Columns - 1997

    Hebrew 101

    by Doug Brook
    Southern Shofar Columnist

    Feel uncomfortable during services? Get the impression that Catholic clergymen know more Yiddish than you? (It's only because Rabbis tell them the dirty jokes they won't tell you.) Do you sometimes feel like Hebrew is a foreign language?

    Don't lose another night's sleep. Now you can learn the meanings and origins of many common Jewish words in the time it takes you to read this column (not counting the time it takes to write hate mail to the author).

    We focus this month on ritual terms. Whether you pray twice a year or twice a week (praying for the light to turn green does not count, unless you're racing to make a minyan), you will never think about services the same way again.

    Bimah -- The raised dais from which services are conducted in most temples (Yiddish for "synagogues"). The name dates back to the construction of the first bimah, centuries ago. They finished building it, but were waiting for the Rabbi to name it. During the Torah processional on the first Shabbat, it hit him. Literally.

    Due to committee (Yiddish for "incompetent") planning, the Bimah was built too high. When the Rabbi climbed the steps, the last thing he heard was his congregants shouting "Beam!" When his forehead made contact, the congregants groaned in agony, "uh!"

    Cantor -- That person on the bimah (without the bruised forehead) who is singing. In tune. The one singing out of tune is the Rabbi.

    Originally called "Chanter", the name was changed to Cantor in the early 1900s in New York City. If you ever listen to a New Yorker talk, you'll discover that they don't have the time or inclination to use the letter "h".

    Gabbai -- There can be many gabbais, including: floor gabbai, calling gabbai, pointing gabbai, and officers-like-to-stand-by-the-Torah gabbai.

    They all combine to clarify, or confuse, people about where they go at different times during the service. (That is, people who come up to the bimah. They don't care when you sneak out to the restroom. Unless it's right before your aliyah. Now you know the real reason Israel built the Uzi.)

    The title comes from Shammai the Gabbai, of blessed memory, who used to rush people off the Bimah when they were done by saying, "Mazel tov. G'bye."

    Haftarah -- Some believe this is commonly, understandably, mistaken for "haftorah", or "half Torah." This is no mistake. If you're in one of the five congregations that still has a full Torah reading each week, you'll notice that the haftarah is rarely half as long as the Torah reading. (This is balanced by the Yom Kippur haftarah reading of "Jonah: The Whale of a Tale.")

    They also say that "half Torah" implies that, while the prophets are important, and canonized (Yiddish for "made the publishing deadline") they will never be half as important as the Torah itself. I say they just need a new PR firm.

    Hagbah -- The term used for lifting the Torah (not to be confused with "magbiah", the title of the lifter). Some believe it's so named because of the Hebrew root which means "high" or "tall". In reality, "hagbah" is the grunting, gasping sound made when trying to lift the Torah.

    Don't believe me? Go try to lift your 27 inch television set. Hear the noises you made? Sure, your TV is heavier. But wasn't that good exercise? Now call an ambulance. You may as well keep reading until they arrive. I'll wait while you're on the phone.

    Ketubah -- A formal marriage license, often ornately decorated, and written in Hebrew for the Jews in the family. The Ketubah, like the groom, becomes the property of the bride during the wedding ceremony.

    This is the result of a treaty written in the fourteenth century, which in turn gives the man absolute ownership of the remote control, except on Shabbat and holidays. Derived from the Hebrew verb "to write", a Ketubah is so named because it literally means, "so it is written, so shall he do for me."

    Get -- Listed here since it follows a Ketubah more often each year, a Get is a formal Jewish divorce document. There are conflicting schools of thought about the source of its name.

    Hillel said it is a Get because it outlines what each person gets in the settlement. Shammai said it is a Get because that's often the last (repeatable) word exchanged by a parting couple.

    Musaf -- The "additional" service after the reading of the Torah on Shabbat and most major Jewish holidays (all of them, except my birthday... but I'm petitioning). This service replaces the traditional sacrificial service from the Temple days (when Temple University students offered sacrifices during the first half, in a vain effort to secure a football victory; some miracles even the Big G can't pull off).

    The service is called Musaf to recall the end of the lives of the many animals that were sacrificed. "Sof" is Hebrew for "end." Therefore, "Musaf" means "End of moo," recognizing that the poor cows have spoken their last.

    Siddur -- The Hebrew name for the prayerbook comes from ancient times when parents would come to services and bring their children. Instead of letting them run around or read a comic book, they'd stick a prayer book in their hands to keep their attention. Hence, the prayer book acted as a "sitter" for the child during services. (We have unconfirmed reports that children learned this way.)

    Tallis -- A prayer shawl with fringes hanging from the four corners, commonly used as a measure of people's height based on how low the fringes hang on their bodies, as foretold in the Psalm, "Rabbi by the eastern wall, who's the tallised one of all?"

    Sojourner -- The truth about Sojourner is that it's a little robot the size of a tallis bag that was sent to Mars to study rocks that inspired several '60s cartoon characters.

    What does Sojourner have to do with Jewish ritual? While studying rocks, she's also keeping an eye out for that which has eluded scientists for decades, and for which they are gradually losing hope of ever discovering: the tenth person for a minyan.

    Doug Brook is a technical writer in Silicon Valley who defines words how he likes, because he holds two degrees in english from *the university requested its name be withheld*. (Yes, the degrees have his name on them. In print. Not penciled onto the back...)

    Send all negative feedback about this column to: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jr., President; 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C.

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.