Saturday, 14 September 2019

JVO: Remembering September 11

 first posted January 24, 2012

Jewish Values Online ( is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the dominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe serves as an Orthodox member of their Panel of Scholars, offering answers from our perspective.

This post is part of a weekly series on the Nishmablog presenting the questions to which he responded and the answers that he gave.

* * * * *

Question: As Jews, what is an appropriate way to commemorate the anniversary of the September 11 attacks?

Rabbi Wolpoe's answer
My first instinct would be to look at history. How did American Jews observe the anniversary of December 7th, 1941, "a date that will live in Infamy"?
Personally, I am prone to using the Hebrew Date - namely the 23rd of Elul. This maps out precisely to ONE WEEK before the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah [R"H]. In fact 9/11 was the 3rd day of the Ashkenazic S'lichot season, while S'phardim had started weeks earlier. Perhaps a S'lichah or Kina [elegy] would be apropos - see Below
Of course many Jews will join secular commemorations.
If we set up our own Jewish Program, then I don't think we need a specific prayer ritual, so much as an outline of "which bases to cover"
Here is an outline I hope is helpful.
1. Psalms to fit the occasion
2 Appropriate selections from the Scroll of Eichah or other Kinot lamenting similar tragedies
3. A speech or sermon discussing what happened and reflecting upon the aftermath.
4. Memorial Prayers for those who fell - E.G. "Keil Maleh Rachamim"
5. Perhaps prayers for protection in the future E.G.
6. Psalms 121, 130
In the long run, the memory of Sept. 11, 2001 may begin to fade as did the memory of 12/07/1941. And perhaps that is as it should be. While the. survivors are with us however, it is fitting to observe the anniversary of this tragedy.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

How a hacker became a neuroscientist. Meet Moran Cerf

From RRW

The Meaning of "Selah"

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                      What is the Meaning of “Selah”?

                We have all recited this simple word thousands of times in our prayers. But what does it mean?

