Thursday 30 August 2018

Ashrei Ha'am Yodei Teruah

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   

                                The Meaning ofAshrei Ha-Am Yodei Teruah”

            Right after the shofar is blown, we recite a set of verses. The first of these is “Ashrei ha-am yodei teruah…,” from Psalms 89:16. Based on the time of the recital, we get the impression that the first four words mean: “Happy is the nation that knows how to blow the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah.”
             A deeper interpretation of this phrase is found at Leviticus Rabbah 29:4: Unlike other nations, we are the nation that knows how to influence the Creator with a “teruah” on Rosh Ha-Shanah and change Him from judging with midat ha-din to midat ha-rachamim. This interpretation is followed by Rashi to Psalms 89:16 and cited in the ArtScroll Machzor.
           But the context of the phrase in Psalms is not Rosh Ha-Shanah. What is the plain sense of the phrase in Psalms?
           The full verse is: “Ashrei ha-am yodei teruah, Hashem be-or panekha yehaleikhun.”
            In order to get a handle on our phrase, we first have to address the meaning of the word “Te-R-U-A-H.”   This word, in its various forms, appears over thirty times in Tanach.
           Almost all the time in Tanach, it is used as a word derived from the root Resh-Vav-Ayin, which means a “loud sound.” But there is still a large ambiguity. The word can sometimes refer to a loud sound of war or threats. But other times, it can refer to a loud sound of joy or praise. (For the former, see, e.g., Josh. 6:5, Zeph. 1:16, Amos 1:14, and Jer. 4:19. For the latter, see, e.g., I Sam. 4:5, Job 8:21, Ezra 3:11, and Ps. 150:5.)

             There is also at least one time in Tanach, at Job. 33:26, where the word derives from a different root: Resh-Ayin-He. There it means something like “friendship, closeness.”
             So we have three possible understandings of our word “teruah.” Let us see how some of our commentators have understood our phrase at Psalms 89:16.
             The translation in the Soncino edition is: “Happy is the people that know the joyful shout.” The commentary mentions various joyful sounds that occurred in our religion in ancient times: the sounding of trumpets, the sound of the shofar that acclaims a king, and the happy cries of pilgrims on festivals. It explains that “Israel has been privileged to know them all as God’s people.”
                Daat Mikra views the word “teruah” as a symbol for the initial acceptance (=inauguration) of a king. (See, e.g., Psalm 47, and particularly verses 2-3.) It suggests that the meaning of the verse is “How fortunate is the nation that knows how to inaugurate Hashem as a king.”  (The commentary does not mention Rosh Ha-Shanah, and does not seem to be referring to the yearly teruah/symbolic acceptance of God as king that occurs on Rosh Ha-Shanah.)
                  Radak focuses on the “war/threat” meaning of the word “teruah”. He believes the import of the phrase is something like: “Fortunate is the nation Israel who have God on their side and who can sound the “teruah” which symbolizes military victory over their enemies.”
                    But a few of our commentators understand the verse as using the “friendship, closeness” meaning of the word “teruah.” They suggest a meaning like “Fortunate is the nation that knows how to be close to God.” See, e.g., Metzudat Tziyon, Metzudat David, and Malbim.
                      How do we decide which view to prefer? Often it helps to look at the parallel in the balance of the verse. Here the latter part of the verse reads: “Hashem be-or panekha yehaleikhun” (=they walk in the light of your face.)   But this phrase can be parallel to many of the suggestions above, so it does not significantly help us.
                       As mentioned earlier, the “closeness, friendship” meaning of the word “teruah” is a rare one. It is certainly the meaning of the word at Job 33:26.  It also may be the meaning of the word at Numbers 23:21, a verse like ours, where the meaning of the word “teruah” is ambiguous. There we have a statement by Bilam: “Hashem elokav imo, u-teruat melekh bo.” Rashi and many other commentaries give “teruah” the rare “friendship, closeness” meaning there. (Note the first part of the verse: Hashem his God is with him.”) But others disagree. (This verse deserves its own article, very similar to this one!)
                    So we may have two instances in Tanach of “teruah” meaning “friendship, closeness” to balance out over thirty times where it means “a loud sound.”
                     So what should we conclude about the meaning of our phrase at Psalms 89:16? The problem with all the “loud sound” suggestions is that our phrase is too short. It does not give any clues as to what kind of loud sound the “teruah” is referring to. Perhaps the shortness of the phrase is evidence in support of the “friendship, closeness” meaning! In this meaning, the phrase did make its point in those four brief words.
                     On the other hand, “teruah” with the meaning “friendship, closeness” is the rarer meaning. Moreover the next verse, 89:17, begins with the following phrase: “be-shimkha yegilun kol hayom”( =in your name they rejoice all day). This nearby parallel suggests that the “teruah” of 89:16 should be given the “loud sound of joy” meaning.
                     Sorry, but I cannot leave you with a clear conclusion here. I appreciate any thoughts and will perhaps revisit this in a future column.
                    It bears repeating that the Biblical terms for Rosh Ha-Shanah are “yom teruah” and “zikhron “teruah.” (See Num. 29:1 and Lev. 23:24.) The various possible meanings of “teruah” (loud sound of war/threats, loud sound of joy/praise, friendship/closeness) raises the same issue of meaning there. (In that case, because of the presence of the word “zikhron,” a word that often has a sound-related meaning, the “friendship/closeness” meaning is less likely.) As I wrote last year, one reasonable interpretation of the meaning of “yom teruah” interprets it as a day of a loud, ominous sound (made by the shofar) that announces a preparatory period of ten days before Yom Kippur. Something like this is stated by Rambam in his Moreh Nevukhim, part III, ch. 43, p. 353 (Friedlander edition).
                      I mentioned earlier that there is a root Resh-Ayin-He that means “friendship, closeness”  (i.e., to be a friend to, be close to). These three root letters also have the meaning “to pasture/tend to animals.” A fundamental issue is whether these two meanings have a common origin. Perhaps the verb originally meant “tending to animals” and then expanded to “befriending humans,” or perhaps vica versa. Over the centuries, many believed one or the other of these scenarios. But nowadays the majority view rejects any common origin.
                    When I think about this issue, I am always reminded of a humorous scene from a very famous comedy movie made by a very famous comedian in 1972. (I do not wish to mention the name of either the movie or the comedian in this paper.) This section of the movie was a brief story of a man who fell in love with a sheep. After they surprisingly broke up (I don’t recall the reason offered in the movie!), the man was sitting forlornly on the outside steps of his building. Usually rejected lovers are portrayed as sitting on outside steps while consoling themselves by drinking from a bottle of alcohol. But in this comedy, the man was depicted sitting on outside steps and consoling himself by drinking from a bottle of “Woolite”!
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He keeps himself busy writing articles for the Jewish Link, and has not been to a movie in 20 years. That’s why he can only refer to movies from decades ago! He can be reached at

