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Uncategorized January 29, 2013

Be Careful What You Name Your Kid

Most Jewish parents choose Jewish names for their kids.  But they don’t always realize that one fine day, their kids may choose to really use those names.

According to Jewish thought, your Jewish name describes your essence.  When you want to name your child after a relative, you should really use the Hebrew name as closely as possible to the original.  Identical is best.  Starting with the same letter, in either Hebrew or English, is a distant second.  It’s powerful for the memory and honor, but spiritually, the connectedness is in the actual name or the same meaning.

Rabbi Akiva Tatz, originally of South Africa, who did not grow up using his Hebrew name, and who did not grow up Orthodox, for that matter, describes how his parents chose the name “Kevin” for him.  First, he says, they chose Akiva – after the person for whom he was named.  Then they went about searching for a secular name that he could use to navigate in the “real world” that was as similar as possible to the actual (Hebrew) name.  In other words, “Akiva” was the “real him” and Kevin was a distant nickname that replicated the real deal.

Many Jewish parents go about this the opposite way – first they choose an English name that they like or that’s after a loved one, then choose a Hebrew name based on other factors.  But many young parents tell me they wished they had known, when they were naming their kids, how very powerful that Hebrew name is to the essence and the soul of their children.  Many Jewish parents don’t remember their kids’ Hebrew names, if they’ve fallen into disuse.

Sometimes kids will start using their Hebrew names, whether at Sunday school, in Israel, or if they become more religiously-minded.  So you might want to choose carefully.

So here I am, to tell you!  And now you know.

How was your name chosen?  How did you choose your kids’ names?

Related posts:  Your Kid’s Hebrew Name is Yechezkel Simcha Chaim?
High on Hebrew

Uncategorized December 23, 2012

Tomayto, Tomahto – Shabbat, Shabbos

It has long bothered me that among fellow Jews, even our common language has built-in divisions:

Shabbos, Shabbat
Tallis, tallit
Sukkos, Sukkot
Bat mitzvah, bas mitzvah

I wish we could just ascribe a “tomayto, tomahto” attitude here, but it seems there are some deep attachments to one’s familiar ways of hearing and saying Hebrew – and some consciously overt preferences as well.

These divisions are generally characterized as “Sephardic and Ashkenazic,” but it’s not that simple.  For one, the modern state of Israel, populated in large numbers by Jews of Ashkenazic descent, employ the “Sephardic” pronunciations, using the “t” sound wherever the Hebrew letter “tav” appears, as opposed to pronouncing some of them (grammar-dependent) as an “s.”  Also, the Reform movement, and possibly the Conservative movement, or at least parts of it, employ the Sephardic pronunciation as well, even where its leaders or adherents are of Ashkenazic descent.  I am unsure why this is.  Perhaps to identify with the state of Israel?

According to Rabbi Joe Blair:

As a way of integrating and welcoming the refugees from the Muslim
lands, the State of Israel decided to institute the practice of teaching
Sephardi pronunciation as the official Hebrew spoken in Israel. Most
Hebrew speakers today use this pronunciation. There is a still-sizeable
number of Ashkenazi Jews who have chosen to remain with that
pronunciation; in particular, the Orthodox (and as some would call them,
the ultra-Orthodox) have chosen to hold to the Ashkenazi pronunciation.

This is interesting, because there were Ashkenazic refugees as well.  I think that somehow along the way the Ashkenazic pronunciation became associated with the “old-style” Jew, the “shtetl” Jew – and perhaps this was not the image the state of Israel wished to retain.

When my family lived in Israel for five years, we spoke modern Hebrew, the “Sephardic” way – and I got so used to this that when we returned to the states and put our kids in schools where the “s” sound was used instead, it sounded so odd to my ears.  Yet, in Israel, I often felt on the defensive if I inadvertently slipped into the “s” version – like I was outing myself as a hopelessly outdated Jew.

Now I use whatever word I think my fellow conversant is most used to.  Here on the blog I flip back and forth.  When I see someone approaching, I wish them “Good Shabbos” if I think they might be more used to that, or “Shabbat Shalom” if I think that’s their thing.  Of course, my split-second assessments are often wrong.  Sometimes the approacher corrects me and greets me with the “right” version.  If I’m greeted, I simply return the greeting as it’s offered to me.

So to you, readers, I ask:

Are the different pronunciations such a big deal?  What do they mean to you?

Uncategorized May 30, 2012

High on Hebrew

Hebrew is the only language, I recently asserted, where it pays to play language police.

On a recent post about the nature of the relationship between Reform and Orthodox definitions of Jewish,  a tangent, one of many, arose, buried deep in the comment section, that merits its own post: the particularness of the Hebrew language.

It started with the discussion of: is Judaism a race or nation?  Religion or ethnicity?  I was surprised that some were opposed to my usage of the word “race” as it niggled Nazi terminology a wee too close.  And the conversation continued (I’ve edited here):
Me: …it really only makes sense to be the language
police where Hebrew is concerned. English (ever read the kids’ book
“Frindle”?) language is useful per lots of people agreeing to mean
something by the usage of a particular word or phrase.

according to Judaism, carries inherent, never-evolving, never
synonymously interchangeable, meanings. Biblical Hebrew, that is.