                 To give you some background, it appears 71 times in Psalms, and three times in Habakkuk (all in chapter 3). It appears nowhere else in Tanakh. It never appears at the beginning of a verse, but occasionally comes in the middle of a verse (Ps. 55:20 and 57:4, Hab. 3:3 and 3:9). Otherwise its position is at the end of the verse. (Four times, it appears at the end of the entire psalm.)  It may appear more than once in the same psalm.
                There is a statement by a Tanna quoted at Eruvin 54a that “selah” has a meaning like “va-ed” and “netzach.” I.e., something that will continue forever. The Tannaitic statement cites Ps. 48:9 as support for this: “God will establish it ‘ad olam selah.’ ” While this verse fits the Tannaitic “forever” explanation, this explanation does not fit all 71 occurrences of the word “selah.”  The Targum also adopts the “forever” explanation. Accordingly, when the word “selah” is used in Rabbinic prayers, it is typically used with the meaning “forever.” For example, “selah” occurs three times in the daily Amidah with the implicit meaning of “forever.” See the “kedushat ha-shem” blessing and the “hodaah” blessing. Another example is the “selah be-emet” just before the morning Shema.
                  How have the Nach commentaries interpreted the word “selah”? Let us look at several commentaries on Psalms 3:3, where the word first appears. Metzudat Tziyon interprets it as meaning “forever.” Malbim interprets it as indicating a break, symbolizing the end of the subject. Ibn Ezra thinks the word means something like “it is so,” an affirmation of what preceded it. He also mentions a view that the word has no meaning but is used as a filler to make the melody and the length of the line correspond! See U. Simon, Four Approaches to the Book of Psalms, p. 295.
                     There was also an interesting suggestion made by some scholars that the word was derived from “sal”=basket and that “selah” was the instruction for a basket-shaped drum to be beaten! See Encyclopaedia Judaica 13:1322, and the concordance of S. Mandelkern.
                    Today the widespread view among scholars is that the word was an instruction to the singers or musicians. This view was expressed long by the Radak (d. 1235). See his comm. to Psalms 3:3 and his Sefer Ha-Shorashim. As pointed out by the Radak, evidence for this approach is that “selah” only appears in the book of Psalms and in the third chapter of Habakkuk. This chapter of Habakkuk ends with the words “la-menatzeach be-neginotai.” This ending indicates that this chapter of Habakkuk is of a similar genre to what is found in Psalms. In all of Tanach, if we find a word only in Psalms and in Habakkuk chapter 3, this is strong evidence that it is a word relating to musical instruction, and not a regular word. Perhaps it was an instruction relating to raising the singers’ voices or the music level, since it may derive from the root “S-L-L=raise.”
                       The word “selah” is found right after the word “higayon” at Ps. 9:17 (“higayon selah.”) Our next question is the meaning of this word.  Before we discuss the word itself, let us discuss its root H-G-H. This root appears many times in Tanach. Sometimes it means “think about, meditate.” Other times it means “murmur, speak.”
                      Aside from the vague use of the word “higayon” at Ps. 9:17, the word “higayon” appears only three other times in Tanakh (in various forms).  At Eikhah 3:62 (“hegyonam”), it has a meaning like “murmurings.” At Psalms 92:4, it is connected with a musical instrument: “higayon be-khinor” =a higayon with a harp. Finally, we have “hegyon libi” at Ps. 19:15, a verse very familiar to us, as we recite these two words at the end of every Amidah. Here it means the “thoughts” or perhaps even the “murmurings” of the heart.
                    OK, so what does “higayon” mean at Ps. 9:17, preceding “selah”? The consensus is that this too is a musical instruction, either to the singers or to the musicians. But what kind of musical instruction? On the one hand, H-G-H has a “murmur” meaning. On the other hand, it has a “think about, meditate” meaning. The Encyclopaedia Judaica (13:1322) suggests a “murmuring glissando,” while the Soncino commentary to Ps. 9:17 suggests “a solemn meditative melody.”
                    Now let us discuss a similar difficult word: “shigayon.” Psalms 7:1 begins “Shigayon Le-David.”  Habakkuk chapter 3 begins: “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, ‘al shigyonot.’ “   These are the only references to this word in Tanach, either in the singular or the plural.
                      The Soncino commentary to Psalms 7:1 writes that the word has been “explained as a ‘dithyrambic song of irregular structure and of impassioned character.’ The term may be connected with the root shagahwander aimlessly, stagger.’ “  Their commentary to Habakkuk 3:1 is similar:  “the term has been defined as ‘a dithyrambic poem in wild ecstatic wandering rhythms.’ ” My trusty Random House dictionary defines “dithyramb” as “a Greek choral song or chant of vehement or wild character and of…irregular form.”
                   But instead of seeing the root as the Hebrew Sh-G-H, others see the word as of Akkadian origin with the meaning “dirge.” But the contents of Psalms chapter 7 and Habakkuk chapter 3 do not seem to be “dirges.” 
                   It is interesting that if one looks carefully at the Even-Shoshan concordance on these two words: “shigayon” and “shigyonot,” one sees that he made an error when he quoted the text of Hab. 3:1. This is ironic since Sh-G-H means “wander off and err”! (I am sure that the error here was not a purposeful joke. Concordance authors are surely perfectionists!)
                  I mentioned above that the word “selah” appears 71 times in Psalms, and otherwise only appears in the third chapter of Habakkuk. What other word has such a similar skewed distribution? If you think for a bit, you can figure it out, as I already gave you a clue. The word is “la-menatzeach.” Aside from one appearance in the book of Habakkuk, it appears 55 times in the book of Psalms. In the case of “la-menatzeach,” the root N-Tz-Ch means “supervise.” It is most likely a word that gives an instruction to the supervisor of the music about the musical accompaniment to the psalm. (Elsewhere in Tanach, the  word “netzach” usually means “eternity.” As I wrote in a previous column on this root, it is hard to connect this “supervise” meaning of N-Tz-Ch with the “eternity” meaning.)
Mitchell First writes scholarly articles for the Link and is an injury attorney who takes the other side to the brink. Selah! 

