Tag Archives: Kingdom of Judah

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.

20 Things That Will Happen When Mashiach Comes

This week’s parasha, Vayikra, begins the third book of the Torah. The parasha is unique in that it is only one of two parashas (along with next week’s Tzav) where the word Mashiach appears. All four cases of the word in the Torah refer to the anointed High Priest, not to the messiah at the End of Days. Nonetheless, on a deeper level it certainly is alluding to the messiah of the End of Days. All the verses in question deal with the anointed High Priest (“HaKohen HaMashiach”) atoning for sins—both his own and the people’s—and purifying his nation. Indeed, one of the roles of Mashiach will be to prepare Israel for that final purification at the End of Days. This includes identifying one last Red Cow to produce those special waters which alone are capable of removing the impurity of death.

The early Christians saw these verses as allusions to their purported saviour, Jesus. In one place, for example, they wrote:

the Law [ie. the Torah] made those high priests who had infirmity, and who needed daily to offer up sacrifices, first for their own sins, and then for the people’s; but our high priest, Christ Jesus, was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens. (Hebrews 7:27-28)

For the Christians, Jesus was the ultimate anointed high priest. Yet, Jesus accomplished essentially nothing of what Mashiach is supposed to. This was perhaps best explained in the 16th century by Isaac ben Abraham of Troki (1533-1594). He was a Karaite Jew, and a renowned Karaite scholar. His magnum opus was a book called Hizzuk Emunah, “Strengthening of Faith”, written to debunk Christianity, silence missionaries, and convince Jews to remain Jewish. The book was so popular that it spread like wildfire, not just among Karaites but all Jews, and even Christians. In fact, it played an important role in the start of the Enlightenment, leading countless Christians to abandon their faith. One of these was the French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), who called the Latin translation of Hizzuk Emunah (first published in 1681) a “masterpiece”.

Because it was a Karaite text, traditional rabbis were wary of consulting it. The great Rabbi Menashe ben Israel (Manoel Dias Soeiro, 1604-1657), who opened the first Hebrew printing press in Amsterdam in 1626, ultimately refused to print it. Still, Abba Hillel Silver, in his A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel (pg. 225), points out how Troki’s text borrowed from earlier Rabbinic texts, including Mashmia Yeshua, “Announcing Salvation”, of Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508).

Silver goes on to summarize the sixth chapter of Troki’s Hizzuk Emunah, which includes a list of twenty clear prophecies in Scripture that must be fulfilled upon the coming of Mashiach—none of which were fulfilled by Jesus (thereby necessitating for Christians some future “second coming” yet to materialize after nearly two millennia). Briefly going over these twenty events is enlightening both as a reminder for why Jesus could not be the messiah, and for what to expect when the true Mashiach does come.

Living Waters and Dead Waters

‘Israelis – The Ingathering of the Exiles’ by Saul Raskin (1878-1966)

The first prophecy is the return of the Lost Tribes of Israel. In ancient times, following the reign of King Solomon, the Twelve Tribes of Israel split into two kingdoms: the southern Judah and the northern Israel (or Ephraim). The more sinful northern kingdom was eventually overrun by the Assyrians, who exiled its tribes. These are sometimes referred to as the Ten Lost Tribes. It should be noted, though, that they weren’t necessarily ten tribes, nor were the tribes completely expunged. In reality, there were many Benjaminites, Simeonites, and Levites already living inside the Kingdom of Judah, and members of all the northern tribes fled to Judah when the northern kingdom was destroyed.

