Sukkot Vocabulary 101

September 19, 2013
Welcome to the Sukkah!

Welcome to the Sukkah!

Sukkot may be the kick-back holiday of the Jewish year, but it is also a holiday with its share of special words. Here are some of the main ones you may hear. When I give two pronunciations, the first will be Sephardic Hebrew, the second the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation.

Remember, all “ch” sounds are like the German in Bach or a bit like a cat spitting. If you can’t make that sound, just go for an “h.” Pronouncing it as a K is not cool.

GREETINGS

Sukkot sameach! – (soo-COAT sah-MAY-ach) or (SOOK-us sah-MAY-ach) means “Happy Sukkot!”

Chag sameach! – (CHAG sah-MAY-ach) Happy holiday!

Gut Yuntiff!- (Goot YUN-tif) – Happy holiday!

and you might still hear Shana tovah! (sha-NAH toe-VAH) – Happy New Year!

PEOPLE & THINGS

Sukkah – (soo-KAH) or (SOO-kah) is the little shack or booth with furniture in which we hang out for the holiday. Think “play house.”

Etrog – (EH-trog) is a citron. It looks like a big lemon. We shake it with the lulav. If it has a little twig sticking out of it, do NOT break it off. Your host might cry, because a broken pitom (PEE-tohm) renders most etrogim un-kosher.

Lulav – (LOO-lahv) is technically the closed frond of a date palm. It also is used to denote a bouquet of that palm frond with a branch of aravah (willow) and hadass (myrtle). During Sukkot, some Jews hold the lulav and etrog together, say blessings, and wave them around in 6 directions.

Ushpizin – (oosh-pee-ZEEN) or (oosh-PEE-zeen) means “visitors.” It refers not to the regular visitors, but traditionally to seven exalted guests one hopes will visit the sukkah: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Modern Jews may also welcome Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, Tamar, Ruth, and others. Pictures of them may decorate the sukkah.

If you could invite anyone in history to your sukkah, whom would you invite?

 

 

 


Beginner’s Guide to High Holy Day Greetings

September 3, 2013
5774 / 2013 -- THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 5 ...item 2...

Photo credit: marsmet548

There are a number of ways Jews greet one another during the High Holy Days.  The easiest one to learn is:

SHANA TOVA – (shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “Good year” it means “Happy New Year.” You can reply with the same words.

Some other greetings you may hear leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on the day:

L’SHANA TOVA (luh-shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “To a Good Year.” It also means Happy New Year, and you can reply in kind.

L’SHANA TOVA TIKATEIVU (shah-NAH toe-VAH tee-kah-TAY-voo) literally, “May you be written for a good year.”

GUT YUNTIFF – (GOOT YUN-tif), (Yiddish) “Happy Holiday.”

From Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, it’s polite to assume that someone has already been “written in the book of life” so you wish them a “good sealing”:

GAMAR CHATIMAH TOVAH – (ga-MAR chah-ti-MAH toe-VAH) – “May your final sealing be good.”

Remember, you can never go wrong with “Shana Tovah!”

 


Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?

June 4, 2013
Bibles

Bibles (Photo credit: Mr. Ducke)

“Which Bible is best, Rabbi?” That’s usually how the question is phrased. Rather than talk about which is “best,” let me give you a quick lesson on which Bible is which, and you can decide for yourself.

The JEWISH BIBLE is different from the Christian Bible. The obvious difference is that there is no New Testament. Then if you compare tables of contents, you will also see that the two are arranged differently and that many Christian Bibles have more books, even after you take away the NT. Those books were included in an early translation of the Jewish Bible, but were not included when the Jewish Bible was finally set at 24 books in roughly the 2nd century of the common era.

For Jewish study and prayer, I strongly recommend a Jewish Bible.  It will be easier to use with the group, if only because the books will be in the same order and have the same names. The Jewish Bible is often called the TANAKH. That is an acronym of the words Torah [Teaching], Nevi’im [Prophets] and Ketuvim [Writings], the three divisions of the Bible.

Unless you read Hebrew, you will read the Bible in TRANSLATION.  The Jewish Bible is written in Hebrew, with a few short passages in Aramaic. No translation is perfect; every translation reflects choices by the translator.  If you want a really good idea of what the text says, you will have to learn Hebrew. Next best thing is to check a couple of different translations when you are wondering about translation.  Here are some of the most common ones:

New Jewish Publication Society Version (NJPS or NJV) – This is the translation you will encounter in most liberal (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) synagogues. It was begun in 1955 and completed in 1984.

