Jewish words

Bechor

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, April 7, 2009

Bechor means firstborn, referring both to children and livestock in the Bible. The variant bikurim refers to the harvest’s first fruits. All first issues must be brought before God in a symbolic act of recognition that all our fruits are really God’s and not our own.  

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Kimcha d’Pascha

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, April 2, 2009

“It is a tradition to buy wheat and distribute it to the poor for Pesach.” So writes Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (the Rema), a 16th century rabbinic leader of Ashkenazi Jewry. This custom is called either by its Aramaic name kimcha d’Pascha (flour for Pesach), or maot chitim (money for wheat) in Hebrew. Of course, the obligation to provide for the needy continues throughout the year. However, on Pesach, it is especially important to think about those who are struggling to prepare for the festival. Pesach is expensive — even if you are not going to Nice or Honolulu.

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Kitniot

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 26, 2009

What do the words “Does not contain kitniyot” that appear on the box of sweetened mud marketed as kosher -for-Pesach brownies have to do with Pesach? 

Kitniyot are pulses or beans in Hebrew.  The word kitniyot derives from katan, meaning small, and appears in the Talmud.  

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Mugmar

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 19, 2009

“So, when will we be able to bless on the mugmar?” is a question Bibi Netanyahu has been asked a lot lately. It means, “When will the task be completed?”

Mugmar is a talmudic term that refers to the spices put over the coals at the end of a meal in order to fragrance the room. One is obligated to recite the blessing for spices, “who created varieties of spices”, before partaking of the pleasure of mugmar.

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Nin

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 12, 2009

In modern Hebrew, nin means “great-grandson”. However, in the Bible, nin refers to son as in Abimelech’s request to Abraham: “Swear to me… that you will not deal falsely with me or with my nin [son] or grandchild” (Genesis 20:23)

The ancient Semitic meanings of nin are “fish” and “to sprout, increase”. In the early 20th century, there was some ambiguity regarding the use of nin. Many used nin for nephew, which was a kinship term absent in the Bible. Over the years, however, people came to use nin exclusively for great-grandchild.

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Lifnim Mishurat Hadin

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 6, 2009

Those who see Judaism as a religion of precise law may be surprised to hear that the Jewish ideal is always to act beyond the letter of the law: lifnim mishurat hadin in Hebrew, literally meaning, inside the line of law.

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Keren

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 6, 2009

Keren is a word whose multiple connotations have sometimes caused confusion. Its primary meaning is horn. Keren is sometimes used to refer to the shofar, the rams horn we blow on Rosh Hashanah, and also to the legal category of damage inflicted by an animals horn.

Secondarily, keren came to mean ray, or something projected from a point. The words for X-rays, cathode rays and light rays in modern Hebrew all come from keren.

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Treif

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 6, 2009

Treif has come to be synonymous with food that is not kosher: pig, cheeseburgers, forbidden food additives etc. In fact, treif literally refers to an animal that is not kosher for one particular reason: that it was killed by a beast of prey, and not slaughtered according to the rules of shechitah.

The word itself means to rip, seize or tear. When Jacob sees his son Josephs bloodstained coat, he cries Tarof toraf Yosef, meaning Joseph is certainly torn to pieces and eaten by a wild animal, which is what Josephs brothers want him to think (Genesis 37:33).

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Haftarah

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 6, 2009

Chanting the haftarah in its minor key trop (cantillation) is an initiation rite passed through by virtually every barmitzvah boy. I remember investing so much effort in honing the public performance of the reading that I was entirely oblivious to its meaning until about a decade after my barmitzvah.

The haftarah is a selected passage from the Prophets that is read after the weeks Torah parashah. The haftarah is always thematically connected to the parashah except during this period, between Tisha bAv and Rosh Hashanah, when the haftarot are all about comfort and consolation.

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Maiseh

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 6, 2009

Maiseh, (or maaseh in Hebrew) is Yiddish for a story. Its best known when conjoined with the Yiddish word for grandma in the phrase bubbamaiseh, meaning a folktale of doubtful veracity (though my grandmother, if shes reading, should not take this as in any way impugning the truthfulness of her stories).

The Hebrew maaseh literally means act or deed, and comes from the word for making or doing. Maaseh Bereishit is the story or act of Creation.

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