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Rabbi Words I Don’t Understand

November 16, 2017 | by David Kilimnick

”The synagogue needs you for a quorum.” What’s a quorum? I thought I was being punished.

Another Sermon I did Not Understand: The conspiracy of words used by Rabbis

I’ve always had trouble understanding the Rabbi’s sermon in shul. Not because of the Hebrew. Because of the English words translated from Hebrew. My whole life, I learned about Noah and the flood – a “mabool” in Hebrew. But recently I heard a Rabbi talking about a “deluge.” What is that? My British friend was applauding the brilliant use of the language but I was stuck.

‘Please translate the English back into Hebrew, so that I can understand.’

Why do Rabbis translate Hebrew words into English that are harder to understand than the Hebrew itself? This language of Pentateuch, imprecations, deluge, legumes, firmament, countenance, invoke, Ecclesiastes, sexton…

Here are some of my memoires of times I didn’t understand and hardships with the English of American rabbis.

A Childhood of Confusion

It was around the time of my Bar Mitzvah when the rabbi sprung a word on me I had never heard before. He said, ‘The synagogue is going to need you for a quorum.’ I thought I was being punished. What did I do to deserve being sent to the quorum? I wasn’t sure what it was, but I didn’t want anything to do with it. I protested, and then the Rabbi threatened to pull out what he called ‘phylacteries.’ The class was shocked by my protest, wondering why a student who loved his Jewishness didn’t want to join in the prayers.

Growing up, I never knew what phylacteries were. I knew what Tefillin were. They are the straps and box that go on the arm and above the forehead. In front of the whole class, the rabbi started going off on a rant about wrapping expensive boxes called ‘phylacteries.’ I had to ask why anybody would spend over $500 on a Bar Mitzvah gift that was so small. Finally one of the brighter kids in the class figured out the Rabbi was talking about Tefillin. It was at that point that I requested from my Rabbi, ‘Please translate the English back into Hebrew, so that I can understand.’

My rabbi got mad at me, and said, ‘Throw a Yarmulke on your head.’ All I had was a Kippah. So I put that on my head, and all was good.

Sermons I Didn’t Understand

The title of the Rabbi’s sermon was, ‘Exegesis from the book of Leviticus in the Pentateuch.’ I didn’t even understand the title of that speech. I fell asleep right away. I was waiting for a sermon from the book of Vayikra from the Torah. After his speech, I said ‘Yasher Koyach,’ to congratulate him on his understanding of the English language. I didn’t wish him ‘felicitations,’ as I wanted him to understand what I was saying.

It was on Sukkot that we started reading King Solomon’s Kohelet, and I was beginning to feel a strong connection to God, when the rabbi started talking about Ecclesiastes. Why couldn’t he focus on the topic at hand? Kohelet is a beautiful book. He should have mentioned Ecclesiastes. So off topic.

I am not Greek and I have always made it a point to stay away from what he called the Septuagint. To make matters worse, the rabbi decided to throw in this new idea of calling Sukkot, the Holiday of Tabernacles. Again, I didn’t understand a word of his sermon, as I am American and his speech was in English.

I am not the wisest of all men. I am not King Solomon. All I know is that the only way that I would have understood his Passover sermon about legumes was if I was a botanist.

Lost in the Service

Until the Musaf service on Shabbat, all was fine at shul. The issue began when the rabbi started with this prayer in English, for the United States. ‘He Who grants salvation and dominion to rulers…’ Salvation means redemption or liberation. If somebody would have told me that, I would have said ‘Amen.’ Instead, it turned into a silent protest against the country. Some people accused me of siding with the football players.

Then, somebody they called the ‘beadle’ came over to me to ask me to open the ark. I had no idea why a random guy was coming over to me, so somebody explained to me that he is the sexton. I was bewildered. The congregation began to get frustrated, as they were all waiting to return the Torah the ark. I wasn’t about to pull open the curtain, just because a random guy told me to do something. What kind of a congregation has random people making decisions for them?! If the Gabai had come over to me, I would’ve definitely ran to open the ark!

The rabbi then went on with his imprecations, which he called his exegesis. This lead to added confusion for me, as he hurled out more English about the countenance and the firmament.

All I know is that penitent means to look serious. I was able to do that throughout the service. Even though I was confused the whole time.

My Message to American Rabbis

If you insist on giving Sermons in English, then use modern English words. Let’s move away from the Shakespearian English. English the congregants can identify. Not Macbeth English that only my English Lit professor can’t recognize.

Rabbis, you have rabbinical conventions. Address the issues of our people. Don’t sit around creating words and then calling them English. And you’ve created some interesting words: quorum, ecclesiastics, sexton, beadle, legumes, firmament. I understand it is fun for you to create a language, but maybe keep the Hebrew in Hebrew.

I am sorry. Maybe If I had read more as a kid, I would’ve understood more of what the rabbis are saying in their exegeses. Maybe if I was born in Britain, or maybe if I grew up in the 1500s.

I want to thank all of the rabbis who’ve taught me how to wrap my phylacteries, put on my tassels, place my yarmulke. You have been an inspiration. Because of your exegeses and pedagogy, I have the ability to pass on imprecations. I now see the firmament, and invoke every day for rain in Israel, but no deluge.

Sorry for this rant. I didn’t mean to take it out on the sexton.


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