Subtleties and Acquisitions


WHEN I FIRST Tested with Citizens Cafe Tel Aviv, they asked for my story with Hebrew and I noted that in college I had failed other languages, but passed all three semesters with an A/B average in Hebrew. The interviewer laughed and said it was usually the other way around. That said, I’m not exactly even sorta-fluent. I have some mad skills sometimes. Then I need help with getting the words out. Yet I can hear individual words now, even in native speakers on TV and Radio. It used to be that I was hearing one or two words in the middle of a sound salad. Now, even though I don’t know the words, I can identify that they are words, I can hear the breaks in there. Sometimes I can understand enough words that they convey a sense of what’s being said even if I cannot formulate a full reply.

This is probably the same for all languages but learning Hebrew is teaching me a lot about English. At NYU I learned about gerunds in English (“a form that is derived from a verb but that functions as a noun, in English ending in -ing, e.g., asking in do you mind my asking you?”) because I learned about them in Hebrew. I am only now (in the last couple of months) learning how to conjugate in the future tense, but it’s shocking how rarely we use it in normal conversation: even in English we use a lot of combinations of past and present to convey all sorts and conditions of time. We do not often speak in the future tense. Certainly there are times when we need it, but a lot of the time saying things like “I want to get up at 6 AM” is not in the future tense: it’s the present tense of want. I am going to the store later is not future. It’s about am in the present. I’m going to the store after church. Also present tense.

Another thing that keeps happening is realizing how we reuse words in English: why does “more coffee” mean “another cup of coffee” and also “fill it more-full” and also “I think I need a pound and a half more coffee this month”?

The flipside of this is how often Hebrew words (especially, but not only prepositions) get repurposed. This leads to subtleties in the language that are simply not present in English and cannot be made clear in translation. This is something that happens in other languages: going from one language to another you can usually find a 1:1 correspondence in meaning, but what do you do when a word has 5 or 10 subtly different meanings? You generally have to pick one meaning and go with it. If it were possible in English to use one word for confession (of sins) and thanksgiving (offering) would we not use that one word to describe Eucharist and Confession? It is possible to use one word for those two concepts in Hebrew! But we miss it by way of translation. We see this in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, called the Septuagint. There are meanings in the Hebrew that are not present in the Greek. And vice versa. I love this text from the Talmud: It once happened that five elders wrote the Torah for King Ptolemy in Greek, and that day was as ominous for Israel as the day on which the golden calf was made, since the Torah could not be accurately translated. It’s literally the mirror image of the Greek Orthodox claim that the Septuagint is inspired and that the Masoretic text has been “edited” to change the meanings. Unpack that all you want. (See more commentary here.) St Jerome, translating into Latin, used both the Greek and the Hebrew, but lost a bit of both coming into Latin.

By way of example for multiple, and overlapping, meanings:

To become religious – to journey from being a secular Jew to being a religious one – is described in modern Hebrew as
– הוא חזר בתשובה
hoo khazar b’tshuvah.
Literally translated that is “he returned in repentance” but tshuvah is also an answer to a question. Thus “He returned with an answer” is a valid understanding of the sentence. It gives rise, then, to this countersign. If someone goes from being religious to being secular you can say,
– הוא חזר בשאלה
hoo khazar b’sheola,
literally “he returned in a question”. When my tutor explained this to me we had an interesting discussion because becoming Christian does not leave you with “all the answers”. In fact, resting in the mystery in faith, in the cloud of unknowing, is often held as a greater virtue and so is the simple faith of a child. Mary had no idea what she was saying yes to, but she said it anyway. The same is true of anyone in RCIA (or OCIA) now. “I don’t understand why xyz is a sin… but I will accept it” is the same complaint. To take the Church’s teaching at face value is virtuous. Returning in a question is a leap of faith, but this concept is missing in English – fully present in the Hebrew, even if it is missed: returning with a question is exactly repenting: he returned. At least he returned. There’s hope.

How do you convey all these meanings in any language other than Hebrew? I don’t know.

