Hebrew language, Jewish history and holidays under the microscope

Roots and Rituals provides a fascinating window into the origins of Hebrew words, practices and customs. The diversity of different topics makes it the type of book that one can read at any time.

THE AUTHOR dives deep into the meaning of biblical Hebrew words. (photo credit: LUKE JONES/FLICKR)
THE AUTHOR dives deep into the meaning of biblical Hebrew words.
(photo credit: LUKE JONES/FLICKR)
Entertaining, erudite, and enjoyable, Roots and Rituals: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, and History, by Mitchell First, an attorney and scholar of Jewish history and Hebrew, consists of 62 brief articles on the Hebrew language, Jewish holidays and Jewish history.
Roots and Rituals includes eight selections on Jewish liturgy, 10 articles on Jewish history, 32 pieces on the Hebrew language, and 12 articles about Jewish holidays and the calendar. While some of First’s linguistic and historical insights are well known to academics, he has performed a valuable service by conveying a large body of scholarly information to the general public in a very readable  format. The articles are thoughtful, witty, well written and – in many cases – challenge previously held assumptions.
For example, the author explains that Hebrew word navi, which is usually translated as “prophet,” is actually based on a word that means to call. This can refer to one who was calling out to the people, or someone who was called or appointed.
In another selection, First analyzes the meaning of the Hebrew word olam, generally translated as “world.” However, he explains, most biblical usages of the word refer to a time-oriented meaning, such as a remote period in the past, future, or in perpetuity. The author posits that the word olam did not take on the meaning of “world” until the Second Temple period. After discussing the possible meanings, First then segues into the following question: What is the meaning of the words Adon Olam, the opening words of the popular liturgical hymn? The Artscroll Siddur translates it as “Master of the Universe,” while others prefer “Eternal Lord.” First comes to an interesting conclusion that ultimately satisfies both points of view.
The author’s exposition on the origins and meaning of the Aleinu prayer is particularly interesting. He explains that while the prayer was first recited as part of the Rosh Hashana liturgy, it was introduced into the daily services hundreds of years later, in response to the Crusades of 1096, expressing a rejection of Christianity. He then adds that the famous words of the Aleinu prayer, l’taken olam translated as “to perfect the world under God’s sovereignty,” are most likely an erroneous spelling, and were originally written as l’tacen olam, meaning “to establish the world under God’s sovereignty.” Regardless, First writes, the words as written today are appropriate for our time.
“As Aleinu evolved from being a Rosh Hashanah prayer to a daily one, we no longer think about establishing the world under God’s sovereignty but have shifted our focus to our daily task of perfecting and improving the world under God’s sovereignty.”
While the above explanation may seem somewhat technical, the author has a unique talent for simplifying complex topics and making them understandable. The book presumes a basic level of Hebrew language, and the Hebrew words that appear in the book are displayed without vowel points. First quotes numerous commentaries and linguistic authorities – both ancient and modern – throughout the book. Interestingly, he brings various points of view both to support his opinions, and occasionally to illustrate points of view contrary to his own. One never gets the feeling that he is forcing the reader to agree with his point of view.
THE ETYMOLOGICAL origins of words can frequently shed light on deeper concepts. One such subject contained in the book is the meaning of the words “veshinantam levanecha” (Deuteronomy 6:7), which are part of the Shema prayer, recited daily. Some interpret the word veshinantam to mean “teach,” ie. you shall teach them to your children. But First’s investigation of the sources points out that there are actually several different explanations for this phrase. Rashi, the classic medieval French commentator, writes that the word veshinantam comes from the Hebrew word that means sharpness. Based on that meaning, the explanation would be that one should keep the words immediate and available, so that if someone asks a question, one should be able to answer without hesitation. A second explanation, cited by Ibn Ezra, suggests that the word means “like a sharp arrow.” The author explains that this relates to the actual process of preparing an arrow, which requires repeated sharpening. According to this explanation, in effect, the instruction of veshinantam means to teach by repetition. Others explain that the word conveys the message of teaching in a way that explains matters intelligently. The different interpretations cited by the author provide deeper insights into how, and by what means, one should impart the beliefs and concepts of Judaism.
In addition to the plentiful selections on Hebrew language, Roots and Rituals includes a number of stimulating articles about the Jewish holidays and the Hebrew calendar. What is the origin of the method of counting the years from the creation of the world? What is the meaning of the word Maccabee? Can King Achashverosh and Queen Esther be identified from secular historical sources? Why does the Bible provide a minimal description of the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, calling it by the cryptic name of Yom Teruah?
Roots and Rituals provides a fascinating window into the origins of Hebrew words, practices and customs. The diversity of different topics makes it the type of book that one can read at different times and settings throughout the year. One can only hope the author will continue this series with further insights.