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Losing lashon hakodesh, gaining a language.

IMG_00004296 When you’re religious outside of Israel, especially if you’re a crazy baalas teshuvah like me, the language you speak is usually no longer English:  it’s a weird yeshivish patois of English, along with just enough Yiddish and Ashkenazi Hebrew to get by in the strange world of frumkeit.

You don’t pray, you daven.  You don’t say Grace After Meals, you bentsch.  And you never travel to Israel… you “visit eretz Yisrael.” 

  • Growing up Conservative, we had a rabbi.  As an adult, I had a rav and a poseik halacha, and no, they were not the same person.
  • Growing up Conservative, we went to shul.  Okay, that didn’t change.
  • Growing up Conservative, we took classes and studied.  As an adult, I went to shiurim and learned.
  • Growing up Conservative, we went to Hebrew school.  As an adult, I worked hard to learn as much of לשון הקודש / lashon hakodesh, literally the holy tongue, as possible.
  • Growing up Conservative, we had a great time.  As an adult, it was sometimes gevaldik, a mamesh heilige farbrengen.

Alright, maybe I’m kidding.  But here’s an example, from an article on on How to Understand Yeshivish, of a passage that the author actually believed was written in English:

“The lechatchila time for shacharis is neitz. B’dieved, if a person davened from amud hashachar and onwards he is yotzei. In a shas hadchak he may daven from amud hashachar and onwards lechatchila…. After chatzos it is assur to daven shacharis. One should wait till after mincha and then daven a tashlumin. The possibility for a tashlumin doesn’t exist for someone who was bemaizid.”

Wish I were kidding.

This coming Pesach season gives us about a million more examples… starting with the word seder, which is used for everything from tidying your room to getting along with friends.

  • Growing up Conservative, we celebrated Passover and had no clue what Shavuot was.  If we’d known, we would have called it Shavuot.  As an adult, it became Pesach, and – of course! – Shavuos.
  • Growing up Conservative, we commemorated the Jews’ coming out of slavery in Egypt.  As an adult, it was all about bnei Yisrael marching from avdus to cherus – a foretaste of the geulah to come.
  • Growing up Conservative (with Reform haggadahs), we talked about the Exodus from Egypt.  As an adult, it became יְצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם / Yetzias Mitzrayim – with no gebrocks, of course.

Crazy baalei teshuvah!

Hebrew is holy, of course.  And using it marks frum Jews in chu”l as holy as well.  Special and removed from the mainstream – even from the Jewish mainstream.

When Elisheva was a little kid, I brought her to what would ultimately become our shul, The Village Shul, for the first time.  Affiliated with Aish HaTorah, its frumkeit credentials are impeccable.

Nevertheless, it has an unmistakeable “kiruv” (kiruv, not outreach!) bent.  And, hearing the rabbi speak about the “Jews” in “Egypt,” she turned to me and asked, “Mommy, is that man Jewish???”

It’s definitely true that the Hebrew words have different meanings, and I believe in many cases we should use them in English to reduce inaccuracies.  For instance, tzedakah has a totally different meaning from the English word charity.  Teshuvah, too, means return, and not repentance, as it’s so often mistranslated.  Even sin isn’t simple; there are several different kinds in the Torah.  And don’t even get me started on “leprosy.”

But here’s the thing that living in Israel has driven home.  If this is to be a living language, then these living Hebrew words must – to some extent – be stripped of their sacred nature.  To resurrect this thing and make it useful in daily life, we have to let go of the sanctity and all of those distinctions between holy and profane.

Yesterday, I caught Akiva looking up the word קַבָּלָה / kabbalah in the dictionary.  Apparently, he’d been in a store and when he left, they ran after him, shouting “kabbalah!  kabbalah!”

IMG_00004300Before yesterday, he thought Kabbalah was something only Madonna was into.  Now he knows that it also means receipt.

And by the way, on any given receipt, you could probably find any number of words that outside of Israel only exist in the context of great sanctity.

Welcoming guests, for instance, through  הכנסת אורחים/ hachnasas orchim… well, the word “hachnassa” by itself, in modern Hebrew, means income.

I’m always seeing words on signs or in newspapers that are very, very familiar, just from learning the siddur, saying Tehillim (Psalms) and other facets of religious life.  Except these words don’t mean what I think they mean.

Like how at Sukkos, we welcome Ushpizin, holy guests, into our Sukkah, but in modern Hebrew, the verb לאשפז / l’ashpeiz (from the exact same root) means to be admitted to the hospital.  It was a little tough figuring stuff out until someone explained it to me.

to hospitalize... or celebrate?

And that sacred Exodus from Egypt, the יְצִיאָה / yetzia that we dreamed of throughout 210 years of slavery (but who’s counting)…? 

Well, that’s just a plain old exit sign around here.


Wishing you all a merry seasonal “exit” from the Holy Land!

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