'Links to our Legacy': Making Jewish liturgy accessible - review

Links to our Legacy is the type of book that one can pick up, flip to the middle, and read one selection, and then browse through other articles in no particular order, at one’s leisure.

 TOMATOES AT Hengda greenhouse in Shanghai. The book explains the unexpected origins of the Hebrew word ‘agvania’ for tomato.  (photo credit: ALY SONG/REUTERS)
TOMATOES AT Hengda greenhouse in Shanghai. The book explains the unexpected origins of the Hebrew word ‘agvania’ for tomato.
(photo credit: ALY SONG/REUTERS)

In 2022, a book whose subtitle is “Insights into Hebrew, History and Liturgy” may not be employing the most effective form of marketing.

Many people – even those who regularly attend synagogue – neither understand Hebrew nor have the time or interest to consider the meaning of Hebrew word forms. Delving into the meaning of our liturgy is considered arcane to all but a few, and in our TikTok and Instagram-inspired era of 30-second sound bites, history takes far too much time to consider and understand.

Considering the above, it is all the more remarkable that Mitchell First has managed to write about these subjects in a fresh, engaging and novel way.

First, a personal injury attorney living in Teaneck, New Jersey, is a scholar of Jewish history and Hebrew language, and it is clear that he enjoys not only studying but informing his readers about his linguistic and historical discoveries.

Links to our Legacy includes 66 articles, most not longer than two or three pages, about the Hebrew language, Jewish history and texts from Jewish liturgy. While a majority of the articles are in the Hebrew-language category, every selection is interesting, fresh and informative.

 World's smallest Torah (credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL) World's smallest Torah (credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)

The articles in this volume, like those in the author’s previous book Roots and Rituals, originally appeared in slightly shorter versions in First’s weekly columns in the Jewish Link of New Jersey newspaper.

The tomato-lust connection

Consider the very first entry, on the etymology of the Hebrew word for love, which is “ahav.” First writes that in Arabic, the word “habba” means “breathe heavily” and “be excited,” which certainly may be related to the Hebrew word for love. Another similar-sounding word in Arabic, he continues, is the word “ihab,” which means “skin” or “leather.” Based on this interpretation, he writes, some have suggested that the word “ahav” was related to a positive feeling that one felt in one’s skin, which was then applied to the emotional stimulation that produced it.

Continuing on that theme, First cites a passage in Song of Songs, which states that Solomon made a canopy that was inlaid with ahava. Based on the preceding interpretation, he points out that there are those who say that the word “ahava” does, in fact, mean “leather” in that context.

As in many of the selections, First does not attempt to persuade the reader to choose a particular interpretation.

He then continues on a related linguistic tangent, explaining the etymology of the Hebrew word for tomato, which is agvania.

When tomatoes were first introduced to Europe from their native South America in the 16th century, they were thought to be an aphrodisiac. For that reason, they were called “love apples.” The author recounts the dispute between Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Yechiel Michel Pines as to the proper Hebrew term to describe “love apples.” Ben-Yehuda proposed the Arabic word “badura,” and Pines suggested “agvania.” Eventually, agvania, which is related to the Hebrew word “agav,” or lust, was chosen.

High Holy Day liturgy

Turning to the liturgy, First discusses the origin of the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer, recited in the Musaf service of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

One of the best-known prayers of the High Holy Day liturgy, the prayer describes how every event that will take place in the coming year is written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur, and concludes, “But repentance, prayer, and righteousness cancel the stern decree.”

Most High Holy Day prayer books feature the story of the authorship of the prayer, attributing it to a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, who was said to have lived in the 10th century. According to the tale, First writes, a high-ranking bishop attempted to persuade Rabbi Amnon to convert to Christianity. Rabbi Amnon asked for three days to consider the matter but regretted giving the impression that he would even consider abandoning his religion. Ultimately, Amnon was tortured by the rulers, and recited the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer shortly before “Kedusha,” after which he expired. Three days later, according to the legend, he appeared in a dream to a Rabbi Kalonymous and taught him the prayer.

A manuscript containing the text of “Unetaneh Tokef” was found in the Cairo Genizah, next to a set of other liturgical poems written by Yannai, a well-known liturgical poet who lived in the sixth century CE in the Galilee. Additional research, he adds, has shown that it is likely that Yannai authored the famous prayer in the Land of Israel, several hundred years before Rabbi Amnon was born. Moreover, some scholars, reports First, doubt the existence of a Rabbi Amnon in Mainz, given that the name Amnon was not used in Germany but, rather, in Italy.

First peppers his historical selections with other interesting pieces, such as a description of the Cairo Genizah and its importance, insights into Rashi’s commentary, a letter that Maimonides wrote discussing the death of his brother, and the story of the original Dead Sea Scrolls. These selections leaven the book with a bit of Jewish history for those who want or need a break from the selections on the Hebrew language.

Links to our Legacy is the type of book that one can pick up, flip to the middle, and read one selection, and then browse through other articles in no particular order, at one’s leisure.

First has the ability to write about complex topics simply but effectively, taking the reader with him on a linguistic journey and keeping things interesting.

Readers who have even a passing interest in Hebrew language, Jewish history and liturgy – even if they would usually “take a pass” on the subject – will find something to like among the numerous articles in this book. 

Links to our LegacyBy Mitchell FirstKodesh Press252 pages; $19.95