What happened was that all the tribes eventually assimilated into the larger, ruling tribe of Judah. Over time, the tribes lost knowledge of their lineage, and today everyone is simply a Yehudi, a Judahite, or Jew. (Levites, because of their unique role, retain knowledge of their ancestry). One of the prophesied events of the End of Days is that the identity of the Lost Tribes will once more be known. Though this idea is much more developed in later Rabbinic literature, it comes from numerous places in Scripture. Troki chooses to use Ezekiel 37:15-22:

And the word of God came to me, saying: “And you, son of man, take one stick, and write upon it: For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions; then take another stick, and write upon it: For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and of all the house of Israel his companions; and join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand… And say to them: ‘Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, wherever they have gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land…’”

Related to this is the second great prophecy, that of Gog u’Magog. This refers to the great world war at the End of Days, described in detail in Ezekiel 38, among other places. During the course of this war, Zechariah 14:4 states that the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem will be split in half. Then, new “living waters” will go out of Jerusalem to make Israel flourish (Zechariah 14:8).

Bab-el-Mandeb Strait (Credit: Skilla1st)

Meanwhile, Isaiah 11:15 states that God “will utterly destroy the tongue of the Egyptian Sea; and with His scorching wind will He shake His hand over the River, and will smite it into seven streams, and cause men to march over dry-shod.” The identity of the “Egyptian Sea” and the “River” is unclear, though Silver has it as the Red Sea and the Euphrates. On the possibility of the Red Sea drying up, we know today from geological records that the Red Sea had once (and possibly more than once) become a dry chunk of land due to the narrow and shallow Bab-el-Mandeb closing up.

As for the “River”, in context it would make more sense if it referred to the Nile, the lifeline of Egypt. Today, we are indeed seeing the Nile drying up rapidly, and the Washington Post recently reported that the Nile Delta is losing as much as 20 metres per year in some areas. With this in mind, when Isaiah prophesies that the “tongue of the Egyptian Sea” will be destroyed, it may be referring to the Nile Delta, which opens up into the Egyptian Mediterranean, ie. the “Egyptian Sea”. The Post article is quite an accurate realization of Isaiah’s prophecy, with images of men that “march over dry-shod”.

(Having said that, the Euphrates River isn’t doing much better than the Nile, so whether Isaiah meant the Nile or the Euphrates is irrelevant in light of the mass devastation that has plagued both rivers.)

A Renewed Jerusalem

The sixth prophecy in Troki’s list is also from Zechariah (8:23):

Thus said the Lord of Hosts: “In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold, out of all the languages of the nations, shall take hold of the garment of him that is a Jew, saying: We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”

The tremendous anti-Semitism that Jews have experienced throughout history, into the present day, will finally end. The nations will be at peace with the Jews, and wish to learn from them. This is related to another prophecy: that gentiles from all over the world will come to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel on every Rosh Chodesh and every Shabbat (Isaiah 66:20-23):

“…upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon swift beasts, to My holy mountain Jerusalem,” said God, “as the children of Israel bring their offering in a clean vessel into the house of God. And of them also will I take for the priests and for the Levites,” said God. “For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before Me,” said God, “so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me, said God.

The gentiles—“all flesh”—will come to Jerusalem, upon every kind of transport. One of these is a rekhev, “chariot” in ancient Hebrew, and “vehicle” in Modern Hebrew. Another two of the transports are unique words that aren’t found elsewhere in Scripture and are impossible to translate: a tzab, and a kirkar. It is possible that the former refers to some kind of slow transport (as the word is written the same as that for a “turtle”) while the latter conversely refers to a very fast form of transport. In our day and age we have no shortage of either.

Troki lists separately a related prophecy from Zechariah (14:16): “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations that came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles.” Once a year, during the holiday of Sukkot, those nations that warred against Israel at the End of Days will come to Jerusalem to worship. The fact that it must be during Sukkot is no coincidence, for it is during Sukkot that our Sages say the offerings in the Temple atone for all the gentiles. This is why the Torah requires seventy bulls to be offered over the course of the holiday, corresponding to the seventy root nations of the world.

