Category Archives: Jewish Law & Life Cycle

The Origins and Meaning of Sandak

In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, we read of God’s covenant with Abraham, which was sealed with a circumcision. For centuries, the most important honour given at a traditional brit milah is the role of sandak, or sandek, the person who holds the child during the circumcision. While everyone knows what a sandak is, few actually know what a sandak is! Where did this role come from? What does it mean? And what is the deeper spiritual significance behind it?

The Godfather

The role of the sandak emerged from the necessity of the mohel having an assistant. Someone, of course, has to hold the baby and keep the legs away so that the mohel can properly do his job. This is actually the simplest meaning of the term “sandak” which, like many Jewish words, has its origins in a Greek etymology: sunteknos, or syntekno, literally meaning the person “with the child” or the “child’s companion”. In Latin, which was also familiar to our ancient Sages, there is a related etymology that comes of the Greek, but has a further meaning:

The Latin term syndic referred to a government official or representative, especially a judge. It comes from the earlier Greek root sundike, literally meaning the person tasked “with justice”. Such a person would have been granted a measure of power by the state, and could confer protection to others (or at least advocate on behalf of others). The same term is the root of the modern word “syndicate”, referring to a group that comes together to make themselves more powerful in order to accomplish some goal (often of a criminal nature, but not necessarily).

The Latin syndic is the most direct etymology for the term sandak, and implies that the sandak has the job of protecting the child. For this reason, the sandak is often referred to as the Jewish version of a “godfather”. In fact, in olden times another term for sandak was av sheni, the “second father”. It is possible that it came with the responsibility to care for the child in the event that the father passed away. This is why some say that the father of the child should not be the sandak for his own baby.

Others say that the father should be the sandak, for the role is only of a spiritual nature, and there is no other obligation of the sandak after the brit. Mystical texts speak of a spiritual danger to the uncircumcised child, which is why there are customs to stay up all night before the brit to learn Torah in order to confer spiritual protection to the child (called a Brit Itzchak or a Vach Nacht). From this perspective, there is no reason why a father cannot be the sandak for his own child. Moreover, the mitzvah of circumcision is actually incumbent upon the father himself. Ideally, the father should circumcise his own child, and only if he is unable to should he appoint a professional mohel to serve in his stead. Therefore, by being the sandak, the father can at least participate directly in the mitzvah in an alternate way.

It is fitting to point out here a possible Jewish origin for the term “godfather”. It may come from a Midrash on this week’s parasha. The Sages ask: who was Abraham’s sandak when he was circumcised? They answer that God Himself was the sandak for Abraham. He was, quite literally, his “Godfather”.

Enter Eliyahu

Another mystery of the brit milah ceremony is the “Chair of Eliyahu”. Every brit has a special chair designated for the prophet-angel Eliyahu, and it is customary for the sandak to sit on this chair, upon which the circumcision takes place. The chair is there because it is said that Eliyahu attends every brit. Why? As we’ve written in the past, Eliyahu once accused the Jewish people of abandoning God’s covenant (I Kings 19:10), God replied:

I vow that whenever My children make this sign in their flesh, you will be present, and the mouth which testified that the Jewish people have abandoned My covenant will testify that they are keeping it. (Zohar I, 93a)

In a slightly different version, the Midrash (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, 29) records that Eliyahu praised himself by saying that he has always been “zealous” for God and His covenant. And yet, Eliyahu fled from the evil Queen Jezebel when she was out to get him for trying to get the Jews to return to the Covenant. Because he fled and abandoned his own mission, God tasked him with being present at each brit milah, every time a new Jew is brought into the Covenant. The Midrash concludes that this is why we place a chair for Eliyahu at each brit.

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

We’ve noted multiple times before that Eliyahu never died and was taken up to Heaven alive, being transformed into an angel, called “Sandalfon”. As explained here, Sandalfon is also a Greek-derived appellation that the Sages used, to avoid using the true angelic name which is a secret. It isn’t difficult to see that the root of Sandalfon is the same as the root of sandak. And we can now understand why the sandak sits on Eliyahu’s chair:

The sandak serves as the earthly representative of Eliyahu. He is imbued with the spirit of that angel-prophet, and this is how Eliyahu is able to “attend” every brit milah, as God instructed him. It isn’t just a metaphorical thing, the sandak is really elevated to a higher angelic status. This is why it is customary (especially in Sephardic communities) for people to request a blessing from the sandak after the brit. The sandak carries this great blessing with him all day. For example, if the sandak later goes to pray Minchah at a minyan—even one that had nothing to do with the brit, and could be in a difficult country altogether!—that minyan does not pray Tachanun, the “sad” part of the prayer service. The presence of the sandak changes everything around him. He is likened to a walking, real-life angel. In fact, Jewish tradition holds that a sandak has all of his sins erased, and is then blessed with tremendous abundance.

