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Torah Sparks

June 8, 2002 - 5762

Prepared by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Num. 13:1-15:41; Hertz, p. 623; Etz Hayim, p. 840
Triennial Cycle I: Num. 13:1- 14:10; Hertz, p. 623; Etz Hayim, p. 840
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24; Hertz, p. 635; Etz Hayim, p. 856

Torah Portion Summary

(13:1-25) Moses sends 12 men, one from each tribe, to scout the land of Canaan, and to bring a report about the nature of the land and its inhabitants. After 40 days, the spies return bringing spectacular examples of Canaan's produce.

(13:26-14:10) Due to the report from ten spies that the inhabitants of the land are too powerful, the Israelites panic and rebel against Moses and Aaron, even to the point of wanting to return to Egypt! Joshua and Caleb plead with the people not to believe the negative spies' report and rebel against God. The people threaten to stone them.

(14:11-45) God threatens to destroy the people, but Moses intercedes. God relents, but decrees that this after 40 years of Joshua and Caleb. A group of Israelites test God's threat by trying to attack Canaan, and are repulsed by the Canaanites.

(15:1-7) Laws concerning sacrifices.

(15:8-31) Further laws on sacrifices; treatment of resident strangers; the law of challah, where a portion of the dough for bread is to be given to the priests. The required offering when a whole community sinned unintentionally.

(15:32-36) An incident of Shabbat violation for which the offender was put to death.

(15:37-41) The laws of tzitzit, the fringes at the corners of the garments, which are to remind us of God's commandments.

Discussion Theme: The Hebrew/Yiddish Sources of English

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Send men that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people..." (Numbers 13:1-2)

The translation "spy out" (above) is derived from the Hebrew root - tur. The Akkadian (Old Babylonian) cognate is turu  - meaning "to turn around" as in exploring, searching around - hence, spying.

This ancient biblical word - tur - has been adopted into common English usage today (via the Old French tourner - to turn) as in "tour" and "tourist". Touring implies turning around looking at things of interest - checking things out (as did the Israelites who spied out, "toured" so to speak, the land of Canaan).

Interestingly, the Hebrew root tur is but one of many Hebrew words that have come down to us and which are used in modern English. A fascinating study on this subject was done by Isaac E. Mozeson and was published in a book called "The Word: The Dictionary that Reveals the Hebrew Sources of English" (Jason Aronson, 1995).

In his introduction, Mozeson makes the startling statement that "More English words can be clearly linked to Biblical Hebrew than to Latin, Greek or French". I cannot wholly agree with this observation but nonetheless, it does prove fascinating to see so many modern English words that are directly related to ancient Hebrew word roots. (Author)

Here are some examples of English words that are possibly derived from Hebrew:

SOURCE/ - srs - so-res (root)

EVIL/ - ah-vell (iniquity)

FRUIT/ - fay-rot

CRY/ - kara (call out)

MEET/ - moed (assemble)

SODOMY/ - Sodom (city)

SCALE/ - shekel (weight)

NOZZLE/ - nozel (flow)

MAIM/ - moom (deformity)

SIGN/ - siyon (marked for distinction)

Additionally, we know that our modern English vernacular has been enriched greatly by the usage of such Hebrew words as: kosher, meshugah, shibboleth, chutzpah, etc.

Then, of course, there are many Yiddish words that are used in ordinary English speech today. Just to mention a few - shpritz, shtick, shmeer, shlemiel, shlemazel, kvetch, etc. I don't know how you feel but hearing such words used so casually by my non-Jewish friends kind of makes me feel "fahrklempt"!

"Sparks" for Discussion:

As Jews, it gives us a special sense of pride to see how Jewish "mother tongues' are in daily use with their very special nuanced meanings.

While proud, we also feel a sense of concern. We know that Hebrew has had a true rebirth as a modern spoken language. But what about Yiddish or Ladino for that matter? What will be the fate of these two languages? Could it possibly be that in another generation or two they will become as extinct a spoken language as Latin? What can be done?

In the meantime, for those of us who share this concern - it might be a good idea to at least lend our support to such institutions as the National Yiddish Book Center (Amherst, MA). Also, might I suggest that we make certain that people not throw out Yiddish books that they may have inherited from their deceased relatives. Let's bring such books to our synagogues where space should be reserved for them in our synagogue libraries. Finally, might it not be of great worth to provide a familiarization of Yiddish culture to the children of our religious schools?

Now, For A Little Yiddish Humor

So tell me, if you know Yiddish so well... how do you say "three coins in a fountain" in Yiddish?

Ask most people who know Yiddish that question and they will fumfah around with an answer like "drei matbayis in ah, and probably give up.

So how do you say "three coins in a fountain" in Yiddish? Very simple... three coins in a fountain = "oysgevorfeneh gelt"

(You might want to translate the punchline above to those who do not know Yiddish -- nebich).

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