Notes by Autumn Light

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


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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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How do you say “God’s fury will punish your soul” in Hebrew?

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A straightforward, modern Hebrew rendition would be something like

זעמו של אלוהים יעניש את נשמתך

which, phonetically transcripted, reads:

Zaamo shel Elohim yaanish et nishmatkha

This, however, is almost soul-destroying in itself since, while it is technically correct, it has no rhyme or meter. What you need is something suitably biblical in tone and poetic in nature. I would go with something like:

תנאק נשמתך בחמת ה׳

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Nice try—but (alas) no nargillah

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Liron Lavi Turkenich is a young and engaging Israeli graphic designer with a commendable idea: bridge the cultural gap between Israel’s Hebrew speakers and its Arab population by creating a ‘hybrid’ font set comprising characters that are half Hebrew, half Arabic:

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Fig. 1: A blend of the Hebrew and Arabic words for “language”, in the “Aravrit” font. Unfortunately, it looks nothing like the Arabic word, and most resembles the Hebrew word שנאה (sin’ah) = ‘hate’

I read briefly about this font (cleverly dubbed Aravrit—a play on the Hebrew words aravit and ivrit, i.e., ‘Arabic’ and ‘Hebrew’) a few months ago, and even adopted the first combined word that you see in the video (which allegedly depicts the word ‘language’ in both Hebrew and in Arabic) in my latest talk, about ‘Arabic Hebrew‘ (see Fig. 1).

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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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What are some guidelines to transliterate Italian to Hebrew?

 

Broadly speaking, it’s fairly easy, as Italian uses the same vowels as in Hebrew (in fact, it’s a common way of explaining Hebrew vowels to English speakers). By default, the /a/ sound is assumed, and the /i/ sound is indicated by using a yod as though it were the letter i in Italian. If the vowel is an /e/, /o/ or /u/ sound, use niqqud to state a ségol, ḥolam, or shuruq, respectively. However:

  • If the word starts with a vowel, use an aleph to “carry” it—e.g. אוניברסיטה
  • If the /a/ sound is at the end of a word—e.g. università—indicate it with a héh sophit (e.g. אוניברסיטה)

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