Sunday 29 April 2018

Interesting Words in the Daily Amidah

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                          Interesting Words in the Daily Amidah

           Compared to some of our other prayers, the Hebrew in the Daily Amidah is fairly straightforward. Nevertheless, there are some interesting words. I will now present a selection (in the order the words appear in the Amidah):
          Gomel: In Tanach, the root G-M-L has several meanings. Sometimes it means “to ripen.” Other times, it means something similar: to “wean a child from its mother’s milk.” (Both of these meanings are probably related to the root G-M-R.)
              However, other times G-M-L means something completely different: “to give/pay back” (e.g., giving someone back what they deserve).
            The interesting issue relates to this “giving/paying back” meaning. For years I had discussions with friends based on the assumption that this meaning was related to the word “gamal” (=camel).  For example, did it mean giving something you had stored up, like camels store water? Or does the fact that it often connoted a “pay back” come from the fact that camels go back and forth?
            Now that I have gotten older (and hopefully wiser), I am less willing to make the camel connection. I see that most scholars do not make it and believe it is just coincidence that the verb G-M-L for “giving/paying back” has the same letters as the word for camel. I vividly remember a friend of mine giving a shiur that began: “What does it mean to be camel chesed?” But I do not think that this is a relevant inquiry anymore. (Of course, I may be wrong. There are no clear answers here.)
              I will also add that the the giving and actions that are done via G-M-L in Tanach sometimes affect people favorably and other times affect them unfavorably.
           Mashiv: The root of this word is N-Sh-B. This root means “blow.”  We are supposed to understand “mashiv” as if it was written “manshiv.”  This root only appears three times in Tanach, and at two of these times, Gen. 15:11 and Ps. 147:18, the nun is not even there. The one time the nun is there is at Is. 40:7. The root does appear in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service: “ruach noshavet.” “Mashiv” (to be understood as “manshiv”) is in the hiph’il form. It means “causes to blow.”  I.e., God causes the wind to blow.
            Mechalcel (M-C-L-C-L): The word C-L-C-L appears in Tanach a few times in various forms. I have seen two different approaches to it.  Jastrow sees it as derived from the root C-L-L= “complete” (and its derivative “kol”= all), and sees the meaning as “to provide with everything.” This is what I had always thought. Similar is the view of Rav S.R. Hirsch. See his comm. to Gen. 45:11.
            But I have seen other scholars take a different approach. There is a Biblical root C-Vav-L, which means something like “contain.” It is used for example in the case of vessels that contain things. These scholars suggest that C-L-C-L derives from this. Since the original meaning “contain” is the equivalent of “holding something within,” this evolved into a “sustain, support” meaning. (The doubling of letters, going from C-L to C-L-C-L, usually reflects some form of intensification.)
          Matir Asurim: God does not permit the forbidden! Rather, the explanation is as follows. The root A-S-R means “bind,” so “asurim” here means “bound individuals.” (Related to this is the word “issur”= a binding obligation.)
            But what does “matir” mean? It turns out that its root is N-T-R, which means “release.“ The nun dropped out from the initial position, as often happens in Biblical Hebrew. The word is in the hiph’il form and should be understood as “mantir”= causes to be released. The two words together mean that God releases bound individuals.
           Selah, Mehal: (I am using “H” and “h” in this discussion to represent the letter Het.)