Old Jewish Publication Society Version (1917). Similar to the NJPS, but the English of the translation is evocative of the King James Bible. It is available online.

The Living Torah (1981). A user-friendly but still scholarly translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, an American Orthodox Rabbi. It is noted for its detailed index, footnotes, and cross-references.

Koren Jerusalem Bible – This is the first Israeli translation of the Bible into English. (It should not be confused with the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, which is a completely different thing.) The Koren Bible is distinctive in that proper nouns, names and places are transliterated and not Anglicized.

Art Scroll Tanach – Mesorah Publishing issued the Art Scroll Tanach in 1993. The English translation is amended with explanations from Rashi and other commentators. It is a less literal but more traditional interpretation of the text.

There are also some notable modern translations of Torah (1st five books of the Bible)  and a few more books:

Everett Fox – This is possibly the most literal translation of the words in the Torah. To stay close to the Hebrew, Fox sometimes mangles the English. It can be a useful aid but I would not want this to be the only copy of the Torah in my possession.

Robert Alter – Alter’s translation, like Fox’s, hews close to the Hebrew, but with a more poetic ear.

Richard Elliot Friedman – published his translation of the Torah in the volume Commentary on the Torah, 2001.

If I had to answer the question above with a single title, I would say, “the Hebrew Bible.” (Then we could argue about which manuscripts, but I know that’s not what you mean.) If you are looking for a good Jewish translation of the Bible, each of the titles above have its advantages and disadvantages.  My advice is, get yourself a Bible, whichever one appeals to you, and then do your best to wear it out. The best Bible is the one you actually read.


Synagogue Hebrew 103

May 31, 2013
Birthday cake written "Mazal Tov" in...

Birthday cake written “Mazal Tov” in Hebrew on it (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For other quick and easy Hebrew lessons in this series, check out Jewish Greetings 101 and Synagogue Hebrew 102.

B’vakeshah - [beh-VAH-keh-SHAH] Please, also “you’re welcome.”

Todah - [toh-DAH] Thank you.

Todah rabbah - [toh-DAH rah-BAH] – Thank you very much.

B’seder - [beh-SAY-der] OK, in order.

B’vakeshah - [beh-VAH-keh-SHAH] Please, also “you’re welcome.”

Todah - [toh-DAH] Thank you.

Todah rabbah - [toh-DAH rah-BAH] – Thank you very much.

B’seder - [beh-SAY-der] OK, in order.

B’hatzlacha – [beh-HATZ-lah-CHA] Good luck! (Remember “ch” is a gutteral, somewhat like the German “ch” in Bach. If you can’t make that sound just go with a spitty “H” sound.)

Slichah - [slee-CHA] Sorry! or Excuse me!

Yom huledet sameach – [Yohm hu-LEH-det sah-MAY-ach] Happy Birthday

B’teavon – [Buh-TAY-ah-VOHN] Bon appetit!

Ta’im! – [Tah-EEM] Tasty! Delicious!

L’hitraot – [Leh-HEE- tra- OHT] Goodbye!


Clean and Unclean: A Primer

March 7, 2013
Grafitti

Not Jewish Grafitti (Photo credit: tricky (rick harrison))

Apparently there’s a trend somewhere in Internet-land to label foods “clean” and “unclean” by how much processing they have undergone. I just read about it in a great post over on Tumblr. This inspired me to go dig around at the root of this nuttiness, which appeared as a way of understanding and managing holiness in the Hebrew Bible and then made its way into the popular culture of many different eras in wildly mutated forms.

The Hebrew word often translated into English as “clean” or “pure” is tahor (טָהוֹר) pronounced “tah-HOR.” It first appears in Genesis 7, where some animals are said to be tahor. In that context, it seems to mean, “when the Sinai covenant comes into effect, this animal will be OK to eat under certain conditions.” The Torah is not clear how Noah is able to understand what God is talking about, but there are many things in Torah to ponder.

Other animals are designated tamei (טָמֵא) pronounced “tah-MAY.” These will later NOT be OK for those under the covenant to eat.  (For more about Jewish dietary law, check out this article in MyJewishLearning.com.) This word is usually translated into English as “unclean” or “impure.”

Later in the Bible, when we get the rules for the Temple sacrifices, it gets much more complicated: tahor and tamei will have to do with states of being that cannot ever come into contact without consequences.  Think “matter and antimatter,” to get a feel for the (theoretical) mess it can make. One either overwhelms the other, or they explode.