A Renewed World

If all the nations are coming to worship the God of Israel in Jerusalem, there is certainly no need for any “idols… false prophets… and unclean spirits” which God will entirely “cut off” (Zechariah 13:2). Zechariah further adds: “And God [YHWH] shall be King over all the earth; in that day God shall be One, and His name one.” (14:9) There will be world peace (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3), which will be ensured and enforced by Israel, to whom all the kings and nations will listen (Isaiah 60:10-12, Daniel 7:27). Even the animals will be at peace with each other, as Isaiah (11:6-8) famously writes:

And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox…

On that last prophecy there is an interesting debate. Will the animals miraculously stop fighting and consuming one another? Or, is the prophecy only metaphorical and the natural order will remain? The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) held by the latter. Silver translates here that peace will be “between wild and domestic animals”. When reading Isaiah’s verses, this makes perfect sense: a wolf with a lamb, a leopard with a goat; calf and lion, cow and bear. So perhaps what Isaiah meant is that farmers and ranchers will no longer have to worry about wild animals devouring their livestock—once a common, and particularly disturbing, problem. (Or maybe there will be no need to raise livestock at all, for we are now at the dawn of the synthetic meat revolution.)

Israel will finally be completely righteous and free of sin (Deuteronomy 30:6, Isaiah 60:21, Ezekiel 36:25), and lead the rest of the world in doing the same (Jeremiah 3:17). There will no longer be any kind of suffering or sorrow in Israel, for the prophet said “the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying” (Isaiah 65:19).

‘Going Up To The Third Temple’ by Ofer Yom Tov

Finally, the prophet Eliyahu will return (Micah 3:24), and the Temple will be rebuilt (Ezekiel 40-45). The Shekhinah will return to Israel (Ezekiel 37:26), as will the ability to prophecy (Jeremiah 31:32-33), and there will be great knowledge in the world (Isaiah 11:9). The Holy Land will be redistributed among the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Ezekiel 47:13). Lastly, at the very end, will come the long-awaited Resurrection of the Dead (Daniel 12:2).

To summarize:

  1. Return of the Lost Tribes
  2. Gog u’Magog
  3. Mount of Olives splitting
  4. Egyptian Sea and River destroyed
  5. Living waters emerge from Jerusalem
  6. Gentiles declaring to Jews “we will go with you”
  7. Israel’s former enemies coming to Jerusalem each year on Sukkot
  8. Gentile pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to worship on the new moons and Sabbaths
  9. Destruction of all idols, false prophets, and unclean spirits
  10. One religion around the world, and recognition of one God
  11. Israel’s recognized leadership on the international stage
  12. World peace
  13. Peace between wild and domesticated animals
  14. A sinless Israel and a sinless world
  15. No more suffering or sorrow in the Land of Israel and for the Jewish people
  16. Shekhinah and prophecy return
  17. Eliyahu reappears
  18. Rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem
  19. Redistribution of the Holy Land among the restored Twelve Tribes
  20. Resurrection of the Dead

The Difference between “Jew” and “Hebrew”

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

This week’s parasha is named after Korach, the rebellious cousin of Moses. Korach felt he had been unfairly slighted. Moses had apparently made himself like a king over the people, then appointed his brother Aaron as high priest. The final straw was appointing another cousin, the younger Elitzaphan, as chief of the Kohatites, a clan of Levites of which Korach was an elder. Where was Korach’s honour?

Korach’s co-conspirators were Datan and Aviram, leaders of the tribe of Reuben. They, too, felt like they’d been dealt a bad hand. After all, Reuben was the eldest son of Jacob, and as the firstborn among the tribes, should have been awarded the priesthood.

The Sages explain that Reuben indeed should have held the priesthood. Not only that, but as the firstborn, he should have also been the king. Reuben, however, had failed in preventing the sale of Joseph, and had also committed the unforgivable sin of “mounting his father’s bed”. For this latter crime especially, and for being “unstable like water”, Jacob declared that Reuben would “not excel” or live up to being “my first fruit, excelling in dignity, excelling in power” (Genesis 49:3-4).

