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Are you listening? I’m speaking to you…


Or am I?  In Hebrew, sometimes not so much.

Here’s an ad I spotted on the train this morning showing a smartphone with headphones trailing out:  “I’ll talk to you when I get home.  Meanwhile,  I’ll listen to music with headphones.”  The ad is part of a campaign aimed at getting Israelis on trains to be more polite:  not squish together on the platforms, let people out of the train before attempting to get on, not putting feet on seats, not shouting into cell phones the whole way home.

(Is it working?  Can it work?  I have my doubts.)

But anyway… that’s what the ad says.  Except for this:  remember what I told you back in October, all about Hebrew prepositions (of course you do)?  It doesn’t really say “listen to music.”  It says “hear music.”  No preposition whatsoever. 

This is one of those freak situations where in English you need a preposition and in Hebrew you don’t.

But the verb is different, too.  In English, you listen to music.  In Hebrew, you hear it.

This isn’t a trivial switch because of its centrality in Jewish life and prayer.  Many people would consider our most important tefillah (prayer) to be the… (you guessed it!) Shema.  And I have seen more than a few “progressive” translations that transpose its initial phrase into English as “Listen, O Israel.”

Because listening means paying attention; hearing is more passive.  Hearing means music is coming in whether you care or not.

And who’d want that when they’re praying? 

Surely, in a perfect world, it ought to be “listen, O Israel” instead – who wouldn’t care deeply about such an urgent call to prayer?  Indeed, words with the same “קָשַׁב” root appear throughout the siddur (if I recall correctly, they’re mostly asking Hashem to listen and pay attention to us, rather than the other way around).

But if you think that’s something (and it is, really), it’s nothing compared to “saying” (לוֹמַר)vs “telling” (לְהַגִיד), a distinction even Google Translate isn’t really able to make, since it suggests both as suitable translations for say and tell.

This is one that drives me crazy when people do it in English.  My students this year never could get it right:  “last week, you say me” being an all-too-common example (this is actually three different mistakes, at least).

But I must admit – my Hebrew probably sounds just as bad, judging from the number of times people gently try to steer me in the right direction. 

But here I am, bumbling along through Israel once again, telling bus drivers to “say” me when it’s my stop.

Warts and all (figurative warts only, lest you get the wrong idea about me), I’m an olah and my Hebrew may still be lousy but diving back in like this, reading signs, asking questions, ordering dinner (in Hebrew, off the English menu) reminds me of what a vast journey this really is, and how far I’ve come so far. 

And then I relax, lie back, and allow myself to sink ever deeper in the chaotic flow of this crazy holy modern language I love so much.

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