Anyway, I continue to have more fun in Hebrew than I expected.

The Difference


AS POSTED OVER ON My Hebrew language blog, I’ve been wondering about these two songs. My limited skill in that language did not prevent me from hearing the same words rolled around in two very different songs. Give a listen. Turning on the captions for the first one to see an English translation. I’m sorry there’s no subtitles available for the second, so you’ll need to take my word. The main thing is the first song is secular, the second not at all.

שהחסר תמיד היה, ותמיד ישאר חסר
What is always missing will always be missing
אתה לא תמצא את מה שאין
You will not find what is not there
והלב הזה שלך
And your heart
הוא אף פעם לא יהיה שלם
Will never be complete
אז תאהב את הבת שלי וסתום
So love my daughter and shut up

Amir Ve Ben

עדיף כבר להפסיד הכל כדי לזכות בך
It’s better to lose everyhing to win you
ולשלם את המחיר הכל בסוף שלך
And to pay every price in the end for you
ללכת עד הסוף כי רק בסוף אפגוש בך
To go to the end because only in the end will I meet you
ואז כל מה שחסר יושלם בך
And everything that is missing will be completed in you.

Shilo Ben Hod

Both songs use the same words in several places to discuss things that are missing. But the first says they will never be complete, these things will always be missing. The second song says that the singer will give up not only what is missing – but everything else as well – because “you” (that is, Jesus) is worth any cost. In the end, everything that is important will be found in Jesus. The singer, Shilo Ben Hod, continues this theme in many of his songs.

דווקא ההבדל

This morning these meditations took an interesting turn as my Hebrew tutor, Gil, asked my opinion: What is the difference between the secular life and the religious life? I can’t handle small talk at all – I don’t do it very well in English and, since it is the common parlance of language classes, I can stumble there as well. But ask me something like what’s the difference between these two lives… and I have opinions, goodness. Do I have opinions!

When I learned that the word “secular” in Hebrew comes from the word for “sand” I learned the real meaning of the Biblical Image of a house built on sand. I even used it in a sentence assigned for homework. Suddenly I was making puns in Hebrew. So.

I was encouraged by the fact that the teacher was ranting right along with me! We both agreed that having a place “where the buck stops” (I don’t know how to use that idiom in Hebrew) is precisely the difference. Why do you do that? Why do you do that? I ranted. “Because of Harry Potter! Because of this new song!” Gil ranted back. Having something to point at and say “That. That is my final answer.” That’s the point, the whole point. The difference.

This theme runs through the Bible from the very beginning: our First Parents taking the fruit was a desire to have “what I want when I want it, and as I want it” rather than waiting for God to give it. This is a common theme in many worship songs: the poverty of the individual and the full reliance on God in Christ. I think of My Tribute and Which Way the Wind Blows, but it is also a common theme in the writings of the saints as well. I’m reminded of a prayer by St Thomas Aquinas:

Although I am nothing of myself
Nevertheless all that I hope to be
And all that I am
Is in you

Aquinas at Prayer, Paul Murray, OP (Author’s translation)

While Gil and I are exploring what it means to answer that in two different religious contexts, we are certainly on common ground. I do not presume to have many resources for religious Jewish thought on this topic – even though we’re often going over the same material. (Today I learned what the Fast before Purim was about… and it’s not anything any Christian would imagine, at least directly.)

But there, that’s the difference. These songs are exactly about the difference. What’s missing is not always missing.

Unless you want it to be.

A New Project

WHEREIN I try blogging in another language. The tagline says “Now I can make typos in two languages.” It’s very simple sentences and I do use Google Translate to check myself – and for more complex constructions. I don’t promise much by way of exciting content. But I hope to be able to get better at it. Here’s a couple of unsolicited adverts.

I’m learning Hebrew using Citizen Cafe Tel Aviv and iTalki. My iTalki Tutor is Shmuel. He’s awesome.

Homework for Hebrew Class

The assignment was to share a song (in Hebrew or English) that has a special meaning. Then explain (in Hebrew) why the song was important.


