There are a number of words in Hebrew that have made their way into English. One of them is Hallelujah.
Hallel means “praise.” There is an entire service of praise we sing to praise all the many attributes of God. We sing Hallel on all major festivals, on Rosh Chodesh, and at Chanukah. It includes parts of several psalms (notably Psalms 113-118) and other prayers, and hallelujah in various forms is repeated many times.
The “oo” sound in the middle lets us know that in this case, hallel is actually a verb. Hallelu means “We praise.”
Finally Yah (often transliterated “jah”) is one of the many names of God, possibly a shortened form of the Tetragrammaton, the name of God that Jews do not pronounce. In the Bible, Yah appears in Psalm 68:5 (in a Jewish Bible) and Psalm 68:4 in other Bibles. We also see it as part of names: Elijah means “My God is Yah;” Isaiah means “Yah is salvation;” and Hezekiah means “Strengthened by Yah.”
Thus Hallelujah means “We praise God,” which is exactly how it is used by both Jews and Christians. In pop culture, we most often hear the word used by fundamentalist Christians, but the origins of the word are Jewish and in fact, observant Jews sing or pray psalms every day containing the word.
And Moses said to the Eternal: “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither in the past, nor since you have spoken to your servant; for I am heavy of mouth, and heavy of tongue.” – Exodus 4:10
And Moses spoke before the Eternal, saying: “Look, the children of Israel have not heard me; how then will Pharaoh hear me, I who have uncircumcised lips?’ – Exodus 6:12
And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Look, I have uncircumcised lips, and how will Pharaoh hear me?’ – Exodus 6:30
I have deliberately translated the Hebrew in these verses as literally as I can, so that we can look at them closely. What on earth are “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” and “uncircumcised lips?”
The medieval commentators disagreed. Rashi was sure that Moses had a stutter. Rashbam, his grandson, was equally certain that Moses was saying that he wasn’t fluent in Egyptian. Ibn Ezra, writing in 10th century Spain, suggested that it meant that Moses was not a smooth talker. In a modern translation by Nahum Sarna, he echoes the verdict of Rashi on the phrase “uncircumcised lips,” that it indicates some kind of obstruction, and he points out that elsewhere the Bible refers to uncircumcised hearts and ears in a seemingly metaphorical way.
Whatever the trouble, Moses was bothered enough that he kept bringing it up. God appeared to take it seriously in Exodus 4, and suggested a aide for Moses, his brother Aaron. Then, after a disastrous meeting with Pharaoh in which he managed to get the Israelites work increased, and an equally disastrous meeting with the Israelites over the matter, Moses brings it up again. This time, God changes the subject to genealogy, and after that discussion, Moses repeats his line about “uncircumcised lips.” What is going on here?
First, notice that God suggests Aaron as an aide. Aaron is unlikely to be fluent in court Egyptian, the language Moses spoke most of his life. However, Aaron is fluent in Hebrew, the language Moses spoke at most during the years his mother was his wet-nurse, perhaps through age 5.
Second, after things have gone so badly with both Pharaoh and the Hebrews, Moses begins talking about “uncircumcised lips.” This phrase did not appear in the first discussion. What is different? Now the Hebrews are mad at Moses, and they’ve rejected him.
I think that Rashbam was almost right: I think Moses was worried that he didn’t speak Hebrew fluently. His lips were uncircumcised because his language doesn’t sound Jewish (well, Hebraic.) Pharaoh would be unable to hear him because he had no credibility: how could he represent the Hebrews before Pharaoh if they repudiated him?
Notice that in later years, in the desert, Moses’ speech problems were never mentioned. The Hebrews got mad at him fairly regularly, but we never again read about uncircumcised lips or a heavy mouth. I suggest that with practice, Moses became more fluent, and the problem went away.
I find this interpretation encouraging. First, for those of us who learn Hebrew later in life, it is comforting to hear that perhaps even Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher) also felt insecure about his accent, but that it improved with practice.
It is a small thing in chapters with many more important points, but just in case someone reads this who is struggling with Hebrew, know that you are definitely not alone! With enough practice, we all improve.
OK, I couldn’t resist the title. Tsuris (TSOO-ris) is Yiddish for “trouble.” And it is a lot of trouble to make Hebrew or Yiddish available for non-Hebrew readers, because Hebrew has a funny alphabet (actually, aleph-bet) and runs right to left, backwards for English readers.
Solution: We transliterate the words, that is, put them into a familiar alphabet, running in the “right” direction.
