B’reisheet – “In the Beginning.” That’s the Hebrew name for the book of Genesis, the first word in the book. “Bet,” the letter at the very beginning, is a squat little letter. It began, we’re told by scholars, as a pictogram of a house. All I can say is: lousy house. It was more of a sukkah than a house: three walls and an iffy roof.
Beginnings are like that. They are awkward and often half-formed. We dress them up with ceremonies like “Orientation” or “Opening Day” or “Prologue” but at some point, it’s just me and whatever it is I’m beginning to do, and I’m generally not very good at it. Getting good, or at least comfortable, will come (maybe) but beginnings are awkward.
There comes a point, during this month of mending our ways and adjusting our aim, that we have to begin something new. It might be a new behavior, or a new attitude, or a new mitzvah. It will probably not feel “natural” and it may be downright uncomfortable. If I have been accustomed to driving too fast, then driving the speed limit will feel awkward and slow. If I have acquired a habit of lying, or drinking too much alcohol, or gambling, I will probably find those things so difficult to change that I may need to ask for help.
Let’s not let the awkwardness of beginning stop us from growing into the best selves we can be. Like kids learning to ride their bikes, we’ll wobble and laugh nervously and fall over occasionally. That is OK. The important thing is to begin.
This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.
“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.
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.
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.
After I posted Passover Vocabulary 101, my friend Ely Zimmerman offered some great suggestions, and I thought of more words and phrases a newcomer to Passover might want to know. Here’s a new list (if you think of more, leave me a comment and I’ll add 103 to the blog!)
קנאַידעל – (NAY-dle) Knaidel or kneydelis a matzah ball. That is, it’s a dumpling made of matzah meal and eggs, usually served in chicken broth. It’s also yummy. (Yiddish)
אפיקומן – (af-ee-KO-men) Afikomen is a piece of broken matzah, eaten at the end of the Passover meal. It is the last thing consumed. Often, if there are children present, the afikomen is hidden from them and a prize is given as “ransom” to the child who finds it. The seder cannot be finished until the afikomen is eaten.
מא נשתנה הלילה הזה – (Ma nish-ta-NAH ha-LYE-lah ha-ZEH) – Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh is the beginning of the part of the seder called “The Four Questions.” It means, “How is tonight different?” Many things in the seder are done in odd ways in order to get the participants to ask questions or to stimulate curiosity.
אליהו – (ee-LYE-jah or EH-li-AH-hu) Elijah is the name of a prophet during the reign of King Ahab of Israel. According to the Bible, he did not die but was taken up into heaven on a fiery chariot. (2 Kings 2:9) Since Elijah’s mysterious disappearance, legends have circulated that he sometimes visits Jews, and that someday he will come to announce the arrival of a messiah. Towards the end of the seder, we open a door just a bit, in case Elijah might visit our home.
חרוסת – (cha-RO-set or cha-RO-sis) Charoset is a mixture of chopped apples, chopped nuts, and a little wine (and sometimes other things, too) that we eat at Passover. It is a reminder of the mortar that the Hebrew used to make bricks. It is also a sweet taste to contrast with the bitter herbs.
געפילטע פיש – (geh-FILL-teh FISH) Gefilte Fish is traditional Passover and Shabbat food among Ashkenazi Jews. It’s usually served as balls of poached ground fish, and eaten with horseradish. (Yiddish)
מרור – (mah-ROAR) – Maror is a bitter herb, which we are commanded to eat at Passover. Often horseradish is served as maror; sometimes romaine lettuce or celery are used.
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.
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.
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.