Notes by Autumn Light

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


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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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If I time traveled to Israel in the times of King David, how much of my Hebrew would people understand?

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Interesting question. The good news is that the Hebrew of King David’s time is actually closer to modern Hebrew than that of the Second Temple period (with its considerable Aramaic influences).  This is partly due to the deliberate efforts of the Zionist leadership to hark back to the nation’s heroic past, and partly because, in the revival of Hebrew in the modern era, the narratives of the Hebrew Bible provided far more source material than the Second Temple period, when the Talmudic Sages (who were virtually the only ones putting things down in writing) tended to slip into Aramaic all the time.

As a result, the glimpses of dialogue that we see in David’s time sound remarkably contemporary.  Two examples, out of many:

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In what way is the first line of the Bible mistranslated in English?

In the first minutes of this talk, Chomsky mentions that the first line of the Old Testament is mistranslated grammatically because of the Masoretic editors putting in the wrong vowels and that it should be obvious to people who know Hebrew. What other vowel form is available for /berešít bará/?

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He’s probably referring to the fact that the word בראשית is vocalised בְּראשית be-reshit (with a shva), which technically means “In a beginning”, instead of בַּראשית ba-reshit (with a pataḥ—the contraction of the prefixes beand ha), which you might expect based on the translation “In the beginning”  to make it “In the…”

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Introducing SimHebrew: Hebrew unbound

If you ever wondered why the Russian letter sha (ш) is so similar to the Hebrew letter shin (ש) (which, to be frank, you probably haven’t, unless you’re a Russian-speaking Israeli), the reason is, of course, that the Cyrillic alphabet is derived from the Greek one, which in turn was derived from the Phoenician alphabet, which was also the original Hebrew alphabet, in which the shin was a w-like character:

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