For instance, consider these words:
If you don’t read Hebrew, it’s squiggles. Not helpful.
If I transliterate:
Now, that is still a problem, because many Americans will pronounce that “Yahm KIP-per” which isn’t quite right. But that’s the accepted transliteration, so it’s what you will see in print and online.
That’s why I sometimes go a further step and give a sorta-kinda American pronunciation guide, avoiding specialized symbols:
Sometimes I get questions about spelling: Chanuka? Hanukkah? For that, all I can say is, pick your poison. There’s no “correct” spelling unless you are writing for a publication with a stylebook. Basically, they’re ALL wrong. If I were going to try to approximate the correct Hebrew spelling (חנוכה) I’d probably go for something like Khanookkah. If I were trying to tell you how to pronounce it, I’d write CHAH-noo-kah. Neither is a spelling that anyone is likely to recognize as “the holiday that falls on 15 Kislev, in the darkest part of winter.”
If you really want to know how to say Hebrew words, take a little Hebrew. You don’t have to study for years and years to learn how to pronounce words.
That said, for those of us who learned to read English phonetically, transliterations can be a big help in learning prayers, especially if we begin late in life. There’s no shame in using a transliteration if you need it. Just know that (1) it is an approximation and (2) spelling is anyone’s guess.
A reader asked: What’s the difference between a “drash” and a “d’var Torah?”
First of all, let’s talk definitions:
DRASH is an interpretation of something in scripture.
e.g. Rabbi Akiva gave a drash that explained the crowns on the letters of the Torah scroll. OR
e.g.: “That’s an interesting drash,” the teacher said, after Abe speculated that perhaps the burning bush was a door into another dimension.
D’VAR TORAH (duh-VAHR toh-RAH) (literally, a “word of Torah”) is a short teaching linked to a passage of Torah. (Please do not refer to it as a “d’var.” That means “a word of,” which is annoying; a word of what?)
e.g. Will you give a d’var Torah to open next week’s meeting?
While we’re at it, let’s look at some related D (for Dalet) words:
DRASHAH (drah-SHAH) is the same as drash, but usually refers to something more formal, like a sermon or lesson.
e.g. On the High Holy Days, Rabbi Cohen’s drashah might be as long as 45 minutes.
A DARSHAN (dar-SHAHN) is a man who gives a drash. When a woman does it, we call her a DARSHANIT.
e.g. I asked Rivka to be the darshanit for next week’s service, but if she can’t do it, ask Robert to be the darshan.
The absolute best thing about being a teacher is the opportunity to learn from one’s students.
I’m currently teaching a class on Pirkei Avot, the Verses of the Fathers, at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. Today we talked about Chapter 2, and a question came up about the verse that is usually translated:
In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.
I pointed out that in a spirit of greater inclusion, some translators translate anashim as “human beings” and ish as “human being.” One student offered the following translation, which I love:
In a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch!
Originally, the Yiddish word mensch came from the German for “person.” By the 20th century, it had taken on an additional layer of meaning, that of a person who is decent and kind, one who embodies the best of humanity. The Jewish-English Lexicon offers Rosten’s translation: “An upright, honorable, a decent person.”
Hebrew is cool. It’s a Semitic language, and it works very differently from English.
Most words in Hebrew grow from a three-letter ROOT. The root expresses a general idea, a family of possible words with three basic consonants. We add vowels, endings, and prefixes to make the variations on the theme.
For instance, K-D-Sh (Kuf, Dalet, Shin) is a root whose general idea is “holy.” With appropriate vowels, etc we get:
Kaddish – (kah-DEESH or KAH-dish)* The prayer mourners say, which also divides the service into sections.
Kiddush – (Kee-DOOSH or KID-ish) The blessing-toast for Shabbat and holidays, or a meal that begins with that blessing.
Kodesh – (KOH-desh) – (adj.) Holy
Kiddushin – (kee-doosh-EEN) – Jewish marriage, in which each partner is sacred to and set apart for the other.
Can you think of any other words in this family that you’ve heard around synagogue?
Are there any other Hebrew words you’ve heard that sound like each other and confuse you?
*Some words have two pronunciations listed. The first is the modern Israeli pronunciation, and the second is the Ashkenazi pronunciation, which sometimes pops up in American English. Both are correct.
Also, in the illustration above, remember that English reads left-to-right but Hebrew reads right-to-left. The Shin is the letter on your left.
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.
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?