Notes by Autumn Light

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

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Is there any difference between the pre-exile Biblical Hebrew and post-Exile Biblical Hebrew?

Hugely, yes.

Post-Exile (First Exile, that is—in Babylon), Hebrew was flooded with Aramaic words and expressions, as the returning Judeans sought to introduce the sophistication of the prestigious and cosmopolitan Babylon, where they had lived for over three generations, into the provincial backwater of their ancestral land, where only poor and barely literate Judeans (“none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land”—II Kings 24:14) had remained after the Babylonian conquest some 75 years before.

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Is the Torah the first example of the blockchain—since the Torah says every male must write his own copy of the Torah?

And once copies are disseminated, it’s increasingly hard to make additions or changes without consent of the supermajority


Interesting question—to which the answer is:

  • Yes, the Torah might be said to be record of a covenant (agreement), and
  • Yes, it is widely disseminated and cannot be unilaterally changed by anyone—but
  • No, for the simple reason that a blockchain is a record that is continuously added to by its users—whereas the Torah was authored once (be it by Moses—per traditional belief—or rabbinical sages in the early Second Temple), and has since been immutable.

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How do you say ‘The Gates of Hell shall not prevail’ and ‘no weapon formed against me shall prosper’ in Hebrew?


Certain expressions are inherently foreign to Hebrew, because they are absent in the Jewish tradition. Gates of Hell is one of them: the notion of Hell as a terrible underworld of fire and brimstone is really founded on the Greek idea of Hades, with subsequent embellishment by the Christian Church during the Middle Ages (and Dante, of course), in a bid to keep congregants in line.

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Why does the sculpture of Moses have horns?

Moses' face shining

ומשה לא ידע כי קרן עור פניו | and Moses did not know that his face’s skin shone

This is the result of a misunderstanding (and therefore mistranslation) of the Hebrew (Exodus 34:29):

ויהי ברדת משה מהר סיני ושני לחת העדת ביד משה ברדתו מן ההר ומשה לא ידע כי קרן עור פניו בדברו אתו

The bolded text in Hebrew above, transliterated, says: uMoshé lo yada ki qaran or-panav bedabro itto—meaning ‘and Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone as he spoke with him.’

The word qaran is a verb form of qeren, which can mean either ‘ray’ (of light), or ‘horn’.

Some Latin translations chose—either deliberately, or out of ignorance—to interpret it as ‘horn’, when in fact, what is meant in the original is that his face glowed (presumably as a result of exposure to something during his meeting with God on Mt. Sinai).

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In the Bible, God calls Samuel which means “God has heard”. What would be Hebrew for “servant heard”?

Samuel (in Hebrew, Shmuel) does not mean “God has heard”: whoever told you that may be thinking it’s spelled שמוע-אל, i.e. “Shmua-el”, but it’s not. The consonant ayin is missing, and it doesn’t go missing lightly.

In the story of Samuel’s birth (I Sam. 1), Hannah, his mother, explains that she named him so—

כי מיהוה שאלתיו (ki meAdonai she’iltiv)

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If the burning bush, talking serpent, and the talking donkey conversed with each other, how would the verbal exchange go?  

Ooh, I love this question. Here goes:

‘Hey, Bushy. How goes it?’

‘Very funny, Snake-Eyes. You know very well that nothing “goes”, with me. All I can do is just sit here, waiting for another Moses, who I just know won’t come till history starts all over again. It just burns me up thinking about it.’

‘What about Elijah? Wasn’t he here the other day?’

‘Pah! Don’t talk to me about Elijah. The guy was so exhausted for having run all the way here from the Galilee in forty days and nights, one nothing more than a cake and a cruse of water, he didn’t even see me.’

‘Trust me—having to crawl everywhere on my belly just to get around, constantly in danger of being crushed under some human heel, is no picnic either. It’s Toni, here, who has it cushy.’

‘Easy for you to say,’ said Toni dolefully, as she came up the hill. ‘You try riding with bloody Balaam on your back all day long, whacking you repeatedly with a stick because he can’t see God’s angel standing, clear as day, right there in front of you with a raised sword in his hand. You’d be all too happy to slither away or just sit there in the middle of the desert, with nobody bothering you.’

‘The truth is, none of us have it easy,’ said the snake. ‘Life’s a bitch, and then you die.’

‘Yes, well, if you hadn’t tempted Eve into eating from the Tree of Knowledge, none of us would have been in this predicament,’ said the bush. ‘I wouldn’t be burning, Toni here would have frolicked happily with all the other wild asses, and you would still have legs and chatting up birds in the Garden of Eden.’

‘Give him a break,’ said Toni, uncharacteristically spirited as she spoke up in the snake’s defence. ‘He just played the part he was given. The real problem—what all our troubles have in common, in case you haven’t yet noticed—is humans. Take them out of the picture, and the whole world will go back to normal.’

‘True enough,’ grumbled the snake. ‘Fortunately, the way they’re going, it won’t be long now.’

‘Why, what time is it?’ asked the bush, who was not much good at keeping time, since every day was like the next.

Two minutes to midnight,’ said Toni explained, helpfully. ‘That’s why I’m here. I wanted a front-row seat.’

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Which commandment was the most difficult for the Israelites to accept when they received the Torah at Mt. Sinai?

As the Book of Exodus itself suggests, it was the probably the second:

(in Square Hebrew script: לא תעשה לך פסל וכל תמונה)

—i.e. ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness’

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