            -M-H-L never appears as a verb in Tanach. (Admittedly, there are several names in Tanach that seem to derive from the letters M-H-L. But most likely these M-H-L names were given based on the “joy” meaning of the letters M-H-L, which ultimately derives from a different root: either Het-Lamed-Lamed or Het-Vav-Lamed.) The letters M-H-L with a meaning like “forgive” first appear in a Dead Sea text. Later the word is found in the Mishnah.
            -S-L-H is the word for “forgive” in Tanach.  But in Tanach it is always God doing the forgiveness or being asked for forgiveness. How did individuals ask other individuals for forgiveness in the time of Tanach? We do not know!  Unless of course, the verb M-H-L was used but never made its way into Tanach.
         - When we look at the letters M-H-L in the word mehilah, a main issue is whether that initial M is a root letter. Perhaps the root was H-L-L, in one of its several meanings, like “open space, emptiness.” Alternatively, the Tanach includes a root M-H-E with a meaning like “erase, remove.” Perhaps M-H-L was derived from this root.
            H-M-H (yehemu): Regarding various types of righteous people (and ourselves!), we ask “yehemu rachamekha.” It is evident from the context that it means “may your mercy be aroused.” But what precisely does the root H-M-H mean?  This root is found various times in Tanach, including in the well-known verse of Jer. 31:19: “Is Ephraim a darling son to me?...Therefore ‘hamu meiai’ to him. I will have rachamim on him…”
           To answer the question, I would first like to quote Mandelkern’s definition at the beginning of his concordance entry for the root H-M-H: “The essence of this word is a natural noise that living things emit at a time of activity and feeling.” Then forgive me, but I will rely on Homer Simpson.  I have not had a TV in my house for over 10 years but I still have vivid memories of Homer enjoying the smell of his anticipated dinner and murmuring joyously: “HMMM, rump roast!”  This “HMMM” sound is undoubtedly the meaning of H-M-H. It surely is an onomatopoeia (a word that sounds like what it is).  So asking for “yehemu rachamecha” is asking for an arousal of God’s mercy with some accompanying sound signifying the arousal. (Of course, admittedly by the time the Amidah was composed, the word could have developed into “arouse” without any accompanying sound.)
        M-G-R  (temager). This root means “cast down.” The root appears in Tanach at Ps. 89:45 and at Ezra 6:12 (in a section of Tanach that is in Aramaic). There is one other instance in Tanach where we find a word that might have the root M-G-R. This is at Ez. 21:17. But some view the root there as G-Vav-R. (See, e.g., Rashi.)              
           Ve-Arvah:  pleasant, sweet. The root A-R-B means “mix.” E.g., erevrav is a mixed multitude and the plague of arov is a mixture of animals. (The root A-R-B has other meanings as well.) Many have suggested that A-R-B with the meaning “pleasant, sweet” comes from the A-R-B “mix” meaning and originally meant “mixed well.”
        According to most scholars, the daily Amidah was composed and instituted around the late first century C.E. (See the article by Allen Friedman in Tradition 45:3, 2012.) Much of the Mishnah dates from this same period. Yet the Mishnah includes hundreds of words derived from Greek and Latin, while all such foreign words are lacking in the Amidah. Evidently, as observed by the Israeli scholar Moshe Bar-Asher, there was a desire to compose the prayer in pure Hebrew, drawing virtually exclusively on words with roots in Tanach. (I learned from Allen Friedman that the only foreign word in the Amidah is the word “ligyonot” (=legions). This word derives from Latin and is part of the “Nachem“ insertion for Tisha Be-av. But the “Nachem” insertion may be Amoraic in origin. See J. Talmud Berakhot 4:3.)
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at  He tries not to get too distracted by interesting words when reciting the Amidah.