For this reason, there is a rabbinic debate whether a single individual should be a sandak more than once. Because it is such a great honour, and carries such intense spiritual potential, some hold that we should spread the opportunity to as many different people as possible. Others maintain that there is no requirement to do so, and it is best to select the most righteous individual to serve as sandak. Because the sandak is the spiritual “companion” of the child, it is believed that some of the sandak’s own qualities will pass on to that child. It is therefore best to choose a righteous person. (In certain communities it was once normal for the local rabbi to be the sandak for all the children. Also, among those who rabbinic authorities who do permit a person being sandak multiple times, some say a person should not be sandak multiple times within a single family.)

Another custom, still strong today, is to honour a grandfather with being sandak. Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz points out how this may come from the Torah itself, where we read: “And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation; the children also of Machir the son of Menashe were born upon Joseph’s knees.” (Genesis 50:23) The Targum Yonatan explains that Joseph was the sandak for his grandsons.

On a final interesting note, there is a question regarding selecting a sandak who, while righteous, might have some kind of deficiency, such as a physical disability. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once responded to a question where a person asked if it is okay that the sandak is infertile. The Rebbe replied in the affirmative, saying that only the positive qualities of the sandak are passed on to the child. This makes perfect sense in light of the fact that any negative qualities of the sandak are erased that day, as noted, and he is elevated to the status of a wholesome angel that has no deficiencies.

Shabbat or Shabbos: Who Pronounces Correctly?

The “Table of Nations”. One version of a map based on Genesis 10 and the seventy root nations. Originally, the seventy nations were based in the Middle East surrounding the Holy Land, as depicted here. After the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), they were dispersed all over the world.

This week we read parashat Noach, where we are introduced to the seventy root nations, languages, and regions of the world. One of these is Ashkenaz, later associated with roughly what is today Germany, and giving rise to the term “Ashkenazi Jew”. One of the more salient features of Ashkenazi Judaism is the way that Hebrew letters are traditionally pronounced. This is all the more amplified today when we are used to hearing Modern Hebrew, which was based primarily on Sephardic pronunciation (even though it was devised by Ashkenazis).

The question is: who actually pronounces more correctly? Is the Sephardic pronunciation indeed better, like those Ashkenazi Zionists believed when they set the rules of Modern Hebrew? Or maybe the Ashkenazi way is the authentic pronunciation, like many in the Orthodox world maintain? The short answer is that both are incorrect. For the long answer, read on.

Doubled Letters and Pronouncing “S”

We will avoid discussion of Hebrew vowels here, for this is a more difficult issue. On the consonants, however, we can come to some clear conclusions. The main issue centres around the seven letters of Hebrew that are called kefulot, “doubled”, those that have two distinct sounds. Sefer Yetzirah, one of the most ancient mystical texts and traditionally attributed to Abraham himself, is perhaps the oldest primer on the Hebrew letters. As we’ve explained in the past, it divides the letters up into three categories: the “three mothers” (Aleph-Mem-Shin), the “seven doubles” (Beit-Gimel-Dalet-Kaf-Pei-Reish-Tav), and the remaining “twelve elementals”.

We will start with the last of the doubles first, as the biggest feature of Ashkenazi pronunciation is certainly the pronunciation of the letter Tav (ת), when without a dagesh, as a “Sav”. Therefore, words like Shabbat (שבת) become Shabbos. While everyone agrees that a tav with a dagesh (תּ) should have a hard “T” sound, what should a tav without a dagesh sound like? To pronounce it as an “S” is highly problematic, for certain words would then have a confused meaning. For example, parashat Mattot (מטות) would become “mattos”, which has a very different meaning for a modern speaker, while the name “Anat” (ענת) would have a very unfortunate meaning even for a traditional Torah scholar.

What is that tav supposed to sound like, and why did Ashkenazis develop an “S” sound? The answer is actually quite simple: The proper pronunciation of a tav without a dagesh is a “Th” sound, like in the word thermometer. This is why words with a tav are (rightly) transliterated into English with a “th”, such as Sabbath. Because Eastern Europeans are unable to pronounce the “Th” sound, which doesn’t exist in their languages (we’ve probably all heard a Russian person say the word “three” as sree), Ashkenazis naturally pronounced the thav as a sav. Most Sephardis lost the thav, too, and pronounced it simply as a hard tav, making no distinguish between a tav with a dagesh or without. Yemenite Jews are among the few communities which have maintained the proper pronunciation, and do indeed say “Th” where necessary.

