Jewish words

Leviathan

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 26, 2009

Last month, the first full-length translation of Hobbes’s Leviathan hit the shops in Israel and is now a best-seller. Over 40 years ago, the Hebrew University released an abridged version, omitting large sections devoted to the Hebrew Bible. Now, Hebrew readers can see for the first time, the impact of the Bible on one of the most influential Western political thinkers.

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Shivi'im

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 19, 2009

In the Bible, the number seven (sheva) connotes a sense of abundance and is the root of the word sova, which means fullness. Abraham ibn Ezra (on Leviticus 26:18) cites seven’s status as a prime number as the reason for its link with bountifulness.

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Moshav Laitzim

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 12, 2009

Back in the day when I was campus rabbi at Cambridge, I taught a series of classes on Talmud tractate Avodah Zarah. When we got to page 18b, the Gemara’s discussion caused some consternation among my students: “The rabbis taught: one who goes to a stadium or a fortress and sees there the enchanters and the clowns Bukion, Mukion, Mulion and Lulion... this is a moshav laitzim” — literally, a dwelling place of scoffers. The main reason given is that these activities were bittul Torah, neglect of Torah.

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Safra Vesaifa

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2009

At Last month’s commemoration of the anniversary of the assassination of Minister Rechavam Ze’evi, Prime Minister Netanyahu called him a man of safra vesaifa, Aramaic for “book and sword”. While one of Israel’s greatest military leaders, Ze’evi was also a scholar of Tanach and the Land of Israel.

A midrash (Deuteronomy Rabba 4:2) on the giving of the Torah describes safra vesaifa descending from the heavens. God said to Israel, “If you observe what is written in the Book, you will be safe from the sword.”

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Tzeviut

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 28, 2009

Whereas the word hypocrisy has its roots in the Greek for play-acting, the Hebrew tzeviut derives from tzevah, which means colour or dye. A tzavua person dyes him or herself to give off a false appearance.

The Talmudic term for hypocrite is tocho aino kevoro — one’s inside (toch) is not the same as one’s outside (bar). In the Talmud (Yoma 72b), Rava proclaims that whoever does not meet the standard of tocho kevoro is not considered a talmid hacham, a wise student.

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Mezeg avir

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 22, 2009

Although not as popular a topic as in England, people do talk about the mezeg avir or weather in Israel. Mezeg means blend or mixture. The Talmud speaks of “yayin hamazug bemayim, wine blended with water”.

In ancient times wine was diluted with water before it was served. Its alcohol content offered some protection from the bacteria present in the drinking water of those days. Heavily diluted wine was an everyday beverage. Mezigah was part of the pouring process. In today’s Hebrew, limzog simply means to pour someone a drink.

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Hergel

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 15, 2009

With the festivals behind us, it is time to return to the hergel of six days of work and one of Shabbat. Hergel means routine or habit and comes from regel, foot or leg.

By and large, tradition views hergel as a negative thing, thoughtless behaviour that comes as naturally as putting one foot in front of the other. Thus the Talmud takes measures against hergel aveirah, the situation in which transgressing the halachah might become habitual.

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Kohelet

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 8, 2009

This year there is no Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed during Succot, which would have been the traditional time for reading Kohelet, Ecclesiastes. Instead, we will read it on Shemini Atzeret, which falls on this Shabbat.

The book opens with the lines, “The words of Kohelet, son of David, King in Jerusalem.” Kohelet is not a first name but a title and comes from kahal, which means congregation or assembly. Therefore, Kohelet can mean the assembler of an audience who will listen to his sayings.

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Geshem

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, October 1, 2009

On the last day of Succot, we start to pray for rain, geshem. Geshem as linked to our ability to pray goes back to Genesis 2:5: “When no shrub of the field was yet on earth ... because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth.” Rashi explains that God did not send rain upon the earth until humanity sensed the world’s need for rain and prayed for it. God did not want it to rain until humanity “recognised the goodness of geshamim”.

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Orayach

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, September 24, 2009

The High Holy Days are a time of coming together as a family and community. The massive entertaining involved gives us a chance to do the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim — taking in guests.

An orayach is a guest. It derives from the biblical word orach, meaning “way”. “The orach of the righteous is like a ray of light,” declares Proverbs 4:18. Deborah the Prophetess describes the desperate situation before she rose to power: people were afraid to travel on the open road: “Caravans (arachot) ceased, and wayfarers went by crooked paths (also arachot)” (Judges 5:6).

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