only to a student who is hagun and pleasant in his deeds.” Upright behaviour is a prerequisite for Torah scholarship.



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, January 28, 2010

“I’ll speak dugri and tell you that you don’t have what it takes to be a singer” is something you might hear at an audition at the Tel Aviv Opera House. Dugri is slang for straight talk. Dugriut — the quality of being frank and even blunt — is an admirable trait in Israel. Sabras are known to eschew formalities and get straight to the point.

In Arabic, dugri means truthfulness to the facts, the opposite of a lie. Sociologist Tamar Katriel points out that in Hebrew dugri has come to mean truthfulness to one’s opinions even if they may rub the wrong way.


Keren kayemet

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, January 21, 2010

Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (KKL) was founded at the Fifth Zionist Conference held in Basil in 1901. It was to be used exclusively for the purchase of land in pre-state Israel. Many Zionists, even the most secular, were ardent lovers and scholars of both the Bible and rabbinic literature. When naming their projects, they looked to the Jewish canon for a name imbued with significance.



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, January 14, 2010

With the swine flu inoculation campaign in full swing in Israel, it is a good time to look at the Hebrew word for inoculation: chisun.


Mi Yitein

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, January 7, 2010

There are many ways in Hebrew to say “if only”. Abraham pleads “Lu that Ishmael might live by Your favour” (Genesis 17:18). The Jewish Publication Society translates lu as “O” — an exclamation of strong yearning.

Naomi Shemer’s song, “Lu Yehi” (O, may it be!) — inspired by John Lennon’s Let it be — is a song of hope after the agony of the Yom Kippur War. “May peace abide within our land and strengthen all those near and far, may it come to pass, lu yehi.”



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, December 29, 2009

Northern Israel boasts a nature reserve called Ramat Hanadiv, the Benefactor’s Heights — it sounds better in Hebrew. Nadiv means both generous and noble. Moses collects donations for the construction of the Tabernacle from the nediv lev, the generous of heart (Exodus 35:22). However, Psalms 113:7-8 praises God for raising the poor from the dust, to set them with the nedivim, the people in power.


Ken Yirbu

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, December 22, 2009

“We’ve just had our second grandchild.” You can respond to this good news with “Mazeltov, ken yirbu!” Ken yirbu means, “Thus should they multiply”. It is a blessing for more similar glad tidings. The expression appears in Rashi on the verses (Deuteronomy 11:18-21) “Impress these words on your very heart… and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house… so that you and your children’s days may multiply (yirbu).” Rashi explains, “If you do this, so they will multiply (ken yirbu).”



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, December 17, 2009

Chanucah celebrates the success of the Hasmonean Revolt, in Hebrew Mered. The Bible is replete with meradim. When the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh set up an altar on their side of the Jordan, the other tribes thought they had rebelled against God and said to them, “If you rebel (timridu) against the Lord today, He will be angry will the whole community of Israel.”



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, December 9, 2009

Chanucah celebrates the Jewish victory over the Yevanim, the Greeks. The name Yavan goes back to Genesis 10:2, which lists Yavan as one of Yefet’s sons, from whom, the Torah tell us, the “maritime nations branched out”. In Greek mythology, the father of the Ionians, an ancient group of Greeks, was called Ion — a name not too removed from Yavan. Sanskrit refers to Greece as Yavana.

At the time of the Hasmonean revolt, the Jews who welcomed the Greek circuses were called mityavnim. The reflexive suffix mit turns yavan into a verb of becoming. Lehityaven is to become Greek.


Leshon bnai adam

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, December 3, 2009

Leshon bnai Adam is a talmudic expression, favoured by Rabbi Ishmael to explain verbal repetitions in the Torah. Dibrah Torah kileshon bnai Adam —“the Torah spoke in leshon bnai Adam” — meant that sometimes God chose to phrase the Torah so that we could understand it, even if it meant repeating a word.

Lashon (leshon when part of a possessive phrase) means language. Bnai Adam, sons of Adam, means “people”. Even a woman can be called ben Adam, a son of Adam.