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Wednesday, 11 September 2019

"The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Nazi (2008)"

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Nishma-Parshah: Ki Teitzei

Take a look at what's on
for Parshat Ki Teitzei

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Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Foreign Words in Tanach

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
                                                Foreign Words in Tanach

            Very often there are words in Tanach that did not originate in Hebrew and are foreign “loanwords.”  Here I am going to discuss some of the foreign non-Semitic loanwords in Tanach. I will also include Akkadian loanwords. Although Akkadian is a Semitic language, it is the Semitic language that is most distant from Hebrew.
                Egyptian:  Some examples of Egyptian loanwords in Tanach:  avnet (=girdle), achu (=grass or reed), iy  (=island, spelled aleph-yod),  tzi (ship), chotam (=seal, signet ring; this noun also gave rise to a verb), tene (=basket),  kof (=ape, monkey; this word appears only two times in Tanach, both in the plural), keset (=ink vessel, only 3 times in Tanach, all in Ezekiel), and  shesh (fine linen).
             Also, the following units of measure are Egyptian loanwords: eifah, hin, and zeret.
             Of course, there are the more obvious ones: gome (=papyrus, at Ex. 2:3, twice in Isaiah and once in Job), suf (=reed), ye’or (Nile river and then expanded to “river” in general), and “Paroh” (big house).
               Finally, another interesting example is found at Jer. 30:16: “ve-hayu shosayikh li-meshisah”= they that spoil thee shall become spoil. (This phrase was later adapted into Lekha Dodi: ”ve-hayu li-meshisah shosayikh.”)  Those two difficult words come from Egyptian. The original Egyptian noun is “shasu”= nomads, marauders.
                A classic article on this topic (with more examples) is T. Lambdin, “Egyptian Loan Words in the Old Testament, “Journal of the American Oriental Society 73 (1953), pp. 145-55.
               Most likely, there are around three or four dozen Egyptian loanwords in Tanach. (If a word appears more than once, I am still considering it as only one.) Anyone who investigates this topic realizes that this is not an exact science. Many times, particularly with Egyptian, scholars are just making educated guesses.
             Akkadian:  Akkadian was the language of the Assyrians and Babylonians.  Unlike the other Semitic languages, all written in alphabetic script, Akkadian was written in cuneiform. (From here we learn that languages can be related even though their writing form is completely different.)
              Some examples of Akkadian words in Tanach:  machoz (=harbor, town; only at Ps. 107:30),                 segan (=high official; many times in Nach, never in Chumash); and pechah (=governor; many times in Nach, never in Chumash).
               What about the word: “igeret”? This word only appears in Esther, Nechemiah and II Chronicles. (A related word also appears two times in Ezra.) Everyone realizes from the context that the word means a letter. But why? There is a root in Hebrew, Aleph-Gimmel-Resh, that means “gather.” See, e.g., Deut. 28:39. Therefore, many of the traditional commentaries believed that an “igeret” was a collection of thoughts.  But scholars now realize that the word is more likely derived from the Akkadian word “egirtu” that meant “letter.”
                    I have given only a very small sample of Akkadian loanwords found in Tanach.  In 2009, the scholar Hayim Tawil published a book:  An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew. Tawil’s book is over 400 pages. (It is usually available at the YU sale.) This book includes the many Akkadian loanwords in Tanach. There are many dozens, many more than Egyptian.
