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Hebrew Text Full of Untranslatable Resonances

Hebrew Text Full of Rich Untranslatable Resonances

When you know even a bit of Hebrew, new dimensions are opened for you, both in our liturgy and in Torah study. The reason is that Hebrew words are structured in a way that differs fundamentally from English. All Hebrew words have a meaning that is carried on a three-letter root. Hebrew then inserts vowels, prefixes, and suffixes in an orderly way among those three letters that turns them into nouns, verbs, and more. However deeply those roots are buried, their meaning is still there. For example, the root k/ch-t-b/v has a sense of writing.

So a michtav is a letter, a katban is a scribe, a ketubah is a marriage contract, and at this moment I kotevet (write).

To come at this another way, there are molds that let you tell by looking at a Hebrew word something about its meaning. A katban is a scribe, a rakdan is a dancer, a shadchan is a matchmaker, and a dayan is a judge. This is the mold of professions.

Before plunging into what this means for Bereyshit, I want to first turn to a lovely example of how knowing even a little Hebrew transforms a simple prayer. Take Asher Bidvaro, said just after the evening Barechu prayer in the Ma'ariv (evening) service.

The Reconstructionist siddur has a very nice translation, but it cannot capture the sense of the Hebrew without sounding silly. What is translated as "by whose word the evenings fall" is more literally "by whose word evenings evening" - asher bidvaro ma'ariv aravim. Look inside those two last words, and you will see the root - a-r-v. It appears throughout this prayer.

Indeed, because of these features of Hebrew, Bereyshit has an almost James Joycean / Finnegan's Wake feel that is completely missing in English translations. Perhaps that's as it should be, since Finnegan"s Wake begins, "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's . . ."

As with Finnegan's Wake, Bereyshit is filled with archetypes that are redolent with meaning. In Bereyshit, we have The Woman and The Man - Adam and Eve. Eve in Hebrew is Hava, and Hava is Life/haya " the life force in all living creatures/hayot. Adam is adam/man who springs from the earth/adamah and even carries hints of adom/red and dam/blood and even Edom, the land where Esau will eventually live. Out of Life and Earth we all spring.

We know that Cain kills Abel, but this story, seen through its Hebrew roots is far richer.

Cain kills Abel shortly after Eve and Adam's ouster from the Garden of Eden/gan eden. Adam's curse - Gen.3:23 is l'avod et ha-adamah asher lokeah misham - "to work the earth from which he was taken."

Almost immediately we learn that Cain has become a tiller of the soil/ oved adamah or better, a worker of the soil. For just as adam/adamah/edom have interesting resonances, so too does oved/servant-slave and avodah/ worship or work. Here we have Cain, oved adamah with a sense that not only is he a servant of the soil or perhaps of his father Adam but perhaps even a worshiper of the soil.

There seems to be something deep here with filaments of connection back to the expulsion from Eden and into the future. In slaying Abel, Cain seems to be involved in carrying out the curse. God tells Cain: "The voice of your brother's blood (kol damei) cries from the ground (adamah). Or perhaps it is Adam who cries out over the blood of Abel? All this and more packed into just a few verses.

You can certainly engage in Torah study without knowing any of this. Torah study is an enterprise with rich rewards on many levels. If you do not know Hebrew but would like to learn more about its structure, I recommend How the Hebrew Language Grew by Edward Horowitz.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah