Notes by Autumn Light

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


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In the Hebrew, Deut. 8:18 uses the verb for “to make atonement,” but the English translation says only “to make.” Why is this?

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Your impression that the verb לעשות means “to make atonement” is due to the definition given in Biblehub.com’s translation of that verse.

Which is surprising, because in fact it simply means “to do” or “to make” (like the French verb faire).

In this case, it is part of an expression

לעשות חיל (la’asot ḥayil)

which means “to thrive”, “to do extremely well”.

So basically it’s a mistake.

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What is the real meaning of the Hebrew word ‘hesed’ in the Bible?

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An excellent question, because the agonizing and linguistic contortions surrounding this word among non-Hebrew speakers have always puzzled me.

The traditional translation—lovingkindness—is totally inapt on several grounds: it’s a made-up word, cloyingly sentimental, semantically wrong, and rhythmically horrible, wreaking havoc on the meter of any verse in which it is present.

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Are there homophones in Hebrew? If so, what are some examples?

Absolutely—especially if the standard modern Israeli pronunciation is involved, whereby many letters (such aleph and ayin; tet and tav; het and khaph; kaph and quph; shin and samekh) sound alike that in the traditional Sephardi or Yemenite pronunciation, do not.

To demonstrate this—and the utter failure of conventional, quasi-phonetic transliteration of Hebrew in Roman characters to maintain the distinctions in Square Hebrew script between such homophones—see my poem, Modern-day Ecclesiastes, which begins:

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