Instead, the status of “firstborn” was awarded to Joseph, who had taken on the mantle of leadership and saved his entire family in a time of terrible drought. Jacob made Joseph the firstborn, and thus gave Joseph a double portion among the Tribes and in the land of Israel. He put Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe in place of his own firsts Reuben and Shimon (Genesis 48:5). Meanwhile, the excellence of “dignity”—the priesthood—went to the third-born son, Levi, and the excellence of power—royalty—went to the fourth son, Judah. (The second-born Shimon was skipped over because he, too, had greatly disappointed his father in slaughtering the people of Shechem, as well as spearheading the attempt to get rid of Joseph.)

Levi merited to hold the priesthood because the Levites were the only ones not to participate in the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32:26). The Book of Jubilees (ch. 32) adds a further reason: Jacob had promised to God that he would tithe everything God gave him (Genesis 28:22), and everything included his children. Jacob thus lined up his sons, and counted them from the youngest up. The tenth son, the tithe, was Levi (who was the third-oldest, or “tenth-youngest”, of the twelve). And so, Levi was designated for the priesthood, to the service of God.

Judah merited the royal line for his honesty and repentance—particularly for the sale of Joseph, and for the incident with Tamar. He further established his leadership in taking the reins to safely secure the return of Benjamin. The name Yehudah comes from the root which means “to acknowledge” and “to be thankful”. Judah acknowledged his sins and purified himself of them. Ultimately, all Jews would be Yehudim, the people who are dedicated to repentance and the acknowledgement and recognition of Godliness in the world. Much of a Jew’s life is centered on prayers and blessings, thanking God every moment of the day, with berakhot recited before just about every action. The title Yehudi is therefore highly appropriate to describe this people. Yet, it is not the only title.

Long before Yehudi, this people was known as Ivri, “Hebrew”, and then Israel. What is the meaning of these parallel names?

Hebrew: Ethnicity or Social Class?

The first time we see the term “Hebrew” is in Genesis 14:13, where Abraham (then still called Abram) is called HaIvri. The meaning is unclear. The Sages offer a number of interpretations. The plain meaning of the word seems to mean “who passes” or “who is from the other side”. It may refer to the fact that Abraham migrated from Ur to Charan, and then from Charan to the Holy Land. Or, it may be a metaphorical title, for Abraham “stood apart” from everyone else. While the world was worshipping idols and living immorally, Abraham was “on the other side”, preaching monotheism and righteousness.

An alternate approach is genealogical: Ever was the name of a great-grandson of Noah. Noah’s son Shem had a son named Arpachshad, who had a son named Shelach, who had a son named Ever (see Genesis 11). In turn, Ever was an ancestor of Abraham (Ever-Peleg-Reu-Serug-Nachor-Terach-Abraham). Thus, Abraham was called an Ivri because he was from the greater clan of Ever’s descendants. This must have been a powerful group of people recognized across the region, as attested to by Genesis 10:21, which makes sure to point out that Shem was the ancestor of “all the children of Ever”. Amazingly, archaeological evidence supports this very notion.

“Habiru” in ancient cuneiform

From the 18th century BCE, all the way until the 12th century BCE, historical texts across the Middle East speak of people known as “Habiru” or “Apiru”.  The Sumerians described them as saggasu, “destroyers”, while other Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts describe them as mercenary warriors, slaves, rebels, nomads, or outlaws. Today, historians agree that “Habiru” refers to a social class of people that were somehow rejected or outcast from greater society. These were unwanted people that did not “fit in”. That would explain why Genesis 43:32 tells us that Joseph ate apart from the Egyptians, because “the Egyptians did not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that was an abomination to the Egyptians.”

One of the “Habiru” described in Egyptian texts are the “Shasu YHW” (Egyptian hieroglyphs above), literally “nomads of Hashem”. Scholars believe this is the earliest historical reference to the Tetragrammaton, God’s Ineffable Name, YHWH.