Saturday 28 April 2018

Mussar: Naivete Trumps Cynicism

From RRW 
"It is better to be a fool who believes in everything than to be so clever that you do not believe in anything.

If you believe in everything, some of your beliefs may be foolish but you will also believe in the truth. However, when a person is too clever and does not want to believe in anything, he may begin by ridiculing falsehood and folly but can easily end up so skeptical of everything that he even denies the truth."

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

Tuesday 24 April 2018


I live in Toronto, less than 2 miles away from where yesterday's horrific tragedy occurred. Toronto is generally a most tranquil city, noted for its many cultural faces. An event of this nature disrupts our reliances.

What is perhaps most unsettling is the nature of this lone attacker. He is not one who seems to represent a group. He has his own definition of right-and-wrong which led him to act in this most evil manner with the perception that he was justified. And all he needed to do was rent a van.

What leads a person to think so much of himself that he can decide to act in such a cruel manner, savagely killing, torturing and maiming innocent people, because he so decides that it is the thing to do? And this is not just happening in Toronto. When did we stop learning to question and examine ourselves? This is the very call of mussar and it is the obligation of us all.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Thursday 19 April 2018

Follow-up on my earlier blog post - Did we forget Yom Ha'atzmaut?

As we approach the end of Yom Ha'atzmaut, I wanted to comment on my previous post from 2010 (reproduce below) on the nature of our celebration of this day. In that post, what I was effectively raising was the question of whether our celebration of this day was like every other nation's celebration of their Independence Day -- and that we became a nation like all other nations -- or whether we were celebrating the creation of a distinctively Jewish State.

While many issues still stand before us, I am happy to say that I do believe we are moving in the latter direction -- but there is still more to do. So I wanted to present my thoughts from this old blog post as I further believe that the question presented therein must still be before us as we move foreward.


Did we forget Yom Ha'atzmaut?

 originally posted April 22. 2010

Some of our readers may have noticed that there was no Nishmablog post for Yom Ha'atzmaut. Could it mean that we were possibly making a statement through this lack of even a post. The fact is I was wondering myself why I didn't post something, at least to mark the day (which I do, in some way, personally mark).

What occurred to me was my own ambivalence about the day which, perhaps, indicated something to me about our celebration of Jewish holidays. What are we really marking when we celebrate, for example, Pesach? The simple answer may be freedom but I think that that is only part of the answer. The full answer includes a recognition of God's role in our Exodus and the expression of shevach v'hoda'ah in appreciation. The focus of Pesach is not on freedom itself but our appreciation to God for this freedom.

This led me to recognize that with Yom Ha'atzmaut we have the same issue. Are we celebrating the establishment of an independent Jewish country or are we celebrating God Who gave us this country? The two poles, of course, represent ends of a spectrum with different individuals experiencing different feelings -- but what is most dominant, that feeling of celebrating independence (a feeling that can be shared with secular individuals as well), or that feeling of shevach v'hoda'ah to HaKodesh Baruch Hu for giving us this independent nation?

I once heard a rav explain that it took 100 years before Chanukah was clearly accepted as a holiday to be celebrated into the generations. This may have been the issue. Clearly all felt positive in throwing off the Greek oppressors but was the dominant emotion a secular celebration of independence or a religious recognition of the Divine? It may have took years to answer that question or to bring the emotion that substantiates an eternal value in the day to come forth.

The same may be true for Yom Ha'atzmaut. Clearly it is a day that I mark and celebrate. I benefit from the reality of a State of Israel. But why did I not blog about? This celebration, it would seem, for me still has not moved into my realm of Torah thoughts. While I thank God for the State, I have not crossed the line where the celebration of God's role has precedence in my feelings over the feelings of independence itself. It has, as such, not yet become an eternal value within my structure of Torah. Thus it was possible for me to let the day past without a blog post.

Is this something that I should work on for next year or is this simply a reflection of the present reality of the day? That is something for me to think about but it may be something that demands further contemplation by all of us.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Monday 16 April 2018

Thoughts on the video "Acheinu"

I recently watched the video "Acheinu" at and my reaction was the same as the one I would expect from most caring Jews -- and there would be good reasons for such a reaction. I was deeply touched by the exchange portrayed in the video and felt most positive about the conclusion and, most importantly, the concluding, continuing message. 

Upon contemplation, though, I found many challenges embedded in the video -- challenges that do not necessarily override the important message of the video but nonetheless need to be addressed if the video is ultimately going to have any real impact. The video touches the emotions but, to truly be effective, it must also enter into the realm of thought. The issues raised in the video are actually very deep and, as much as people may believe that answers to Jewish unity and Jewish identity can be attained through the emotions, this is not the actual case. Applying the terms employed by Rabbi Jospeh B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek in his discussion of Jewish identity, we cannot limit ourselves to only consider our shared 'fate' but we must also fully contemplate and investigate the idea of our shared 'destiny'. In this regard, to answer the question of 'why I am a Jew?', I have to have some definition of what it means to be a Jew. 

