Fun with Hebrew Etymology and Torah Poetics

So I’m doing a minimal amount of work on the job today, due to being tired, which leaves me some free time to do something I like more than geeking out with computers: playing with Hebrew. Yippee!

Hebrew has a high barrier to entry for a lot of liberal Jews — among other reasons, there are considerable mental gymnastics required to learn a new alphabet, memorize vocabulary, and deal with the weirdness of learning a language with an unusual vowel system, especially when you’re trying to do all those things at the same time. But it’s worth learning, at least as much as you can manage. I’m going to talk a bit now about how I work when I write poetic translations of Torah (see here for examples).

One of the really fun things about doing the poetic translations is gleaning fresh insight from the Hebrew words and phrases. Hebrew is ancient, and originated from a completely different mindset than we’re used to in the West. Ancient Hebrew doesn’t have the concept of abstraction from reality. That is, every word in ancient Hebrew (or at least the three-letter root word) has its origins in something concrete from the real world. The word רֵאשִׁית (re’sheit), for example, which we find in the very first verse of the Torah, is usually translated as “beginning”. So we usually read “In the beginning G-d created…”.  רֵאשִׁית/re’sheit comes from an unused root word. That root word also gives us רֹאשׁ (rosh), meaning, among other things, “head of a man”, “top of a mountain”, “chief of the nation”, “height of stars”. It’s pretty easy to see how רֹאשׁ/rosh and רֵאשִׁית/re’sheit are related, and how the concrete notions of being the head or top could morph into the abstract concept of “beginning”.  Add that to the fact that every word in Biblical Hebrew either comes from a three-letter root word or is itself a root word, and you get whole groups of seemingly unrelated words that in fact share a common core, and therefore can be linked in meaning in some way.

You can also gain multiple meanings from one word, depending on the original meaning of the root and how the word has evolved. It’s not too far a stretch to then go into the original Hebrew of the Torah and translate poetically, not just literally. The ambiguity of the language really allows for some stretch and pull if you’re open to new things.

I use Blue Letter Bible for much of my translation work. The site utilizes Strong’s Concordance, which is the premier work when it comes to finding the original meanings of the Hebrew words. Strong’s takes every single word in the Bible and gives the definition, the root word, and some context for the word. I highly, highly recommend Strong’s… it’s just extremely useful.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert in Hebrew by any means. There is so much depth to the language that I don’t yet get because I don’t speak Hebrew other than for prayer. What I’m doing basically amounts to decoding a cipher. In time I will learn more and my translations will (hopefully) be more insightful. For now, I get as much meaning as I can and hope I can touch on a spark of wisdom now and again.

In my next post I’ll nerd out by translating a Hebrew name using this poetic style. THIS IS SO MUCH FUN YOU GUYS. YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW.

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