Archive for category: Blog-Eng

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Q&A: Why do Judean coins minted during the Hasmonean dynasty or the first Jewish-Roman war contain text in paleo-Hebrew script?

It was a kind of nationalist affectation, to proclaim the ancestral, pre-Babylonian-exile, Israelite origins of the newly-independent Hasmonean state—a bit like the motto of the British Royal Family (Dieu et mon droit – ‘God and my right’) is in French, harking back to its Norman origins.

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Modern Israel, by the way, does much the same: the Old Hebrew script is used on the modern sheqel coin (bottom left):

The difference is, in Hasmonean times, people knew what the Old Hebrew text said, whereas 99.9% of modern Israelis haven’t a clue: most people assume it says ‘sheqel’, but in fact, it spells Yehud, which ironically is not Hebrew, but the Persian name for its Judean province, dating back to the sixth century BCE, when Persia had just conquered the Babylonian empire, and allowed all exiled nations (the Judeans included) to return to their ancestral homes.

Q&A: When Israelis Hebraized their last names in the 1930-60s, was there any paperwork needed or people just started using the new surname?

People usually started by simply adopting the new surname informally, often followed by their original surname in parentheses, until their new surname becomes better known among the public—e.g. David Ben-Gurion (né Grin). Then after a year or two, they made it official by registering it at the Ministry of the Interior (or its equivalent during the British Mandate period). This was useful, as in some cases the user might decide to change the name to something else, or to tweak it (as happened in my own family).

In most cases, the Hebraisation was done by choosing a Hebrew name that is similar in sound to the original—e.g. Peres instead of PerskyLapid instead of Lampa. Some were lucky, and were able to be clever about it: Isidore Roth became Izzy Dorot—thus managing to retain the sound of his birth name.

In other instances, the Hebrew equivalent of the original name in terms of meaning was chosen—e.g. Harpaz for Goldberg. Others crafted a new name from their original initials—e.g. Shne’or Zalman Rubashov became Shazar. Still others just chose a Hebrew name that they liked: Yigal Feikovich, for example, became Yigal Alon.

In 1944, the National Committee (pre-independence precursor of the Israeli government) appointed someone an official organize Hebraization of surnames on a national basis. It became the patriotic thing to do. People who couldn’t decide were given help. The writer Yitzhak Auerbuch was told to contact the Jewish National Fund, who suggested Or-Paz—he accepted.

In 1948—at the height of the War of Independence—the Israeli military launched a campaign for all its soldiers to change their foreign names for Hebrew ones. Senior military officers, judges, diplomats, and other Israeli representatives overseas were particularly pressured to Hebraize their names. In 1955, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion made this mandatory for all officers of the rank of Lt. Col. and above.

In some instances, the Hebrew name was imposed on the person, unbidden. In the 1950s, new immigrants often found that they were simply given a Hebrew first name instead of their foreign one by immigration officials on arrival in Israel—thus, Layla became LeahFranz became EfraimIrwin became Aharon.

Once registered at the Ministry of Interior, the new surname becomes official, and is automatically disseminated throughout all government ministries, banks, and other public institutions (unlike, say, Canada, where the user then has to approach each individual institution and show the official name-change document, to get them to change).

Q&A: What is the mystery in Genesis 1:1?What are some examples of Hebrew slang and idioms?

Those are two very different things.

Hebrew slang is predominantly Palestinian Arabic, or derivations thereof—e.g. mastul מסטול (stoned, zonked), ahabal אהבל (imbecile), dir balak דיר בּאלאכּ (God help you [if you do this]), saḥbak סחבק (close friend), fadiḥah פדיחה (embarrassing mistake, booboo), etc.

Hebrew idioms are predominantly literary and usually of biblical or Talmudic origin—e.g.:

  • kitmol shilshom לא כתמול שלשום(‘like yesterday [and] day before yesterday’ = as in the past)
  • lo ketza’aqata לא כצעקתא ( not all it’s cracked up to be)
  • lelo k’ḥal usraq ללא כחל ושרק (unambiguously).

However, there is a growing number of homegrown Hebrew expressions that have emerged in the modern era, espeically in recent decades, and have entered common parlance, such as:

  • al hapanim  על הפנים (‘on the face’): face-palmingly bad
  • ain matzav אין מצב (‘there is no situation’): no way, that isn’t going to happen.
  • sof haderekh סוף הדרך (‘end of the road’): excellent, superb.