While Ashkenazis started to say “s” in place of “th”, Sephardis may have their own “s” problem. Many Sephardis (including in my own Bukharian community) pronounce the letter Tzadi or Tsade (צ), not as a “Ts” sound, but as an “S” sound (a Sa’ade). Therefore, words like tzitzit (ציצית) are pronounced as “sisit”, and mitzvah (מצוה) is “misvah”. Sephardis maintain that this is the correct pronunciation, arguing that Hebrew never had a “Ts” sound. They have support for what they say, because the same argument was made by Sa’adia Gaon (c. 882-942) long ago in his commentary to Sefer Yetzirah. He said that because Hebrew is a pure language, its alphabet has only pure consonants, meaning no letters should have a combination of sounds (like “Ts”, which is a combo of “T” and “S”).

Having said that, Sa’adia Gaon grew up in an Arabic environment, and Arabic does not have a “Ts” sound, much like Eastern Europeans do not have the “Th” sound. We may be led to believe that Sephardis began to say “s” in place of “ts” due to the surrounding Arabic influence. On the other hand, there is a stronger argument that Ashkenazis developed a “Ts” sound for tsade because of the influence of German, where the letter Z is pronounced “Ts”. This is the view of Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, who is an especially excellent source since he is Ashkenazi in heritage but speaks in beautiful ancient Hebrew (or, as close as we know how to get to ancient Hebrew).

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) had a huge impact on the development of the Modern Hebrew language.

Rabbi Bar-Hayim notes that when the Ashkenazi Zionist “Council of the Hebrew Language” (or Hebrew Language Committee, originally founded by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in 1890) convened in 1913 to establish the rules of Modern Hebrew, they deliberately set tsade to sound like “Ts” to mirror German “Z” which they were used to and needed. They were well aware that tsade should sound like sa’ade, which is the authentic ancient pronunciation. Having said that, I brought up the issue of tsade with a Yemenite colleague who told me that older Yemenites actually distinguish between a tsade with a dagesh and a tsade without. The former does indeed sound similar to a soft “Ts” sound. So, it is possible that tsade once had two slightly distinct sounds, and perhaps Ashkenazis retained one version, with a little modification influenced by their surroundings.

Whatever the case, even among many Sephardis I no longer hear much of a distinction between a regular “S” sound and the traditional Sa’ade, which is deeper and requires putting the tongue up against the roof of the mouth. The result is that we have another (incorrect) “S” hardly distinguishable (if at all) from the Samekh (ס) and a Sin (שׂ)! On that note, why do we have both a samekh and a sin anyway?

Shibbolet or Sibbolet?

If we go back to the ancient Sefer Yetzirah, we find that the letter Shin is not listed among the “double” letters. Apparently, it should not have two distinct sounds! In fact, we see much evidence that shin was once strictly a “Sh” sound, as illustrated in the Tanakh (Judges 12:5-6):

And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites; and it was so, that when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said: “Let me pass,” the men of Gilead said to him: “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said: “No”, then they said they to him: “Say ‘Shibbolet’ and he said ‘Sibboleth’, for he could not pronounce it right. Then they laid hold on him, and slew him at the fords of the Jordan; and there fell at that time of Ephraim forty-two thousand.

In the times of the Judge Yiftach of Gilead, Israel was tragically mired in a civil war. The Gileadites crushed the Ephraimite forces, and then went after their fugitives. They found an easy way to determine who was an Ephraimite: just ask him to say the word “Shibbolet” (שִׁבֹּלֶת). The Ephraimites were unable to pronounce the letter shin, and instead pronounced it with an “s”, sibbolet.

Later in history, the Ephraimites became the dominant tribe in Israel. They were the most numerous, and held onto the monarchy in the Northern Kingdom when the nation split after King Solomon’s reign. In fact, the word “Ephraim” became synonymous with “Israel”. Throughout the Tanakh, the prophets refer to the Kingdom of Israel as “Ephraim”. When the Ephraimite Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, many fled south to the surviving Kingdom of Judah, and had a huge influence on the development of Judah, as numerous scholars have shown. It isn’t hard to conclude that during this time it became common to pronounce the letter as both shin and sin. Over time, it seems certain words with shin were pronounced with “sh”, and others with “s”.