Both concepts have to do, at their heart, with the energy of life, or life force. Tahor is the “charge” of the Holy One, the source of Life itself – so anything that comes into contact with God, or the place in the ancient Temple where God was understood to dwell (the Tabernacle) is tamei. (Stop and take that in before you read on.  God / The Holy One / God’s dwelling / Tahor.

But in the eyes of our ancestors, there were also things with a different “charge,” a different connection to the life force that had to do with the created world:  blood, dead bodies (human or animal), and secretions from bodies (menstrual blood, semen, afterbirth, etc.) These have the tamei “charge” and must be properly neutralized before coming into contact with things that are tahor. Hence the rules about menstruation, noctural emissions, sex, eating rare meat, etc. Those rules made it possible for women to be protected at vulnerable times, like menses and after childbirth, and time to bond with infants, especially female infants (who were doubly vulnerable, since they were less valued by the society as a whole.)

The process of neutralization is usually translated as “purification” which further muddies the water for English speakers.  In fact, there is no way in the present time to neutralize the tahor charge; the tools for doing it were lost when the Temple was destroyed in year 70 of the Common Era (aka 70 A.D.) The Temple sacrifices were the “technology” for making things pure, that is, for neutralizing the charge of tamei.

From my Reform Jewish point of view, then, it is all moot. We are past the era of tamei/tahor. In other words, don’t worry about it. It can be a very useful metaphor for looking at other issues (I’ll write about those another time) but in the 21st century, there’s no need to worry about ritual impurity.

However, all this ritual tech talk has crept into our thinking and popular culture in ways that can be horrifically destructive. Just as tamei doesn’t mean “impure,” it also doesn’t mean “dirty” or “bad.” Menstruating women are not bad. Women who have given birth are not bad. Men who have had a noctural emission are not bad. Rare steak is not kosher, but it, too, is in no way morally bad or dirty.  We can have ethical discussions about foods, certainly, but talking about “clean” or “dirty” food just muddies the water. (Pun intended!)

Bottom line, the take-away concept:  When you read “pure” and “impure” or “clean” and “unclean” in the Bible, remember that these are iffy English translations of techie jargon from more than 2500 years ago.  They do not mean “good” and “bad.”

Extra credit concept: When someone starts throwing around “clean” and “dirty” in reference to anything more complicated than a kitchen floor, be suspicious. They’re using iffy translations of 2500 year old tech jargon to sell you some judgments you may or may not want to buy.

Caveat emptor! (Buyer beware!)

[For the explanation of the concepts around ritual purity in Torah in language having to do with the life force, I am indebted to Rabbi Judah Dardik. However he is in no way responsible for where I have gone with that concept; my words are my own, so blame me for them, not him.]


I say “Shabbat,” You say “Shabbos…” But Let’s Not Call Anything Off!

January 28, 2013
an arrangement of kippahs embroidered with pop...

Kippot or Yarmulkes? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever wondered why so many Hebrew words are pronounced differently, and why so many Jewish things have two names?

One Jew wears a yarmulke, and another a kippah.    [Little hat.]

One keeps Shabbos, another keeps Shabbat.  [Sabbath]

One reads from the TOYrah, another reveres the ToRAH. [Torah]

One prays to AdonOI and the other to AdoNYE. [Adonai, substitute for the Name we don't speak, sometimes pronounced HaSHEM.]

One goes to synagogue at Bays SHOlom, the other at Bayt ShaLOM. [name of a synagogue, meaning "House of Peace"]

One celebrates the Yuntiff, the other a Yom Tov. [holiday]

What’s a newcomer to do?

  • Get used to it.  Just as there are many answers to most questions, there is more than one way to say many words.
  • Know that most of these come from the two pronunciations of Hebrew.  The first word in each pair above is pronounced according to the Ashkenazi or Yiddish form from Eastern Europe.  (Yarmulke is actually a Yiddish word.) The second word is pronounced according to the Sephardic pronunciation, as Hebrew is pronounced on the street in Israel today. Both are correct.
  • While both are correct, it is a little mishuggeh [Yiddish for crazy] to mix the two (although trust me, you’ll hear it.  “Shabbat Shalom! Will you be in town for the Yuntiff?” is mixed-up but you might hear it at synagogue.  However, it is good manners and somewhat less mishuggeh to pick one language form and stick with it.
  • In general, in the US you will hear the Ashkenazi pronunciation from older Jews.  The Sephardic pronunciation has been on the rise in America since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
  • For help with Jewish words new to you, check out the Jewish English Lexicon online.

Jewish culture and language are a rich amalgam of Torah plus three millennia of survival. Enjoy!

