Q&A: What does it mean in modern Hebrew when someone wraps up what they are saying by adding “v’shalom al Yisrael” (literally “and Peace upon Israel/upon the entire Jewish people”)?

It means “Done and dusted”, i.e. “there’s nothing more to do—move on.”

It’s taken from the last two verses of Psalms 128, which describes the cherished vision of a future where the people of Israel are blessed, and all is good in the world—a kind of utopia, where we needn’t strive any more:

ה יברכך יהוה מציון: וראה בטוב ירושלים–כל ימי חייך.

ו וראה-בנים לבניך: שלום על-ישראל.

5 The Lord shall bless thee out of Zion: and thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life.

6 Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel.

Q&A: Could a contemporary Hebrew speaker talk to a biblical Hebrew speaker?

Short answer: Yes.

Pronunciation is undoubtedly very different today—but then the same is true for English of Chaucer’s or even Shakespeare’s time and today. (Heck, these days I’m reading Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit, and I’m having a hard time understanding the characters’ 1920s slang…). 

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How did the Hebrew “R” change from a rolled “R” to a French-like “R”?

The short answer is because most senior Israeli politicians in the 1950s through early ’70s (such as David Ben-Gurion, Menahem Begin, Shimon Peres, etc.) were foreign-born and couldn’t do the guttural rolling Rs, so used trilling Rs instead, as in their native Russian or Polish—whereas modern-day leaders are almost invariably native Israelis. (The exceptions were Golda Meir and Abba Eban, whose mother tongue was English, so they spoke with painfully Anglo-Saxon Rs.)

But as we say in Hebrew, בואו נעשה סדר בדברים—let’s clear up some things, as there’s a common confusion here, even among Israelis themselves.

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Q&A: Has modern Hebrew changed grammatically or phonologically from when it was first revived?

Yes—quite a lot. The best illustration of this is the Hebrew of the first native speaker of modern Hebrew, Itamar Ben-Avi, son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the ‘father’ of modern Hebrew and compiler of its first dictionary.

Itamar Ben-Avi

I recently read his autobiography (החצוף הארצישראלי ‘The Cheeky Hebrew Boy’), and although much of his Hebrew is not much different from high-register academic Hebrew today, some of it seems almost comically affected (although it wasn’t—that’s just the Hebrew he was brought up with). Typical example (not from his autobio, but from another project of his):

זה לי ארבעים שנה פחות ארבע, שאני הוגה בכתב העברי יומם ולילה ממש. מעודי לא יכולתי להבין מדוע לעברים אל״ף-בית כה קשה ומסובך, ולנוכרים – כה קל ונעים לשימוש? יום אחד – ואני אז בן-עשר – פניתי לאבי ואשאלנו: …״

Rough English equivalent:

’Tis four years shy of forty now that I have been contemplating the Hebrew script—yea, verily, day and night. Never have I been able to fathom why the Hebrews have such a difficult and convoluted alphabet, while the foreigners – [one] so easy and simple to use? One day – and I was but a lad of ten – I turned to my father and enquired of him:…

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Q&A: Why is the original Hebrew called “the Holy Tongue”?

Prior to the First Exile of the Judean aristocracy to Babylon in 586 BCE, Israelites referred to themselves as ‘Hebrews’ (ivrim – עברים)—e.g.:

  • And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew [Gen. 14:13]
  • And there was there with us a young man, an Hebrew [Gen. 41:23] when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew [Exodus 2:7]
  • And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee [Deut. 15:12]
  • That every man should let his manservant, and every man his maidservant, being an Hebrew or an Hebrewess, go free [Jer. 34:9]
  • And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land [Jonah 1:9]

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Q&A: Are Jewish men forbidden to farm pigs?

Many years ago, I was working for a while as ‘Deputy Food Manager’ (i.e., ‘the guy who schlepps the big boxes from the delivery platform at the back to the walk-in fridge’) at a kibbutz in southern Israel.

The kibbutz members frequently complained about the lack of variety of our meat offerings (basically, chicken, turkey, or beef)—so one day the Food Manager took me for a ‘research trip’ to another kibbutz in the southern Negev—Lahav, some forty km to the east, where, it was rumoured, members were very happy with their food.

The ‘research trip’ was a sham—he and I, and everyone else already knew why the Lahav members were happy with their food: they had pork alternatives almost every day, thanks to their pig farm.

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According to the Bible, did all Old Testament prophets perform miracles?

Broadly speaking, no. There is a clear difference between prophets in Judah/Judea, and those in Israel (the northern kingdom).

The Judahite prophets—such as Nathan and Isaiah—were dour, upper-class members of the court, who served effectively as the kingdom’s ombudsmen. They restricted their activity to emerging from time to time when the king did something particularly egregious and castigating him for inciting God’s wrath.

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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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Arabic Hebrew: An introduction to how modern Israelis really speak

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Join me on Sunday, February 19, 2017  2:30 pm, at Congregation Emanu-El synagogue, Victoria, B.C., for the second talk in its series Sketches of Israel and the Middle East, when I address the topic Arabic Hebrew: An Introduction to How Modern Israelis Really Speak.

(Can’t make it that day? State your interest in attending the talk on another occasion (and preferred day and time) in our online poll.

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