If we look at the Torah, we actually find far fewer words where shin is pronounced as sin. In the first chapter of the Torah, for example, there are 17 root words with the letter pronounced as “Sh”, and only three pronounced as “S”. Take Biblical names as another example: Shet, Enosh, Metushelach, Ishmael, Shimon, Asher, Nachshon, Shlomo, Ishayah, Hoshea, Yehoshua, Yishai, Avshalom, Yoshiyahu, Shamgar, Bat-Sheva, Elisheva, Shifrah, Shlomit. It is hard to find a name in Hebrew with an “S” sound, among the few being Sarah (which makes just as much sense if it were Sharah), perhaps Issachar (the pronunciation of which is debated), and Israel.

On that last one, all the evidence suggests that originally it was Ishrael. The Sages say that Israel is an anagram of Yashar-El (“Straight to God”) or Shir-El (“God’s Song”). Also, Israel is called “Yeshurun” in the Tanakh multiple times, which the Sages say is really the same name as “Israel”. So, it seems we really should be Ishrael. But, because it was the Ephraimites who ruled the Kingdom of Israel, it is obvious that they would have called their own kingdom “Israel”, and the name stuck!

B and V, G and J, D and Dh

The first of the doubled letters is Beit (בּ), which can also be Veit (ב). If we have a “V” sound there, why have another “V” in the form of the letter Vav (ו)? In reality, the vav was a Waw in ancient times. This is the reason the Tetragrammaton is transliterated into English as YHWH, and not YHVH. Interestingly, the “W” sound inherently contains a “U” sound within it, as it is pronounced wua. This is why the vav in Hebrew is also a “UU” or “OO” sound, as in shana tova u’metuka (שנה טובה ומתוקה). It is therefore quite fitting that a W in English is called a “double-U”, hinting to its ancient origins as a UU or OO sound. Once more, the Yemenite Jews still got it right, for they are among the few which recite a vav as a waw.

The next letter over is Gimel (ג). Although Sefer Yetzirah tells us it is a doubled letter, today we generally pronounce all gimels with a hard “G” sound. Yemenites, however, pronounce a gimel with a dagesh (גּ) as a “J”, like in Arabic. So, a camel would be jamal (Hebrew: gamal), and it is the reason Muslims call their pilgrimage holiday a hajj (Hebrew: hag). Sa’adia Gaon, for the same reason that he said a Tsade cannot be a “Ts” sound, said that a gimel cannot be a “J” sound, as it is a “combined” sound and not a pure consonant. The gimel with a dagesh should be a hard “G” sound, like in “egg”. This is one that the Yemenites probably have wrong. The Yemenites do seem to have the non-dagesh variant of the gimel correct, pronouncing it like a rolling ghr, similar to a Modern Hebrew Reish. (When Yemenites say it, it sounds like Rimel, not Gimel!)

Next there’s Dalet (דּ), another doubled letter which is today always pronounced with a hard “D”. The soft variant (ד) is a “Dh” like in the word “that”. It is important to note the difference between a Thav and a Dhalet: the thav is pronounced like “three”, while the dhalet like “that”. Can you hear the difference? This particular sound is of utmost halachic significance: The Sages instruct us that when a person recites the Shema, they must extend or prolong the final dalet in the word echad. With a hard “D”, this is impossible! With a soft “Dh”, on the other hand, one can easily stretch the sound.

Chanukah or Khanukah?

The fourth of the doubled letters is Kaf (כּ) or Khaf (כ). This one is properly preserved today, for the most part. The only issue is the confusion with the similar-sounding letter Chet (ח). The difference is that khaf has that slight, soft “K” sound which Judaism is stereotypically famous for. Chet, meanwhile, is more like an Arabic-sounding “Ch” that comes from the throat, as Sefer Yetzirah explains that Chet is a guttural sound, together with Aleph, Hei and ‘Ayin. So, the way that people today typically say “Chanukah” or “challah or “Chaim” is totally wrong—they are saying “Khanukah”, “khallah”, and “Khaim”! These words should start with a throaty chet, not a rough khaf.