 


Synagogue Hebrew 102

November 15, 2012

For the first in this series, take a look at Jewish Greetings 101.

Kiddush cup for marriage, Breslau

Kiddush cup for marriage, Breslau (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)

First of all, there is no need to stress: no one is going to try to tell you that the building is on fire in Hebrew, unless you are in Israel. In an American synagogue, anything someone says to you in Hebrew is almost certainly (1) friendly and (2) not mission-critical. So take a deep breath, shake the tension from your shoulders, and try on a few new phrases of Synagogue Hebrew.

These are phrases you might hear in connection with a service:

CHOOmash – a book containing the Five Books of Moses.

sid-DOOR or SIDdur – prayer book

YARTZ-eit – the anniversary of a death (or on the first year, anniverary of a burial.)

KADdish or KADdish yaTOM – Mourner’s Kaddish, prayer said by those in mourning or on a Yartzeit.

KIDdush or KIDdish – the blessing made on Shabbat or holidays over wine, a kind of toast to the day. It may also refer to refreshments after the Saturday morning service.

Oneg or Oneg shaBAT – refreshments after the service, usually on Friday night.

YAsher KOach (with a gutteral ch, as in “Bach”) means, “Good job!” (Literally, “may you have strength”)  If someone says it to you, you can smile, you can say the traditional reply baRUKH ti-hi-YEH (to a man) or bruCHAH teh-HEE (to a woman.) Either way, the reply means “May you be blessed.”  You can also say that in English, or simply say toe-DAH (Thank you.)

yaSHAR koCHECH means “Good job” as said to a woman. However, in many places you will hear “Yashar koach” said to people of both genders.

BEEmah is the elevated area in the synagogue where the Torah is read, and where the service leader may stand. Depending on the architecture, it might be in the front of the room, or the middle of it.

HAGbah is the lifting up of the Torah scroll after reading. Someone may call for a SHTARker (Yiddish for strong person) to lift it, although that is a little undignified – they should have found him or her before the service began.

aleeYAH or aLEEyah means literally “to go up.” It has two main uses: (1) “An aliyah” is a Torah reading, or the honor of saying the blessings for a Torah reading. (2) “Make aliyah” means “move to Israel.”

Are there phrases you’ve heard and wondered about? You can look them up at the Jewish English Lexicon, or leave me a comment below.


Jewish Greetings 101

November 10, 2012
English: Just a pic of the ways to say welcome...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You walk into a synagogue for Friday night services, and an usher hands you a prayerbook, a sheet with announcements, and says, brightly — something in Hebrew. Or… something.  Then someone else says… something… to you as you take a seat.  You don’t know any Hebrew. You’re paralyzed. What to do?

If you are a little intimidated by the Hebrew phrases spoken casually around Jewish communities, you are not alone.  Here are some tips for coping, and some of the most common phrases you’ll encounter:

1. MOST PHRASES ARE ROUTINE. Most of the phrases like “Shabbat shalom” (see below) do not require more than a smile or a repetition back.  No one is going to ask you a real question in Hebrew. Most American Jews do not speak Hebrew. (This makes rabbis sad, but it is the truth.) No one will say “The building is on fire” or “Your car has its lights on” in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Ugaritic.  I promise. It’s almost certainly some variation on “Hi.”

2. PEOPLE WHO TALK TO YOU ARE POTENTIAL NEW FRIENDS. They are friendly. It’s OK to say, “What does that mean?” In fact, that gives you an opening for a real conversation, which is how you get to know people.

3. YOU GET POINTS FOR TRYING. When you begin learning greetings, you may mispronounce things, or use a phrase incorrectly. That is OK. Mistakes are how you learn. Your best bet is to develop a sense of humor about it.  Two examples:

- When I first became a Jew, several people came to me and said, “Mazal tov!” (Congratulations!) I was not sure how to reply so I said, “Mazal tov!” back to them. Eventually someone explained to me that “Thank you” might be better.  As far as I know, everyone thought it was, at worst, a little dumb but sweet.

- My spouse, Linda, mis-heard “Boker Tov” (Good morning) and when she tried to say it to someone else the first time, she said, “Boca Raton!” The person she greeted did burst out laughing – she had inadvertently hit on a very entertaining pun, since lots of retired Jews live in Boca Raton, FL.  But again, she got points for trying. And ever since, at home we say “Boca Raton!” because it’s fun.

4. IT IS OK TO REPLY IN ENGLISH. Below, when I write “you can reply” I mean “you can if you want, or you can reply in English.”