Defining “Hebrew” as an unwanted, migrating social class also solves a number of other issues. For example, Exodus 21:2 introduces the laws of an eved Ivri, “a Hebrew slave”. When many people read this passage, they are naturally disturbed, for it is unthinkable that God would permit a Jew to purchase another Jew as a slave. Yet, the Torah doesn’t say that this is a Jew at all, but an Ivri which, as we have seen, may refer to other outcasts from an inferior social class. The Habiru are often described as slaves or servants in the historical records of neighbouring peoples, so it appears that the Torah is actually speaking of these non-Jewish “Hebrews” that existed at the time. Regardless, the Torah shows a great deal of compassion for these wanderers, and sets limits for the length of their servitude (six years), while ensuring that they live in humane conditions.

Rebels and Mystics

Though he was certainly no slave or brigand, Abraham was undoubtedly a “rebel” in the eyes of the majority. To them, he was a “criminal”, too, as we read in the Midrash describing his arrest and trial by Nimrod the Babylonian king. Abraham spent much of his life wandering from one place to another, so the description of “nomad” works. So does “warrior”, for we read of Abraham’s triumphant military victory over an unstoppable confederation of four kings that devastated the entire region (Genesis 14). There is no doubt, then, that Abraham would have been classified as a “Habiru” in his day.

His descendants carried on the title. By the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, it seems that all the other Ivrim across the region had mostly disappeared, and only the descendants of Abraham, now known as the Israelites, remained. The term “Hebrew”, therefore, became synonymous with “Israelite” and later with Yehudi, “Judahite” or “Jew”. (This is probably why later commentators simply assumed that the Torah was speaking about Jewish slaves in the Exodus 21 passage discussed above.) To this day, in many cultures and languages the term for a “Jew” is still “Hebrew”. In Russian it is yivrei, in Italian it is ebreo, and in Greek evraios. In other cultures, meanwhile, “Hebrew” is used to denote the language of the Jews. It is Hebrew in English, hebräisch in German, hébreu in French.

In fact, another rabbinic theory for the origins of the term Ivri is that it refers specifically to the language. In Jewish tradition, Hebrew is lashon hakodesh, “the Holy Tongue” through which God created the universe when He spoke it into existence. The language contains those mystical powers, and because the wicked people of the Tower of Babel generation abused it, their tongues were confounded in the Great Dispersion. At that point, God divided the peoples into seventy new ethnicities, each with its own language, giving rise to the multitude of languages and dialects we have today.

A possible language tree to unify all of the world’s major tongues, based on the work of Stanford University Professor Joseph Greenberg. (Credit: angmohdan.com)

Hebrew did not disappear, though. It was retained by the two most righteous people of the time: Shem and Ever. According to tradition, they had built the first yeshiva, an academy of higher learning. Abraham had visited them there, and Jacob spent some fourteen years studying at their school. The Holy Tongue was preserved, and Jacob (who was renamed Israel) taught it to his children, and onwards it continued until it became the language of the Israelites.

Alternatively (or concurrently), Abraham learned the Hebrew language from his righteous grandfather Nachor, the great-grandson of Ever. We read of the elder Nachor (not to be confused with Nachor the brother of Abraham) that he had an uncharacteristically short lifespan for that time period (Genesis 11:24-25). This is likely because God took him away so that he wouldn’t have to live through the Great Dispersion. (Nachor would have died around the Hebrew year 1996, which is when the Dispersion occurred. The Sages similarly state that God took the righteous Methuselah, the longest-living person in the Torah, right before the Flood.)

Interestingly, we don’t see much of an association between the Hebrew language and the Hebrew people in the Tanakh. Instead, the language of the Jews is called, appropriately, Yehudit, as we read in II Kings 18:26-28, Isaiah 36:11-13, Nechemiah 13:24, and II Chronicles 32:18. The term Yehudit may be referring specifically to the dialect of Hebrew spoken by the southern people of Judah, which was naturally different than the dialect used in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Israel and Jeshurun

The evidence leads us to believe that “Hebrew” was a wider social class in ancient times, and our ancestors identified themselves (or were identified by others) as “Hebrew”. This was the case until Jacob’s time. He was renamed Israel, and his children began to be referred to as Israelites, bnei Israel, literally the “children of Israel”. The twelve sons gave rise to an entire nation of people called Israel.