It is only in the realm of 'fate' that an Adolf Hitler ys"v can have a voice in defining Jewishness and this is a problem for many reasons. In a world where Jewishness cannot be imposed on anyone and one must effectively choose to be Jewish, the reality of such choice furthermore demands that one must arrive at some personal understanding of what Jewishness is so that one can make this choice. Beyond this reality that choice does exist, though, a strong personal commitment to this identity is actually only possible if one finds personal meaning in such identity. This, also, is the further challenge of Jewish unity. As individuals develop their personal understandings of what it means to be a Jew -- and, furthermore, find personal meaning in these possibly divergent definitions -- unity is only possible if these variant definitions can possibly converge. We must then necessarily also turn to thought to find the broader definition of Jewish identity, beyond the parameters of our personal definition, that can join us together -- if such a definition indeed does exist.

 In hearing any argument that Hitler taught us that all Jews are brothers and sisters, we must also remember that part of this lesson would also include the fact that Edith Stein also died at Auschwitz. This, indeed, must also be part of the lesson of shared 'fate' and on this level, she is indeed part of our people. This also highlights, however, the issue of shared 'destiny'. This video must demand of us to go beyond the video.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Thursday 12 April 2018

Touching Video

From RRW
An appropriate video for Yom Hashoah

The Meaning of Sheol (Netherworld)