Deadly Salmonella Outbreak Traced to Kosher Chicken

From RRW 

Wednesday 29 August 2018


From RRW



Tuesday 28 August 2018

The root G-Z-R

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   

                                    Insights into the Root  G-Z-R

         I have always been fascinated by this root.  G-Z-R in Tanach has a meaning like “cut” or “separate.” But at Esther 2:1, it has the meaning “decree”: Achashverosh remembers Vashti and what was “nigzar aleha” (=decreed against her).  The verb also has the meaning “decree” at Job 22:28.  Of course, it has meanings like “decree” and “decide” in Hebrew thereafter. But what is going on here? How did a verb that originally meant “cut” develop meanings like “decree” and “decide”?

        Maybe we can explain all the Biblical meanings of G-Z-R with an idea related to “carrots”? Please cut that thought out.  “Gezer” as “carrot” is a later, medieval development, entering Hebrew from another language, perhaps Arabic.
        An early decree in Tanach was one by Shelomo when he ordered that a baby be divided (“gizru et ha-yeled,” I Kings 3:25). It has been suggested that, based on this paradigm, G-Z-R became a word for a decree in general! This is obviously farfetched. Moreover, there is a connection between “cut” and words like “decree,” “decide” and “determine” in many languages. (See, e.g., Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language, p. 126, cited in Daniel Klein’s edition of S. D. Luzzatto on Exodus, p. 209.) Moreover, in Tanach itself, the root Chet-Resh Tzade also means both “cut” and “decide.” So there must be something deeper going on.   
        I will suggest a few ideas. The answer is probably a combination of all of them: 1) A decree separates the past from the present and separates what is permitted from what is forbidden. 2) Both cutting and a decree have a sense of finality. 3) A cut is a form of a stroke, and a decree is a decision which resolves a difficulty at a single stroke.
          I saw some of the above ideas in the Radak, Sefer Ha-Shorashim, entry G-Z-R. When he discusses Esther 2:1, he explains that the meaning of “nigzar” is:  “nechtakh ha-davar she-lo yashuv od achor”=the matter is decided so it will not go back to the previous way. (Regarding the word “nechtakh,” see my discussion at the end.)
           In English, when we make a decision, we often say that “we are drawing a line,” i.e., making a separation.
        To finish up our discussion of G-Z-R in Tanach, let us talk about the nouns:
           “Gezarim” means “parts” in two famous passages. At Genesis 15:17, a symbolic representation of God walks through the parts of cut animals (“bein ha-gezarim”). At Psalms 136:13, we are reminded of God’s dividing the sea into parts:  “le-gozer yam suf le-gezarim.”
             At Leviticus 16:22, as part of the Yom Kippur ritual, the goat that bears all of Israel’s sins goes to “eretz gezerah,” a far off, separated area, so that it cannot return.
            The book of Ezekiel (chapters 41 and 42) uses the word “gizrah” several times. Many interpret the meaning to be a “separate section” of the Temple.
            - “Gazrin” and “Gazraya” are mentioned four times in the book of Daniel. These words are usually translated as “astrologers.” They words derive from our root and mean people who determine the future based on looking at the stars.
             -A “magzerah” is a cutting instrument. This word is found at II Sam 12:31 (in the plural).
             -At Eikhah 4:7, the word “gizratam” means “their form.” “Form” is related to cutting.
             -The Tanach also refers to city in Israel named “Gezer.” It has been suggested that its name reflects that it was separated off in some way. But this is only conjecture. (This city is very old. It was first settled in the fourth millennium B.C.E.  We are not sure when it began to be called “Gezer.” In 1908, an important inscription in old Hebrew from the 10th century B.C.E was found there, describing an annual cycle of agricultural activities. It is referred to today as the “Gezer Calendar.” It deserves a separate column!)