The Torah tells us that Jacob was named “Israel” because “he struggled with God, and with men, and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Jewish history really is little more than a long struggle of Israel with other nations, and with our God. We stray from His ways so He incites the nations against us to remind us who we are. Thankfully, throughout these difficult centuries, we have prevailed.

Within each Jew is a deep yearning to connect to Hashem, hinted to in the name Israel (ישראל), a conjunction of Yashar-El (ישר-אל), “straight to God”. This is similar to yet another name for the people of Israel that is used in the Tanakh: Yeshurun. In one place, Moses is described as “king of Yeshurun” (Deuteronomy 33:5), and in another God declares: “Fear not, Jacob my servant; Yeshurun, whom I have chosen.” (Isaiah 44:2) Yeshurun literally means “upright one”. This is what Israel is supposed to be, and why God chose us to begin with. “Israel” and “Yeshurun” have the same three-letter root, and many believe these terms were once interchangeable. The Talmud (Yoma 73b) states that upon the choshen mishpat—the special breastplate of the High Priest that contained a unique stone for each of the Twelve Tribes—was engraved not Shivtei Israel, “tribes of Israel”, but Shivtei Yeshurun, “tribes of Yeshurun”.

What is a Jew?

By the middle of the 1st millenium BCE, only the kingdom of the tribe of Judah remained. Countless refugees from the other eleven tribes migrated to Judah and intermingled with the people there. Then, Judah itself was destroyed, and everyone was exiled to Babylon. By the time they returned to the Holy Land—now the Persian province of Judah—the people were simply known as Yehudim, “Judahites”, or Jews. Whatever tribal origins they had were soon forgotten. Only the Levites (and Kohanim) held on to their tribal affiliation since it was necessary for priestly service.

As already touched on previously, it was no accident that it was particularly the name of Yehuda that survived. After all, the purpose of the Jewish people is to spread knowledge of God, and within the name Yehuda, יהודה, is the Ineffable Name of God itself. This name, like the people that carry it, is meant to be a vehicle for Godliness.

Perhaps this is why the term Yehudi, or Jew is today associated most with the religion of the people (Judaism). Hebrew, meanwhile, is associated with the language, or sometimes the culture. Not surprisingly, early Zionists wanted to detach themselves from the title of “Jew”, and only use the term “Hebrew”. Reform Jews, too, wanted to be called “Hebrews”. In fact, the main body of Reform in America was always called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. It was only renamed the “Union for Reform Judaism” in 2003!

All of this begs the question: what is a Jew? What is Judaism? Is it a religion? An ethnicity or culture? A people bound by some common history or language? By the land of Israel, or by the State of Israel?

It cannot be a religion, for many Jews want absolutely nothing to do with religion. There are plenty who proudly identify as atheists and as Jews at the same time. We are certainly not a culture or ethnicity, either, for Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Mizrachi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, all have very different customs, traditions, and skin colours. Over the centuries, these groups have experienced very different histories, too, and have even developed dozens of other non-Hebrew Judaic languages (Yiddish, Ladino, Bukharian, and Krymchak are but a few examples).

So, what is a Jew? Rabbi Moshe Zeldman offers one terrific answer. He says that, despite the thousands of years that have passed, we are all still bnei Israel, the children of Israel, and that makes us a family. Every member of a family has his or her own unique identity and appearance, and some members of a family may be more religious than others. Family members can live in distant places, far apart from each other, and go through very different experiences. New members can marry into a family, or be adopted, and every family, of course, has its issues and conflicts. But at the end of the day, a family is strongly bound by much more than just blood, and comes together when it really matters.

And this is precisely what Moses told Korach and his supporters in this week’s parasha. Rashi (on Numbers 16:6) quotes Moses’ response:

Among each of the other nations, there are multiple sects and multiple priests, and they do not gather in one house. But we have none other than one God, one Ark, one Torah, one altar, and one High Priest…

There is something particularly singular about the Jewish people. We are one house. We are a family. Let’s act like one.