Q&A: What is the mystery in Genesis 1:1?Why does the modern Hebrew script look so square?

Before the invention of printing, the ‘look’ of a script was determined by those in charge of producing large amounts of text—the professional scribes.

When Judeans first adopted the Assyrian version of the Canaanite script as their new script, some time in the 6th centuring BCE, the characters looked like this (pardon the letter order, which is left-to-right order, instead of right-to-left):

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Q&A: How was modern Hebrew created?

Modern Hebrew wasn’t ‘created’ in the sense that constructed languages such as Esperanto or Lojban are created ex nihilo. Rather, the traditional Hebrew of Scriptures, the Talmud, and nearly two thousand years of rabbinical commentary was taken and updated to make it serviceable for the modern age.

Eliezer Ben-Yehudah is often credited as single-handedly doing this himself, by creating the first modern Hebrew dictionary, and coining hundreds of new terms, but in fact, innumerable people were involved in this enterprise—such as writers such as Mendele Mocher-Sforim, Ehad Ha’am, and Hayim Nahman Bialk, who in the second half of the 19th century spearheaded, aided by a slew of Hebrew-language publications (HaMagidHeHalutzHatzfirah, etc.).

Ben-Yehudah’s other notable contribution is proving—using his infant son as a guinea pig—that a child can acquire Hebrew as a native tongue. But even without Ben-Yehudah, this would have happened, because the real revival of Hebrew as a spoken, everyday language was taking place in the schools of the first Zionist moshavot (settlements), such as Lev Frumkin’s boarding school in 1886, and the Ḥaviv School, founded two years later in Rishon Lezion.

The Ḥaviv School in Rishon Lezion, early 20th century (Credit: rishon.mynet.co.il)

Hebrew was the inevitable chosen language of the burgeoning Zionist community, not only because it was the only language that Jews of all countries had in common, but because it symbolised the return to ancestral land and cultural roots.

Q&A: What is the Moabite word for “Israel” in the Mesha Stele?

Exactly as in Hebrew—Yisrael ישראל (blue rectangle below)—as evident at the start of the third sentence (line 5), in which he describes how Omri king of Israel had oppressed Moab:

Top of Mesha Stele (b&w rendering) Source: en.wikipedia.com https://images.app.goo.gl/jzFsMqXUisxZAVFo8
Source: en.wikipedia.com https://images.app.goo.gl/jzFsMqXUisxZAVFo8
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Q&A: What is the difference between the Hebrew words dabar and amar?

The verb d-b-r (דבר) is to speak—i.e. it is more formal and intentional. Hence words put in writing are also dbrim* (‘dvarim’); the Ten Commandments in Hebrew are Aseret Hadibrot (The Ten Proclamations); and religious prophets always warned civic leaders to honour at hdbrim awr H’ xivh* etc. (the things that the Lord commanded).

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Q&A: What words or phrases tell me you’re from Israel?

Oh boy. Where to start?

The following examples are all drawn from my Hebrew-language guide to my Israeli clients on correct English usage, אל ףדיח (Al-Fadiḥ—stylised Arabic-Hebrew, meaning ‘Don’t Screw-Up’).

Like most non-native English speakers, Israelis will tend to make certain errors based on the use in their native language—such as:

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Q&A: What is the meaning of the Hebrew proverb ”שמחת זקנתי בראש חוצות”?

It’s not a proverb so much as an expression of disdain or indifference. In common usage, only the first two words are used—with a suitable expression of boredom or nonchalance, while pointedly not looking away from whatever you’re doing at that moment: שמחת זקנתי… (Simhat zqenti…)

Literally, it means, ‘My old woman’s happiness for all to see’, and is a translation of the Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) expression, La gracia di tu mana (‘Your mother’s happiness’)—i.e., ‘[That might make my mother happy, but] I couldn’t care less’.

Q&A: Why might a translator use a calque?

[A2A] One would use a calque (a.k.a. loan translation) when there is no equivalent word or expression in the target language, but it captures the meaning so well and concisely that one is moved to recreate it by emulating the same word combination using native words in the target language.

In Hebrew, noted examples are:

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Q&A: Does God’s promise to Joshua and Israel in Joshua 1:9 apply to us?

By ‘us’ I’m assuming you mean the Jewish people, and specifically those living in Israel today.

You can’t cherry-pick God’s promises. Even if you accept those verses at face value, the promise is contingent upon the nation remaining faithful to God’s commandments. In the Book of Deuteronomy (chap. 28), God warns Moses:

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