               Moving on to Arabic, in this language “jazira” means “island.” It is called this because it is cut off from the land. The country Algeria gets its name from this word. The country is known in Arabic as “Al Djazair.” There are a number of small islands nearby which gave this name to the city Algiers. Later, the country got its name from the city. The Arabic television network “Al Jazeera” also means “the island.” Here it means the peninsula of Qatar, which is surrounded by water on three sides. (I learned all of this Arabic trivia from the site
               There is one more important aspect of the root G-Z-R. In modern Hebrew, “gizron” means “etymology,” the study of the derivation of a word. It seems that in medieval Hebrew, the root G-Z-R was used by some to mean “derived a word.” Then it was decided in modern times to use “gizron” to mean “etymology” in general. I need to do a full etymological study of the word “gizron.” (That would be like writing a coffee table book about coffee tables! I assume that many of you will understand my reference! On a related note, did you know that the last name of R. Elijah Gaon of Vilna was “Kramer”?)  
                                                          Additional Notes: 
           -You can look on-line and see that the English words “decide” and “decree” derive from a word that meant “cut.”  Also, the English word “determine” is derived from the word “terminate” which also has a sense of separation.
           -In Tanach, both G-Z-R and Ch-R-Tz mean “cut” and “decide, decree.” Also, I quoted the Radak earlier and he used the root Chet-Tav-Caf.  This root appears only one time in Tanach, at Daniel 9:24, where it means “decree.” But we know this root well from post-Biblical Hebrew with the meaning “cut.” 
          -Finally, what is perhaps the most important Hebrew or Aramaic word that we know today for “decide”? That would be “pesak.” What is the origin of this word? We all know this word from the phrase “pesik reisha”=cut off its head. So P-S-K initially meant “cut” and then expanded to mean “decision, decree.” See M. Jastrow, p. 1201.  (P-Samekh-K is not in Tanach, but it is related to P-Sin-K, which is in Tanach, at Mishlei 13:3 and Ez. 16:25.)
Mitchell First is now sitting at a coffee table (without any carrots), separating out his source sheets and deciding what etymological article to write next week. He can be reached at

Watch "Why Do People Hate Jews?" on YouTube

From RRW

Monday 27 August 2018

Ten Irrational Ideas

From RRW

Irrational idea #4 is awfulizing: the idea that you have to view things as awful, terrible, and horrible when things go wrong.
What is "awfulizing"? What common remark makes Ellis react strongly?
"I can't stand it" is a common remark heard in therapy. Ellis disputed this assertion when he heard it, or when he heard somebody say they could not "bear" something. People use these statements to express emotion; they do not mean them literally. Ellis forced his clients to confront the fact that such statements cannot be taken literally. They do not suggest a constructive course of action. If taken seriously, they can paralyze you. Repeating to yourself "I can't stand it" is like self-hypnosis. Pretty soon you can't stand it. Better to say to yourself, "This bothers the heck out of me, but I guess I can survive it."

Exaggerating awfulness can lead one to emotions and mental illness 

Repeating awfulizing memes can hypnotize people into believing  them

EG Goebbels yimach shmo brainwashed German Society, even non NAZIS, into believing JEWS ARE OUR MISFORTUNE and the like.  Sheer repetition makes extreme memes palatable