By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 4, 2010

Recently, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat issued a halachic ruling prohibiting smoking. He also managed to convince 70 per cent of the cigarette vendors there to stop selling them. Israel Army Radio interviewed MK David Rotem, a smoker and Efrat resident. He said, "Katonti from disputing Rabbi Riskin's rulings." What MK Rotem meant was that he felt too small to argue with the great Rabbi Riskin.

When Jacob prepares to meet Esau, he prays to God to save him from his brother (Genesis.32:11): "Katonti from all the kindness and truth that You have shown Your servant." Jacob feels unworthy, too small, for the unmerited goodness. According to Rashi, "truth" refers to the merit earned by Isaac and Abraham.

Today, katonti is a pithy and elegant way to express a sense of inadequacy before an honour or responsibility. Katonti is particularly beautiful in that in one word, we return to a biblical moment replete with pathos: Jacob has just returned from decades in exile in Laban's household. He is scared that Esau will massacre his young family. Most significant of all, he is returning to Israel to continue in God's covenant. In this whirlwind of pressure and expectation, Jacob still feels "katonti".

Last updated: 11:28am, March 4 2010