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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Why does Hebrew have multiple spellings for the same word?

Typically, it doesn’t: by and large, there is just one way to spell any given word. There are three types of exception, though:

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What is “God is the greatest” in Hebrew?

Recently I was asked how How do you say “The Gates of Hell shall not prevail” and “no weapon formed against me shall prosper” in Hebrew?, and I replied that the expression the Gates of Hell is inherently foreign to Hebrew, because it is absent in the Jewish tradition.

The expression God is the greatest is similarly alien to the Jewish tradition, for at least two reasons:

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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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What does Nathaniel mean in Hebrew?

In Hebrew it is Natan’el (the i was inserted in the European version, for easier pronunciation), meaning ‘God has given’.

Incidentally, the name Jonathan (Hebrew, Yonatan) means the same, only with the Judean contraction for the Lord’s name—Jo.


(Originally written in reply to a question at

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What is the Hebrew word for “excellent”, “amazing”, or “awesome?”

Standard Hebrew for ‘excellent’ is metzuyan or me’uleh, but if you’re looking for colloquial equivalents of awesome (or the British brilliant), that’s more complicated. As in English (and, I imagine, any other language), the word you use tends to use date you, and in some cases, pigeonhole you socioeconomically, as well:

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