Then there’s a whole lexicon of army slang and expressions, which is a tome in itself. Most of it is acronyms of expressions, e.g. shavuz  שבו”ז (short for shvur-zayinlit. ‘broken penis’ = ‘had it up to here’), but some are kept as is, like she’elat kitbeg שאלת קיטבג (‘kitbag question’ = a stupid question that makes the situation worse).

Entire books can be written on each of these, so a blog post can only provide the briefest of samples.

Q&A: How do the paleo Hebrew characters “𓏴𓂝𓌓𓃾𓁶𓉐” depict the phrase “In the beginning”?

First of all, hats off to TCP/IP, HTML and whatever else is responsible for being able to present such characters (and in the correct right-to-left order) in an online question.

These characters are not Paleo-Hebrew, though, but (six of the) Egyptian hieroglyphs that inspired the invention—some time in the 1800s BCE—of what would become the Canaanite alphabet, that served Hebrew and other Canaanite languages for well over a thousand years. From right to left, they represent the Canaanite letters beit (house), resh (head), aleph (tamed bull, i.e., ox), shin (tooth), yod (forearm/hand), and tav (tally mark).

Together, they spell the work bereshit, meaning ‘in the beginning’.

But accurately drawing all these characters is way too laborious, so in very quick order they were simplified, so that by the time the Hebrew Bible actually began to be put in writing (some time during the monarchical period in Judea, i.e. the 800s, or possibly before), that word looked as follows:

Which, as the ancient Greeks would write it, in their version of those letters, a few centuries later:


— or rather (after their switch from right-to-left to left-to-right writing)¨


or, as the Romans would write it:


So, you see, it hasn’t changed all that much, in well over three thousand years.

Which is extraordinary, when you think about it.

Q&A: Did the Modern Hebrew revivers want the Sephardic accent to become the new Hebrew accent, or a blend of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi accents?

The “Language Committee” of the early Zionist period (precursor to the Academy of Hebrew Language) debated this topic at length, along with teachers of the Hebrew schools. The majority opinion was that the Sephardi pronunciation was preferable, for several reasons:

  1. It was closer to the pronunciation in antiquity than the Ashkenazi pronunciation
  2. It was the existing pronunciation among Hebrew-speakers in Jerusalem’s markets
  3. There was much greater consistency in pronunciation among the various Sephardi communities than in the Ashkenazi ones
  4. The Sephardi pronunciation was considered “more aesthetically pleasing”
  5. The Zionist pioneers sought to distance themselves from the shtetls (small Orthodox Jewish communities in eastern Europe) in speech as well as lifestyle.

However, as Yishai Barr points out, what happened in reality is that the decision to adopt the Sephardi pronunciation was constrained by the abilities of the Ashkenazi Zionists to do so. As Shlomo Geutein, head of Hebrew instruction under British Mandatory rule, aptly put it:

המבטא המקובל ביישוב הוא ספרדי לפי הרצון ואשכנזי לפי היכולת. הוא מנסה להיות ספרדי באמצעות ההגיים הנמצאים באשכנזית

(“The conventional accent [sic] in the Jewish community [in Palestine] is Sephardi by choice, but Ashkenazi by ability. It tries to be Sephardi through the Ashkenazi manner of speaking.”)

Q&A: What is a classic expression in Hebrew that (unfortunately, in your view) is not used anymore?

I was thinking of this some months ago, when a translation client of mine complained to me that she was not allowed by her publisher to use an excerpt from her own book for an article she is writing.

In modern Hebrew, there is no real equivalent for the expression ‘from her own book’ in this context, so one would have to say something like, מהספר שלה עצמה (mehasefer shelah atzmah—lit. ‘from her book herself’)—but in biblical Hebrew, she might have used the word mo (מוֹ).

In modern Hebrew, that word is used exclusively in conjunction with ‘ears’, ‘eyes’, and ‘hands’ in the expression במו עיניי/אוזניי/ידיי  (bemo einai/oznai/yadai—‘with my own eyes/ears/hands’)—but in biblical Hebrew, it was also used in relation with one’s mouth—e.g.:

במופי אתחנן לו (bemo phi etḥanen lo’ = ‘I beg him with my own mouth’ (Job 19:16)

Conceivably, then, one might have been able to say, mimo sifrah (‘from her own book’). How much more elegant that would be than mehasefer shelah atzmah.