דיברנו בשיעור על רכבות… אני ממש אוהב רכבות כי סבא שלי. בתקופת השפל הגדול סבא היה “נווד”. הוא נסע ברכבות בכל רחבי ארה”ב לכן הוא אהב רכבות כל חייו. כשהייתי ילד הוא נתן לי את אותה אהבה: אני אהבתי רכבות כל החיי. באלפיים ואחד לפני המת שלו הוא שאל לי לשיר את השיר הזה – של פטסי קלין – בהלויה שלו

We spoke in class about trains. I love trains so much because of my grandfather. During the Great Depression Grandpa was a “Hobo” (Heb: נווד “nomad”). He rode on trains everywhere in the US therefore he loved trains his whole life. When I was a kid he gave me this same love. I have loved trains all my life. In 2001, before his death, he asked me to sing this song – by Patsy Cline – at his funeral.

The Echo Here is Amazing


YOUR HOST HAS NOTED elsewhere that in studying Hebrew at CitizenCafe Tel Aviv, he gets exposed to a lot of Israeli pop culture. Listening to modern, secular folks discuss Hebrew – or speak or sing in Hebrew – carries with it these echoes of the Tanakh. It cannot but just as much modern English carries echoes of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. However it’s rare that a pop song will explain a passage in King Lear or the Acts of the Apostles just by virtue of being in the same language. Even listening to the news broadcast in Hebrew, one can hear “Judea” and “Samaria” and have some strange flashbacks. But today’s email for the American’s in the crowd – talking about “Thanksgiving” – blew my mind. And then the mind of several people at work today.

The email offered to teach me:

Fun facts about “todah” which means “thanks” or, in Modern Israeli Hebrew, it’s used for “Thank you”. It linked to a blog post but here’s the mind blowing part:

Some of you may know the word Jewish or יהודים (yeh-huh-deem) comes from the name Judha or יהודה (ye-huh-dah). It is told in the book of Genesis, that after Leah gave birth to Judah, she gave thanks to God and praised him for her good fortune. The name comes from the verb לֵהוֹדוֹת (leh-hoh-doht) which means – to thank. However, it also means to confess or to admit something. It seems like in the bible, these two verbs were strongly related and sometimes even interchangeable.

You will not notice, perhaps, if you are not a Christian reading this, but “giving thanks” and “confessing” are two different Sacraments in the Christian tradition. To “Give Thanks” is the Eucharist or Mass, to confess one’s sins is the Sacrament of Confession. To read (even in this off-handed way) that they are the same word in Hebrew is quite the surprise. Not, mind you, that this was unknown to others, only to the present writer and everyone he’s spoken to so far. Yet here it is in the Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary, #3034:

yadah: to throw, cast
Original Word: יָדָה
Part of Speech: Verb
Transliteration: yadah
Phonetic Spelling: (yaw-daw’)
Definition: to throw, cast

confess (10), confessed (3), confesses (1), confessing (2), gave (1), gave praise (1), give you thanks (5), give thanks (59), giving praise (1), giving thanks (3), glorify (1), hymns of thanksgiving (1), making confession (1), placed (1), praise (17), shoot (1), thank (5), thanksgiving (1), throw down (1).

A primitive root; used only as denominative from yad; literally, to use (i.e. Hold out) the hand; physically, to throw (a stone, an arrow) at or away; especially to revere or worship (with extended hands); intensively, to bemoan (by wringing the hands) — cast (out), (make) confess(-ion), praise, shoot, (give) thank(-ful, -s, -sgiving).

The linking of worship with extended hands and bemoaning with wringing of hands even adds the proper physical gestures for the two sacraments.

There’s so much more to go into between the “offering of thanks and praise” in the Mass and the Thanksgiving offering in the Temple; the Rite of Yom Kippur and the Sacrament of Confession…. there’s so much more. One random line in a blog post from my Hebrew School opened the Bible in an entirely new way for me today. Every word is an echo of the language used by the prophets.

I started my second semester on Monday.