I don’t mind if you substitute race for nation for whatever. My
original point was, is and still stands, that whatever you call us, we
defy logic. You can’t compare us to any other people, religion, race
ethnicity, or nation – in terms of how they define themselves, came to
be formed, and can cease to belong to that particular group. It doesn’t
even matter what you call us, for this reason.

Should be working:  Thanks for appreciating me be a linguistic nitpicker. It’s a passion.
you will have to tell me more about this idea that Hebrew has
never-evolving meanings. Where does Judaism say this? I’m a big fan of
Robert Alter’s Bible translations, and his scholarship. One thing I love
is his sensitivity to the ambiguities in the language of the Torah.
Which means you and O-Jews might be anything but fans. 
Larry Lennhoff: I
hope Ruchi wasn’t trying to say that the words of the Torah are
unambiguous. Rather I took her to say that every word was precisely
chosen and that no other word would do in its place. This precision is
necessary precisely to allow for the ambiguity that results in the 70
faces of the Torah. When someone darshens (homiletically interprets a
verse) based on the idea that if you read a word with a different set of
vowels you can extract another meaning they are taking advantage of the
Torah’s precision, but increasing ambiguity, not lessening it.

Orthodox figures such Ibn Ezra, James Kugel (in his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now)…all pay great attention to Biblical grammar and vocabulary.

I look forward to Ruchi’s post on the matter.
Zusel ben Shlomo Ruchi, you
are losing me again when you state that Hebrew, even Biblical Hebrew,
is never ambiguous or uncertain. It is certainly not true once it is
translated into English. IF you have ever seriously studied Tanach
using two different Jewish translations you might be amazed at the
differences. Even resorting to a competent Biblical reader, results in a
statement “well the Hebrew kind of implies both meaning, but neither
one is exact.”
There are also many Biblical nouns e.g. animals that we have no certain knowledge of.

are also words that only appear once in the entire Biblical Hebrew
so it is impossible to know what they meant in the ancient context.
Tanach also includes many euphemisms and figures of speech that cannot
be translated literally. 

So let me clarify what I’m talking about here.  Please note that wherever I say “Hebrew,” I refer not to modern Israeli Hebrew, but rather to Biblical Hebrew.
Rabbi Akiva Tatz is really the contemporary king of the topic.  In his book Letters to a Buddhist Jew, there is an entire chapter devoted to the following concepts.  I encourage you to click on the link and read it online:
1. Hebrew is entirely unlike any other language (sounds familiar to my assertion that the Jewish people are unlike any other people ever created…).
2. All languages derive originally from Hebrew.  The story of the Tower of Babel describes its explosion into multiple languages.  No coincidence here that Babel is essentially the same as the English “babble” – that’s exactly what happened when the languages diverged.
3. Hebrew is [perhaps one of] the most concise of languages.
4. Hebrew is the language of reality, and thus a concept that is merely an illusion will not have a word to describe it in Hebrew (example: “my rights”).  Ugly words do not exist in Hebrew; despite its inherent conciseness, more words and syllables will be employed to describe something in a lovelier, less insulting way.  Example: the word “treif” is not Biblical but rather Talmudic.  In the Torah it describes “the animals that are not pure.”
5. There are no synonyms in Hebrew since each word is precisely chosen and carries that meaning throughout its use anywhere in Scripture.
6. Aside from the actual word usage and the sense of reality it conveys, there is another layer of meaning encoded in the language, that, as far as I know does not exist in any other language.  This is called “gematria” – each letter carries a numerical equivalent that is there to teach us something and can often reveal deeper layers of the concept.
7. Each Hebrew letter’s construct and name is the subject of deep meaning.  Even which letters are juxtaposed in the Torah is a meaningful study.  Example: Two letters that never appear together in the entirety of Torah (this was asserted prior to computer-checking capacity but remains proven now) are the “gimmel” and the “tet.”  Put together, it spells the Talmudic word for divorce.
There are so many examples and so much more to say; start with reading Rabbi Tatz’s chapter and even that is just the portal.
To respond to Zusel ben Shlomo:
Sure, Hebrew can be ambiguous, just as any language.  But the diction never is.  If a word is chosen, it is very telling.  To the point where when I teach Torah classes, mainly in English, when we’re stuck I look up the original Hebrew and it usually answers the question.  The translating into English is precisely the problem; it’s like reading a recipe online instead of cooking it in real life.
So to the original point, it doesn’t really matter if I want to call the Jewish people a “nation,” a “race” or whatever.  The real question is, what are we called in Hebrew?
Here are a few answers, and excuse my imperfect translation, which you now know the reason for:
“Mamleches kohanim” – a kingdom of priests (religion/Chosen People)
“Goy Kadosh” – a holy people (religion)
“Bnei Yisrael” – the children of Israel (race/family/ethnicity)
“Am segulah” – a treasured nation (nation)
Squirming?  🙂 
So…. does that clarify or confuse?  What’s your exposure to the depth of Biblical Hebrew?