On that throaty note, the same is true for the letter ‘Ayin (ע). People tend to pronounce the ‘ayin like an Aleph, where there should be a clear difference. The ‘ayin comes from the throat and is almost like a longer “A” sound with a swallowed pause in the middle. For example, Jacob should be transliterated as Ya’akov, not Yakov. Because of its throatiness, the letter ‘ayin is often transliterated into English with a G, as in “Gomorrah” (עמרה) and “Gaza” (עזה). Many Sephardic and Mizrachi communities retain this sound. They don’t retain the Tet (ט), which is thought to be like a throaty thav, sounding almost like thoith. I don’t think anyone is quite sure exactly how a tet should be pronounced.

Pei (פּ) and Phei (פ) are simple enough that it seems we still got them right. The Kuf or Qoph (ק) is trickier. It is again deeper than the kaf, and almost sounds like a fusion of kaf and khaf with a brief pause in the middle. Ashkenazis pronounce it no different than a kaf, which is incorrect. Many Sephardis (including Bukharians) maintain the proper qoph sound.

Finally, there’s Reish (ר). Sephardis generally pronounced it like a hard “R” sound, while Ashkenazis with a softer “R” like in Modern Hebrew. (It is quite ironic that some old school Ashkenazi Russian Jews have a clearly-accented “R” when speaking Russian, even though Russians themselves pronounce the “R” hard like Sephardis!) It is possible that the two ancient reish sounds were these two variants. Perhaps Ashkenazis preserved one, while Sephardis preserved the other. (There are other “R” possibilities, such as the English “R”, which is entirely different. Try saying Rimon in Ashkenazi/Modern Hebrew, English, and Sephardi, and notice how they get progressively harder.) Rabbi David Bar-Hayim has a different explanation for the two “R”s, pointing out how rare the reish with a dagesh (רּ) is. By some estimates, it appears fewer than 20 times in all of Scripture.

The Verdict

Half marks represent some communities retaining the sound and some not.

So, who pronounces more correctly? No one has it totally right, but the traditional Yemenites are the closest (see chart for scores). Halachically, each Jew should strive to read the Torah with the best pronunciation possible. The Talmud (Megillah 24b) states that there was a time when Jews from the towns of Haifa, Bet She’an, and Tibonim were forbidden to be called up to recite the Priestly Blessing or “pass before the Ark” because they confused the letters aleph and ‘ayin (like many do today). Based on this, the Halacha as codified in multiple places is that a person selected to be the chazzan or ba’al koreh should have impeccable pronunciation. This may be reason enough for everyone to slowly adopt the more correct and more ancient Hebrew (as Rabbi David Bar-Hayim has done).

On the other hand, there are those authorities who maintain that a person should not deviate from the long-standing customs of their communities. And there is a certain beauty in having different styles of speech and different styles of prayer—as long as we can all understand each other and be unified as the one nation we are meant to be.

How to Structure Your Day Productively According to Kabbalah

This week we began a new Jewish year, and it is a perfect time to make resolutions. One of the most important is to ensure that this year we don’t waste time. While it is certainly beneficial to have moments of relaxation and “down” time, we often fail to realize just how much valuable time goes to waste.

Perhaps the worst of the culprits is television. In the old days, a person could simply avoid having a television set at home altogether, as is normal in Orthodox households. Today, however, no place is safe from its tentacles—with “streaming” videos accessible on phones, laptops, and even wristwatches! Be very careful, lest you get sucked in to a multi-season show that will drain literally hundreds of hours from your life. It is appropriate to quote Charles Darwin, who once said that a person “who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”

And it isn’t just the hours. Every minute is significant. The Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, 1762-1839) once explained how it was that he became among the greatest Torah sages of his day: “There are many times in a person’s life when he has one minute to ‘waste’—standing in line… waiting to meet someone… I always took those precious minutes and used them to delve into Torah. Thus, I became a gadol in one minute.” All those minutes add up.

One place where this is particularly true is in the car, or on the bus. Traffic has become a horrid problem in just about every major city in the world. It is an absolute shame to waste all that time listening to the same music or endless news cycles. On a personal note, I used to spend nearly two hours a day commuting back and forth to university, plus more time while working and driving from one site to another. Most of that time was spent listening to lectures. Over the span of about four years, I listened to well over 1000 Torah shiurim. Even now, many years later, those audio lectures provide a solid foundation upon which to stand—and fall back on.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) once said: “People talk about ‘wasting time’ or even ‘killing time’. Neither term is accurate. Time does not belong to you that you can waste it. Yet neither does it have a life of its own that you can take away. Rather, time awaits you to give it life.” How can we give life to time? What is the best way to organize the limited time that we have each day so that we can maximize life? While there are undoubtedly many ways to go about this, one intriguing model comes from the world of Jewish mysticism.

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