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                 The Origin of the Word “Sheol  (=Netherworld)
                 There is never an appropriate time to discuss this word...
                “Sheol” appears over sixty times in Tanach.  On the simplest level, it is a large place, located deep underground, where the bodies and spirits of dead people dwell. (But sometimes “sheol” refers only to an individual grave, and other times, it is used merely as a metaphor for distress.)
                My question for this column is whether we can relate this word to our well-known Hebrew root “Sh-A-L” which appears almost 200 times in Tanach with meanings like “ask a question,” “inquire,” “demand/ask for an object,” and “borrow an object”?
                 The word “sheol” as a term for the netherworld appears only in Hebrew (although it is found as a loanword from Hebrew in a few other languages). This means that I will not be able to surprise you at the end of this column with an insight from another language, as I sometimes do.
                In the ancient world, dead people were sometimes consulted for advice. (I believe such consultations persist in our time as well!) Recall the story of Saul going to a “baalat ov” to bring the deceased Samuel back for consultation. (I Sam., chap. 28.) The word “sheol” is nowhere mentioned in this story, but the fact that Samuel had to be “brought up” is mentioned a few times. This implies that he was located in an underground location. Accordingly, “sheol” can be viewed as “a place that you consult with.” But there is only one such consultation story in Tanach.
                   Another widely proposed suggestion is that “sheol” derives from the root “shin-aleph-he,” and that the final “lamed” is not part of the root. This is the case, for example, in the word “carmel,” from the root “C-R-M.” (Another example, is the word S-M-O-L, “left.” Most likely, the lamed is not part of the root.) The root “shin-aleph-he” has meanings like “loud noise,” “crash into ruins,” and “desolation.” The first two of these meanings do not fit at all, and even “desolation” does not seem to have been a main aspect of “sheol.” “Sheol” was the destination of everyone.
                (With regard to the root “shin-aleph-he,” probably it originally meant “loud noise.” See, e.g,  “teshuot,” Zech. 4:7, the last verse of the haftorah for Chanukah. Then “shin-aleph-he” encompassed the meaning “crash into ruins” because of the loud noise. Finally, it developed into “desolation,” since this is the fate of ruins.)
                   The very scholarly multi-volume work Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament has a long discussion of the root “sheol,” presenting many possibilities. The most interesting approach suggests that we should not view the “shin” as a root letter in this word. Rather, it is a prefix and the root of the word is “aleph-lamed.” The two-letter word “al” appears many times in Tanach as a word of negation, and seems to have originally meant “nothing.” See, e.g., Job. 24:25. With the shin as a prefix, the word could have meant “make into nothing,” “belonging to nothingness,” or “place of nothingness.“
                     A very interesting suggestion is made by Rav S. R. Hirsch (in his commentary to Ps. 9:18). He states that the grave is called “sheol” because it demands the body back. Rav Hirsch’s comment is very brief, but I would like to expand on it. Perhaps there was an ancient belief that, while we attempt to live on earth, there is an opposing force called “sheol” which tries to pull us down below, like gravity. “Sheol” is even described as having “cords” to pull people. See Ps. 18:6 (“chevlei sheol sevavuni;” see similarly II Sam. 22:6). (But perhaps the primary purpose of those cords was to restrain people from leaving “sheol.”)
               A similar suggestion posits that “sheol” is called this because it is never satisfied and always asks for more (i.e., more dead people to absorb.) The idea that “sheol” is never satisfied is found explicitly at Prov. 27:20 and 30:15-16. (See also Is. 5:14 and Hab. 2:5.) This suggestion sounds the most reasonable of all the suggestions that I have seen.
                Of course, all these suggestions are speculative. You are free to reject them and conclude that “sheol” probably just meant “deep pit” and has no connection to our familiar root “shin-aleph-lamed.”  “Sheol” is parallel to “bor” in many verses in Tanach, such as one we recite daily in Mizmor Shir. (See Ps. 30, verse 4.)
                  It is of course ironic that scholars have made extensive efforts inquiring about the meaning of the root “sheol.” This is as humorous as the fact that E. Klein, in A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, describes the word “safek” (=doubt) as “of uncertain origin”!
                  Finally, on a homiletical level, perhaps “sheol” is called this to remind us that we are all on “borrowed time” on this earth!  (I thank Shulamis Hes for this profound thought.) We should all use our time here wisely!         
                 Regarding the story of Saul bringing up the spirit of the dead Samuel for consultation, I would like to make an interesting observation. What was Samuel’s first comment on being raised? If I were composing the narrative, I would have had Samuel make a comment like: “It’s nice to see some flesh and blood people for a change!” (Or perhaps: “Please get me a tasty slice of ox. I have been longing for one for a while!”) Instead, what does Samuel say?  “Lamah hirgaztani le-ha’alot oti?” =“Why are you bothering me!  This suggests that “sheol,” presumably where Samuel was, was viewed (at least by the author of the book of Samuel) as a somewhat restful place. (But note that midrashically, many of the “sheol” references in Tanach are interpreted as “Gehinnom,” a place of punishment. See, e.g., Rashi to Gen. 37:35.)
                  It is also very interesting that, when Samuel was brought up, he was wearing his robe (me’il). This suggests that it was assumed that people dressed in “sheol” in the same type of clothes that they wore above ground! See also Ez. 32:27 (warriors go to “sheol” with their war weapons).
                     There is one more insight that should be mentioned in any discussion of the root Sh-A-L. When the Israelites left Egypt, they were commanded to Sh-A-L items from the Egyptians. See Ex. 3:22, 11:2 and 12:35. We all know the root Sh-A-L from the Mishnah and later rabbinic literature as a term for a “borrower.” Were our ancestors misleading the Egyptians and pretending to borrow valuable items  prior to leaving, with no intention of returning them?
                       Rav S.R. Hirsch deals with this issue. He points out that in Tanach, the root Sh-A-L rarely means “borrow,” so this is almost certainly not its meaning here. Rather, God told the Israelites to ask for these items at this time. As Rav Hirsch writes (comm. to Ex. 11:2): “God wanted the first foundation stone of the prosperity of His people to be acquired and consecrated through the recognition of their moral greatness by those who had hitherto despised and looked down on them….Their masters and oppressors…by their ready and generous acquiescence to their requests seemed to be moved to make some slight atonement for their past behavior.”
                  (Rav Hirsch claims, in his comm. to Ex. 3:22, that the only time Sh-A-L means “borrow” in Tanach is at Ex. 22:13. Most others believe it means “borrow” in a few other passages as well. But Rav Hirsch’s general point is still valid. “Borrow” is a rare meaning of the root in Tanach.)  
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at When he has a large enough number of difficult words, he may consult with “sheol” and bother the wise king Solomon for a consultation.