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The Meaning of Words

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Languages are amazingly varied and flexible despite all academic attempts to reduce them to simple formulas. We have always struggled to explain why almost every tribe had its own language — why God could not have made do with one. It would have made life and international relations so much easier.

There are a range of stories and myths to explain this obvious failure: Hermes brought languages as gifts to mankind. Eastern myths preferred to blame gossiping housewives. A South American version is that as a result of a great flood, the survivors lost touch with each other. And a Bantu myth says that famine caused humans to go their separate ways. We, of course, have the story of the Tower of Babel — that it was all part of God’s plan to prevent us from uniting against Him (or Her or Whichever).

It is well known that languages are influenced by local conditions. That’s why Arabic has so many different words for camels of various gender, age, and capability — or why English is full of so many technical words for sea-faring vessels, or why Biblical Hebrew has so many words for fear, being constantly under assault, and invasion.

I love examining the origins of words in English, but I love even more the wealth to be mined from the Hebrew language, which is thousands of years older.

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In Hebrew, there were originally no vowels and words shared common roots. This leads to both confusion and fascination. For example, the Hebrew for judge shares the same root letters with fool. In Hebrew, the same word often has multiple uses. The root SaFaR means to talk, count, write, and tell. Sometimes what we call Janus words (after the Roman god who faced both ways) mean opposites. The root KaDoSH can mean holy, yet it can also mean profane. The word root CHaTaH can mean to sin, but it also means to purify. Hebrew also has words that only exist in the plural.

As with any other language, there are certain Hebrew words that recur more than others. Even so, it always surprises me how often the Bible uses the word for a stranger, and the obligation to be nice and sensitive to him or her.

All of this is background to my point that the frequency of certain kinds of words in a text are clues to the values and ideas that the text wishes to emphasize. Why, for example, is the word simcha (“joy”) repeated and emphasized only in the last book (Deuteronomy) just before the Jews arrive in Canaan, and only once elsewhere in the five books? Is it because up until coming into their own land, there was little to be joyful about?

In Deuteronomy, there are certain words that are to be found uniquely or predominantly — such as Makom, referring to the Temple, as opposed to MishkanHorev instead of Sinai. Some will say that this indicates different time frames or authors. But I think that these word patterns indicate something else — a subtle message and emphasis. Place names change all the time. The Bible keeps on saying that this place was called by this name once, but now it has another name. It is another way of saying that names don’t matter as much as what happens there.

With the exile, Jewish life changed towards a prayer- and study-based core that could be pursued anywhere. This is why the rabbis started using the word Makom for God. Makom leads us away from thinking that God only exists in one place, and instead that God is in many. This is where the idea of God belongs, despite our constant tendency to push the idea of God into one space.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than forty years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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