Jewish words

Teruah

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, September 17, 2009

The biblical name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah.

Numbers 29:1 commands us to observe a Yom Teruah, on the first day of the seventh month. (Why the Jewish New Year is celebrated in the seventh month is another issue: suffice it to say that the rabbis list a total of four new years in the Jewish calendar.)

Teruah means a massive shout, either by a crowd or by a horn. For example, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down when the people (Joshua 1:20) “raised a mighty shout” (teruah gedolah).

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Bekarov etzlech

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, September 9, 2009

“Thank you. Bekarov etzlech,” is a familiar response in Israel to congratulations for becoming engaged or getting married. Bekarov etzelch literally means “soon with you”. It is a wish for the recipient of such a salutation to get married in the near future.

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Yod

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, September 2, 2009

Supermarkets in Israel now stock salt with added yod. No, they haven’t figured out a way to infuse a favourite condiment with the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet — yod refers to iodine.

How yod came to signify both a letter and a chemical is quite straightforward. Iodine derives from the Greek iota, the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. Iota, in turn, comes from the Hebrew letter yod.

Whereas iota and its English cognate “jot” suggest a very little part or amount, Hebrew uses the saying “kutzo shel yod”, the little peak on the upper left corner of the letter.

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L’Shem Shamayim

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, August 13, 2009

L’shem shamayim literally means “in the name of heaven”. When you act l’shem shamayim, you have no ulterior motive, no ego involved. The sages praise debates that are l’shem shamayim and say that they are destined to endure, which they see as a good thing. The most famous exemplars of machloket (argument) l’shem shamayim are Hillel and Shammai. Indeed, records of their disagreements are vibrant sources for study until this day.

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Pashkevil

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, August 6, 2009

As you leave the town centre of Jerusalem and stroll north into the Charedi neighbourhoods, the wall-to-wall posters, white with black ink, covering the building facades are perhaps the most salient feature. These pashkevilim are the main means of mass communication in the Charedi world.

A pashkevil may announce the release of a new scholarly work or a lecture by a great sage, but to the outsider, pashkevilim are associated with the denunciation of some fixture of modern life, like mixed seating on busses or the use of mobile phones.

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Perush

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, July 30, 2009

The weekly parashah or Torah reading has many perushim, commentaries, written about it. Did you ever wonder how are these two words related? Perush is the meaning of something. Rashi’s perush or elucidation on the Bible and Talmud is the most celebrated perush of all.

Both parashah and perush come from parash, meaning separate. This is clear from Rabbi Tzadok’s advice in Pirkei Avot (4:7), “Do not tifrosh from society” — do not separate yourself from your community. A parashah is a section, a distinct unit. A perush makes something distinct, clear.

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Ben Hametzarim

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, July 23, 2009

The three weeks between the fasts of Tammuz 17 and Av 9 next week are called the period of bein hametzarim, between the straits or narrow places. The phrases comes from the Book of Lamentations: its author Jeremiah writes of the Jewish people’s persecution in exile: “All her pursuers overtook her bein hametzarim.” Rashi explains the phrase as “between field and vineyard”, in narrow places where was no hope of fleeing. He then quotes the Midrash that reads bein hametzarim as between the two fasts, “during which bitter destruction is found”.

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Netilat Yadayim

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, July 16, 2009

Before eating bread, we wash our hands and say the blessing al netilat yadayim, which literally means “on the taking of hands”. At first glance this does not have much to do with water.The other blessing that uses the term netilah, al netilat lulav, is said before shaking the lulav and the rest of the four species on Succot.

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Nimusim

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, July 2, 2009

The concept of nimusim does exist in Israel, despite the stereotype of the brusque Israeli. Nimusim are manners. Someone well-mannered is menumas. The word nimusim is of Greek origins and entered Hebrew in talmudic times. It comes from the word nomos, which means law, custom or name. Nimusim is a cousin to the English words antinomian and nomenclature, which both derive from nomos. Sefer Devarim is called Deuteronomy, as it is a summation of previous books in the Torah. In Hebrew it is also known as Mishneh Torah, Second Torah. The English version, Deuteronomy, means second nomos.

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Meforaz

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, June 25, 2009

In his landmark address at Bar Ilan University last week, Israel’s Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, said that any future Palestinian state must be demilitarised. The word he used, meforaz, is biblical and refers to unwalled cities.

Thus under Moses’s leadership, the Israelites conquered Og, King of Bashan’s fortified towns and arei haperizi, unwalled towns The verb lehafriz means to exaggerate or overstate — to break through the walls of restraint.

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