Here are some common phrases you may hear, with possible replies:

Shalom! means Hello! or Goodbye! and you can answer: ShaLOM!

Shabbat Shalom! means Happy Sabbath! and you can answer: ShabBAT ShaLOM!

Boker tov! means Good morning! and you can answer: BOker TOV!

Lie-lah tov! means Good night! and you can answer: LIE-lah TOV!

Toe-dah rabbah means Thank you very much! you can reply: b’VAHkaSHA

Mazal tov! means Congratulations! You can reply Toe-DAH! (Thanks!)

Some phrases are not Hebrew, but Yiddish:

Goot Shabbes! means Happy Sabbath! and you can reply Goot SHAbes!

On holidays, there are special greetings:

Shanah tovah! means Happy New Year! you can reply Sha-NAH toVAH!

Chag sameach! means Happy Holiday! you can reply Chag saMAYach!

Goot Yuntif! means Happy Holiday! you can reply Goot YUNtif!

There are more greetings connected with particular holidays, but those are the basic ones. There are words for things you may often hear, but I’ll do a separate post for them.

Remember, it’s just people being friendly: the universal reply to all of them is a smile.

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Why Study Hebrew?

November 4, 2012

My first Hebrew Text

My first Hebrew text had the encouraging name Prayer Book Hebrew: The Easy Way.  My teacher had taught us the Aleph-Bet (Hebrew alphabet) using handouts and flash cards, and I was excited to get at the book.  After all, it said, “The Easy Way!” I had struggled to learn the letters, but now I was to the easy part, right?

It is a very good book, and I recommend it, but let me break it to you gently: there is no easy way to learn to read Hebrew, unless you are young enough for your brain to soak it up naturally. (If you are reading this and you are under 25 or so, you are Very Fortunate and should go find a Hebrew class pronto, before things begin to harden.)

So the question in the title is a serious one: why bother studying Hebrew, if it’s so hard?

1. Returns are high on even the smallest investment.  Every tiny bit of Hebrew you learn will enrich every aspect of your Jewish life. Let’s say you only learn the aleph bet. When you stand by an open Torah, you will recognize the letters you see. When you visit Israel, the language of your people will not be squiggles, it will be written in letters that you recognize.  Wherever you go in the Jewish world, you will be in on the secret: those are LETTERS. They mean something. If you keep on paying attention, you will begin to recognize words.

2. Hebrew connects us to every other Jew on the planet. If you can learn to say “B’vakashah” (Please) and “Todah rabbah!” (Thank you very much!) you will be able to be polite to Jews everywhere. The more Hebrew you learn, the more you can communicate with Jews who speak Spanish, Russian, French, Farsi, or Hungarian. It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you and I both speak a little Hebrew, we can have a good argument.

3. Hebrew connects us to other Jews across space and time. When I say “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad” (Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one) and I understand what I am saying, it enriches my prayer. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched at Selma, said that prayer in those words. Hannah Senesh, who wrote poetry and died fighting the Nazis, said that prayer in those words.  Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, said that prayer in those words. Rabbi Hillel, who lived when the Temple was still standing, said them too, exactly that way. When I pray in Hebrew, my voice blends with theirs.

4. Hebrew is one key to feeling like an insider in this tribe. One does not need perfect fluency to feel a part of things in a Jewish community, but if you don’t know a resh from a dalet (clue: the dalet has a tushie) it is easy to feel left out.  That last sentence was an example: the people who know that resh is  ר and dalet is ד  are smiling at the tushie thing.  Now see?  You are smiling too.

5. You will make friends studying Hebrew. Research shows that people bond when they go through a challenge together. Want to make friends at synagogue? Take Beginning Hebrew. By the time you make it through the aleph-bet, you will have some friends.


Jewish English Lexicon – an internet treasure!

October 23, 2012

I want to let my readers know about a wonderful new online resource, the Jewish English Lexicon.

One of the trickier things about the worldwide Jewish community (or even the Israeli and American Jewish communities) is that we use words from many different sources: Hebrew, Yiddish, Aramaic, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic, to name just the most common ones. A person born Jewish tends to learn the vocabulary used in his or her community of origin, which might be anything from “Brooklyn-Askhenazi-Lubavich” to “Louisville-Classical-Reform” to “Pico-Robertson-LA-Persian.”  All are as authentically Jewish as Moses himself, just different.

If there’s a word you hear that you don’t understand, type it into the Jewish English Lexicon and get a translation into American Standard English.  You can also browse the lexicon for new Jewish-isms to expand your vocabulary.

The Lexicon is the brainchild of Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor, Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.


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