                 The reason the book is so long is that it does other things as well. For example, it helps clarify the meaning of Hebrew words where the Hebrew words did not occur often enough in Tanach to deduce their meaning. Akkadian comes in handy here as well. 
               Sumerian: Sumerian was not a Semitic language. But many of its words continued to be used in Assyria and Babylonia even after Sumerian died out in Mesopotamia as a spoken language. The Tanach was influenced by Sumerian through Akkadian.  Sumerian loanwords in Tanach include:
                 aman (A-M-N)=craftsman.  In Hebrew, this root means “trust, believe.” But one time in Tanach, at Shir Ha-Shirim 7:2, it means “craftsman.”  This meaning is from Sumerian.
                 ikar (A-Caf-R)=farmer (not in Chumash, but a few times in Nach)
                 kiseh (Caf-Samekh-Aleph)=chair, throne
                 tifsar (Tet-Pe-Samekh-Resh)=scribe (Jer. 51:27 and Nah. 3:17).  The Sumerian original was “dubsar” which meant “tablet writer.”
                 heikhal (Heh-Yod-Caf-Lamed)= temple. The Akkadian word was “ekallu.” This was derived from the original Sumerian “e-gal”=big house.
                  A very interesting word is Mem-Lamed-Chet=sailor. This word appears four times in Tanach in various forms, three times in Ezekiel and one time in Yonah.  You would never suspect that it is a foreign word. S. Mandelkern, in his concordance, suggests it derives from the saltiness of the sea. (In Hebrew, Mem-Lamed Chet means “salt.”) But it turns out that this word is a loanword from Sumerian. It is formed from “ma”=ship and “lah”= to direct, drive, steer. (It is accepted that the influence of Akkadian on the book of Ezekiel is a strong one.)
                 Persian: Persian rule over Palestine spanned the years 539-332 B.C.E. There are probably less than 20 Persian loanwords in Tanach. Here are a few:
              Gizbar = treasurer (Est. 1:8; see also Ezra 7:21 and Dan 3:2,3).
              Achashdarpan: 3 times in Esther, once in Ezra, and 9 times in the book of Daniel. The original Persian word was “khshatrapanan.” The Greeks shortened the word to “satrap,” while the Megillah added an initial “aleph.”
               Achashtranim (Est. 8:10):  This is a well-known word because an amora in the Talmud (Meg. 18a) admits that the amoraic Sages did not know its meaning. Now we know that the word means “royal/governmental.”
               Karpas: Est. 1:6 is the only time this word appears in the Tanach. It means “fine fabric, linen.” It is not related to the word in the Mishnah and later rabbinic sources that has the meaning of “plant, celery, parsley.”
                 Pitgam: decree. This word appears several times in Daniel and Ezra, and one time each in Kohelet and Esther.  The literal meaning was “that which has arrived.”
                Pardes: It means “park, orchard.“ It appears in Shir Ha-Shirim, Kohelet, and Nechemiah, once in each. Its literal meaning is “around the wall.”  It is related to the English word “paradise.”
        Greek: The main period where Greek began to influence Hebrew and Aramaic started around 332 B.C.E. when Alexander’s army took control of Palestine. The book of Daniel, in its Aramaic section, includes four words of Greek origin. These are some of the musical instruments included in chapter 3. In the Hebrew portion of Tanach, “aperion” at Shir Ha-Shirim 3:9, may be of Greek origin.
          This article is based in part on the section “Foreign Loanwords” in E. Y. Kutscher, A History of the Hebrew Language, pp. 46-53 (1984). Kutscher also points to words like “pilegesh” and “barzel” that are found in Tanach and were common to many ancient languages: Semitic and non-Semitic. Their origin cannot be determined.  There is also one word of Philistine origin in Tanach: “seren”=ruler. It is found in the plural in various books of Tanach. 
Mitchell First can be reached at He has an idea for a book: Tawil’s book is organized alphabetically. Someone should go through it and organize it by parsha.

