Jewish words


By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, June 17, 2009

The modern Hebrew term for balance is izun, and as a verb, la’azen. In the Bible we are commanded to “have a just balance” (mo’azanei tzedek), meaning to use accurate scales in the marketplace. Moznayim is the biblical term for scales. Izun and la’azen come from moznayim.



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, June 10, 2009

My wife was recently advised in a parenting class to always pack along some food when out with the children in case any of them had a “bulmus attack”, which could adversely affect their behaviour.

Bulmus is originally Greek and means a sickly hunger. The Talmud (Yoma 83a-b) discusses the case of someone who has caught bulmus. This was a sickness, apparently prevalent in talmudic times whose main symptom was a huge appetite. Someone suffering from Bulmus was allowed to eat on Yom Kippur (even non-kosher food, if permitted food was not available.


Rechev Kilayim

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, June 4, 2009

Every year around Israel’s Independence Day, the Academy of the Hebrew Language introduces new words to keep up with the rapid flow of new gadgets and terms that Israelis often call by their English names. This year, it unveiled a term for the hybrid car: rechev kilayim.


Tikkun Leil Shavuot

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 28, 2009

The 16th century kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari — a Hebrew acronym for the “Godly Rabbi Isaac” — established the custom of learning Torah all night on the Shavuot eve. A tikkun is a correction. In kabbalistic circles it refers to a spiritual correction for some fault. There are several types of tikkunim.



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 21, 2009

Ruth, whose story we read next week on Shavuot, is the prototypical convert to Judaism. The rabbis use her pledge (Ruth 1:16-17) to follow Naomi as the proof-text for many of the laws of conversion. A male convert is called a ger; a female convert is called a giyoret.

On Shavuot, we stood before Mt Sinai as gerim from a life of slavery to freedom in the light of Torah.



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 14, 2009

“How charif is your charif?: you would be wise to ask this of the felafel vendor before agreeing to have some of the spicy sauce added to your pitta. Charif means hot and spicy, not for the faint-hearted. It also means intelligent and insightful. A great sage is said to possess charifut, spiciness.

In the Bible, the word charaf means to defy or affront, as in Proverbs 17:5, “He who mocks the poor, affronts [charaf] his Maker.”

Cherpah means disgrace. Upon the birth of Joseph, Rachel exclaimed, “God has taken away my cherpah.” Her infertility had caused Rachel great shame.


Mah Pitom

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, May 7, 2009

Mah pitom is a multi-purpose expression in Hebrew. Literally, “What suddenly”, mah pitom can be translated as “No way” or “Don’t be daft.”

If your teacher springs a pop quiz on the class, you might react with “Mah pitom, we’ve had no time to prepare!” If a surprise visitor asks if she is intruding, you could graciously reply, “Mah pitom, it is always a pleasure to see you.”


Fadicha / Fashla

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, April 30, 2009

There is only one word to describe Barack Obama’s gift of a package of films on DVDs to Gordon Brown — fadicha.  An Arabic word that has made its way into Hebrew, fadicha describes much more than a faux pas. It is a slip-up that verges on the pathetic.



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, April 23, 2009

The literal meaning of the Aramaic word yuhara is luminous gem. Thus the Targum on Esther 1:4 describes King Ahasuerus as showing the crowds his yuharin. Metaphorically, it refers to showiness — a trait much despised in the Talmud. Tractate Pesachim (66b) warns us, “Any wise person who is mityaher (takes on airs), his wisdom will leave him.”



By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, April 16, 2009

“And at daybreak the sea returned to its eitan” (Exodus 14:27), sealing the fate of the Egyptians who unwisely pursued the Israelites into the split Red Sea. Rashi explains eitan as the sea’s initial strength.  No human can match the might of the sea, and so the Egyptians were washed away.