Question:  I am in sixth grade. I am having problems reading Hebrew. I know many prayers, but I am having trouble. My Bar- Mitzvah is next year — I don’t think that I will be ready. I need to learn it. I am getting some help from a student teacher. He is no help. I don’t want to ask for help from my teacher. I fell like I am stupid. But I know that I am not. How do I also learn Hebrew fast. Like matching or writing words from English to Hebrew or Hebrew to English? Translating. What is the trick. Any advice? Any computer programs?

Answer:  I am sorry that learning to read Hebrew is becoming so difficult for you.  I can give you the following advice:

First, tell your parents and see if they can work with you at home.

Second, you should tell your teacher that you are having difficulty with Hebrew.  Ask your parents to help you talk to him/her if you are uncomfortable doing it by yourself.

Third, tell the principal of your school.  If the extra help you are getting is not working, your principal needs to know.

Fourth, talk to the rabbi of your synagogue.  Make an appointment, and tell him/her exactly what you told me.  Your own rabbi can help you more directly than I can.

Finally, remember that celebrating your Bar Mitzvah does not depend on how much Hebrew you know.  Whether you know a lot or a little, you can still be called to the Torah, perhaps lead a small part of the service, and maybe even give a D’var Torah, depending on your synagogue.

Question:  I have just ordered the English Tanakh, from the JPS. I wish to know if there is a concordance that I could purchase. It must show what the original Hebrew word used means. For example the word day in the first chapter of Genesis, is it a 24 hr period of time or in essence a relative period of time.

Answer:  A concordance of the Tanakh would tell you every place that a certain word is found, but would not necessary give you a translation.

You probably want a good Biblical Hebrew dictionary.  The classic dictionary of Biblical Hebrew is called “Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament,” by Brown, Driver, and Briggs.

However, the dictionary will just give you a straight translation – for example, yom means day, implying a simple 24 hour day.  It will not analyze the meanings of words any more deeply than giving the translation.  For this, you would need a good Biblical commentary.  I recommend the Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary series, or for the best and most in depth scholarship (but not specifically Jewish), the Anchor Bible Commentary series.

You should be able to find these books at a good Jewish or Christian bookstore or a University bookstore with a good Jewish studies department.

Question:  In an essay I am revising for publication, I suggest that the Hebrew ish and isha are not etymologically related.  The source I cite for support is Ernest Klein’s Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language.  The editorial reviewers have asked if I can supply additional opinions/sources.  Driver et. al., in their adaptation of Gesenius speak of “the impossiblity” that these two are derived from the same root/stem.  Can you shed a little light on this problem?

Answer:  I checked the citation in Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, pages 284-5, as well as BDB (Brown, Driver, Briggs, a Hebrew lexicon).  Gesenius argues for a common root of alef-nun-shin.

My gut sense tells me that the words ish and isha have to be etymologically related.  First of all, the plurals supply a missing middle radical; and second, you’d have to work pretty hard to convince me that the words for male and female human beings are derived from different roots, when the male and female of every other animal come from the same root.

Question: I recall reading a commentary by Chancellor Schorsch wherein he described in detail the meanings of the various names of God–I believe there were four mentioned–seem to recall compassion, justice, commanding, etc.  Hope you can help with these definitions.

Answer:  I am not familiar with that particular commentary of Chancellor Schorsch, but I can tell you that each of the many names of God does has a meaning.  For example, Elohim carries the meaning of a ‘judging God’ and Harahaman means ‘the compassionate one.’

You might be able to find Chancellor Schorsch’s comentary on the JTS web site, www.jtsa.edu.

Question: My father used to use a phrase when he was frustrated or exasperated.

It was something like Aburna Shalaylum or Abayna Shalaylim.  Could you give me the correct spelling and tell me it’s translation and what it means?

Answer:  My guess is that your father was saying the phrase Aveenu She’bashamayim,

which means “Our Father in heaven.”  It would be equivalent to the English exclamation “Oh, God.”

Question:  What is the significance of “CHAI”.   I know that the letter both equal to 18. What is the significance of the word, the number, and why do people wear it on a gold chain?

Answer:  The Hebrew word Chai means life.  As you noted, the numerical value of the letters yod and chet that make up this word add up to 18 – therefore, the number 18 is a special number representing life.  Donations to Jewish causes are often made in multiples of 18 as a way of hoping that our donation brings “life” to the organization.

Judaism is a religion that focuses on the way we life our life during our lifetimes, rather than focusing on how to achieve eternal salvation or heavenly existence after our death.  Perhaps that is the reason that it has become popular to wear jewelry inscribed with the word chai.

Question:  I have come across the word shekhina several times lately.  I have found a little information on it, but would like to pursue its meaning deeper.  Can you give me an idea where to begin?

Answer:  The word shekhina is a name for God that literally means, “presence.”  It appears, among other places, in Exodus 24, “the glory (k’vod) of God dwells (vayishkon) on Mount Sinai,” and Exodus 25, “Make me a sanctuary and I shall dwell (v’shakhanti) among them.”

The word is used in Jewish mysticism as the tenth sefirah, aspects of God’s personality, representing divine immanence and a feminine aspect of God.  For a good introduction to Jewish mysticism, I recommend the book God and the Big Bang, by Daniel Matt.

Question:  Could you explain the Jewish concept of “soul” from the Hebrew word nefesh?

Answer:  In Biblical Hebrew, nefesh meant body.  There was no conception of a soul in Biblical times; the body-soul division was introduced into Judaism through Greek philosophy.  In modern Hebrew and modern Jewish philosophy, nefesh has taken on the range of meanings of the term ‘soul’ as is commonly understood within the Judeo–Christian philosophy.

Question:  What  was a maggid? in the time of Joseph Karo, it was supposed to be a spirit. Yet, I find that rabbis were using the term in their titles and names.  Please reconcile the two uses.

Answer:  The primary meaning of the term maggid is an itinerant storyteller.  It is related to the Hebrew word Haggadah, the book used at the Pesah Seder to tell the story of the Exodus.  The medieval rabbis who were know by the name maggid were preachers who would travel from town to town using stories to teach moral lessons.

As you noted, a secondary meaning of maggid is found in the traditions of Kabbalah, in which a maggid is an angel or heavenly force who passes secrets to a kabbalist.

Question:  I am Jewish, but I don’t know a lot of hebrew.  Could you please tell me how to say “keep hoping for the best?” I really need to say that to my cousin that only knows Hebrew!

Answer:  If there is a specific Hebrew expression equivalent to “Keep hoping for the best,” I am not familiar with it.  The best I can do is a fairly literal translation, “t’kaveh la-tov.”