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Thursday, 5 September 2019

Watch "The Slifkin Debate" on YouTube

From RRW

Meaning of Shotrim, Peras, Kikar

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                      The Meanings of “Shotrim,” “Pras,” and “Kikar”

        This word is the second word in this week’s parsha. It appears many times in Tanach. But what does it mean? It is usually translated as something like “officer.” But in Akkadian (=another Semitic language), the verb “sh-t-r” means “to write.” Also, we all know the Aramaic word “shtar”=document.  Most likely, the Hebrew word is describing an administrative position like a “recordkeeper.” See H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 390. (See also the entry in the concordance of S. Mandelkern.) The Hebrew word is not a word expressing a position of power.
         Compare Rashi who writes (Ex. 5:6): “ve-hashoter memuneh lirdot be-osei ha-melacha.” “Lirdot” derives from the root R-D-H. This is a root that means “rule, have dominion over.” See, e.g., Gen. 1:26. So admittedly Tawil and I are respectfully disagreeing with Rashi here. (In modern Hebrew, following Rashi’s approach, “shotrim” are policemen.)  
          Similar to Rashi is Rav S.R. Hirsch (Ex. 5:6). He notes the connection between our word and “shtar” and suggests that the “shtar” is called this because it is the document by which a creditor enforces his payment.
              Avot 1:3 records that Antigonus Ish Socho states that we should be as servants who serve their master not on the condition of receiving “pras.” He adds: “And let “mora shamayim” be upon you.”
              “Pras” here is usually translated as “reward.” So I always thought that “pras” must be related to the English word “prize.” But I just learned that I was wrong on two fronts. There is no relation to the English word “prize,” and more importantly, “pras” did not mean “reward” at the time of the Mishnah. Rather, it probably meant the daily food portion that was given to slaves.    
             The root P-R-S originally meant “to split, divide,” so the word originally meant “a half of something.” It then developed into a meaning like “food portion.” Jastrow’s main definition of the word is “fare,” which is a word for food. (But Meiri gives the word a slightly different spin: the food portion is called “pras” because the slave receives half of his portion in the morning and half in the evening.)
               Our reinterpretation of “pras” results in a subtle but profound change in the meaning of our Mishnah. The advice is to serve God without expectation of even your minimal food ration. See E. Bickerman, Harvard Theological Review, vol. 44/4 (1951), pp. 153-65. Bickerman admits that this sounds harsh. But he clarifies that this doctrine was not one of despair, but of hope. The required submission is ultimately based on confidence in God. He further clarifies the meaning of the last clause. What we must have is not “fear” of God. Rather, it is “awe” of God, and “awe” includes love and trust in Him.
                So how did “pras” come to mean “reward” in modern Hebrew? This was probably due to the influence of the similar sounding words: “preis,” “prix,” and “prize,” from German, French and English.    These words have their own history and evolution. But they are Indo-European and not related to the Semitic word “pras.”
      In Tanach, this word (Caf-Caf-Resh) means “bread.” It also means a coin or weight.  Most scholars believe that it is a shortened form of: C,R, C, R (which derives from C-R-R). This root has a circular theme. At II Sam. 6:14 and 6:16, M-C-R-C-R is used to describe King David whirling himself around, i.e., dancing. (II Sam. 6:16 has a parallel at I Chr. 15:29. There, instead of M-C-R-C-R, “meraked” is used, from R-K-D, “dance.”)      
          So C-C-R means “bread” because the bread was round in Biblical times. It also means “coin” and “weight” because of the roundness of these items. (The plural of the bread meaning is “kikarot.” The plural of the coin/weight meaning is “kikarim.”)
          But there is another use of kikar (C-C-R). Thirteen times it is used as a geographical term. See e.g., Gen. 13:12: “ve-Lot yashav be-arei ha-kikar.” I have seen this “kikar” translated as “plain” and “valley.” Perhaps these translators assumed that this “kikar” is not related to our previous “kikar” words. But perhaps there is a relation. A reasonable suggestion is that the area was viewed as approximately a circular or oval one. See, e.g., the Soncino commentary to Neh. 3:22. Or perhaps the geographical “kikar” sometimes refers to the area around a place. See, e.g., Koehler-Baumgartner, The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon, p. 473, and the Soncino commentary to Neh. 12:28 (“kikar sevivot Yerushalayim”).   
        Finally (but not yet in Biblical times), the geographical “kikar” started being translated as “square”! This is certainly how it is often used in modern Hebrew today.
           I would now like to repeat a discussion I have written about before.   The root Sh-N-H has two meanings in Tanach. On the one hand, it means “to repeat.” On the other hand, it means “to change.”  Which one is the origin of the word shanah=year?   I have seen sources that relate shanah=year to the “change” meaning. For example, E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 669, believes that the year was called shanah because it was a “period of changing seasons.” But an alternative view, which I prefer, is that the year was called shanah because it was fundamentally based on a concept of repetition. Many scholars accept this view. Among traditional Jewish sources, we can find something like this in Radak (Sefer Ha-Shorasim), Rav S.R. Hirsch (comm. to Exodus 12:2), and S.D. Luzzatto (comm. to Genesis 41:1).
                I also saw a source that believed that the year was called shanah because of both the “repeat” and the “change” aspects. It cleverly defined the year as: “the repeating cycle of seasonal change”!
               Finally, regarding the issue of how the two seemingly opposite meanings of Sh-N-H (“repeat” and “change”) can coexist in the same root, see my recent book Roots and Rituals, pp. 147-49.
            I would like to thank Alec Goldstein (editor of Kodesh Press) for teaching me about “shtar” and the site for the material on “pras.”
Mitchell First earns a pittance as a writer, barely enough to buy a few kikarot of bread with a few kikarim. Fortunately, he is an attorney as well. He also enjoys repeating his insights into the word “shanah” every year. He can be reached at