Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav


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What does “Havah” in “Havah Nagilah” mean?

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Havah means “Let us”; nagilah is a rather old-fashioned and literary way of saying “we shall rejoice”—together, they mean “Let us rejoice.”

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Do Samson’s riddles rhyme in Hebrew?

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AFAIK, Samson riddled only one riddle:

מֵהָאֹכֵל יָצָא מַאֲכָל וּמֵעַז יָצָא מָתוֹק

which phonetically goes roughly as follows:

meha’okhel yatza ma’akhal, ume’az yatza matoq

meaning (King James translation): “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.”

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So long Genesis, hello Exodus: the SimHebrew Bible

Imagine a Latin text—e.g. the first verse of the Latin Vulgate Bible:

In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram Terra autem erat inanis et vacua et tenebrae super faciem abyssi et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas.
Most of us don’t know Latin, but at least we can read it, and guess at the meaning of some words—or look them up.

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If you really want to understand the Old Testament, should you read it in ancient Hebrew?

You can get most of the gist of the Hebrew Bible without knowing biblical Hebrew, but you would lose out on many subtleties—such as:

  • The meaning of names
  • Hebrew cognates (related words)
  • The brevity of biblical Hebrew
  • Poetic structures

In detail:

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How do Elohim and Yahweh differ?

Elohim was the name of God for the Israelite (northern) tribes.

IHVH was the name of the God of the Judeans (southern tribe).

Since both religions were based on the belief in a single, Creator, God, the two traditions were knitted into one when the refugees of the northern kingdom were absorbed into Judea following the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians around 725 BCE, at the instruction of the Judean King Ezekiah.

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In the Hebrew version of Genesis 1, the word used for the first day is a cardinal number (one), yet all the other days are ordinal—why is that?

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Several Jewish biblical commentators weighed in on this same question.

Rashi’s explanation—‘Because the HOBBH [Holy One Blessed Be He] was alone in the world, because the angels were not created until these second day’—seems to leave us none the wiser.

The Ramban (Nachmanides)’s interpretation is more helpful: ‘One can’t say “first day”, since the second had not yet occurred, because “the first” [implies a series that already exists], whereas “one [day]” doesn’t.’

Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto): ‘One day, [in the sense that] the evening and the morning [together] constituted one day […] i.e. a whole day.’ To put it another way: ‘God did all this within one day—more specifically, in one evening and morning, with time left over.’

Of those three, the latter sounds most plausible. But my personal take is that the real reason is poetical: Vaihi erev, vaihi boqer, yom eḥad sounds so much more lyrical than Vaihi erev, vaihi boqer, yom rishon.

(Originally written in reply to a question at Quora.com).


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If ancient Israel had Quora, what kind of questions would they ask?

Ooh boy—that’s a great question. Here are a few, to titillate the palate:

Post-Exodus:

  • Are we there, yet?
  • Why isn’t God allowing Moses to enter the Holy Land? Isn’t that mean, considering all he’s done?

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