As the major Jewish holidays are approaching, many will be interested to
either learn the holiday vocabulary or to have the explanations handy to teach
In this article we start to explain some Hebrew words and names used
relevant to the High Holidays period: from Rosh ha-Shana to Yom Kippur.
That's Jewish New Year, and the name literally means the Year's Head.
[ rosh ] - head, pl:
[ rashim] - heads
[ shana ] - year, pl:
[ shanim ] - years
(The word שנים
is remarkable because it's irregular: you would typically expect the -ot
ending in a word of female gender with -a ending.)
The very construct [ rosh ha-shana ] is a compound form, or smikhut:
it's quite equivalent to possessive case in English. The order of the words is
the opposite, however, with respect to English one; it's more reminding of a "something
of something" order: (the) Head (of) the Year. In compound words, the
article [ ha- ] is being added to the second word only:
In synagogues we blow in
שׁוֹפָר [ Shofar ] - a horn, which is actually made of a real
The etymology of this word is not that obvious. It has probably more in
common with the word
צַפְרִיר (morning wind) or
siren), rather than with
לְשַׁפֵּר (to improve), which is a word of Aramaic origin.
Thus, Shofar existed in Hebrew at least since the Torah has been written,
which is much earlier than all the other words with the root [sh-f-r] entered
The traditional blessing on Rosh ha-Shana is very simple: we say
- [ Shana
] - (Have a) Good Year!
is feminine noun, the adjective is feminine too, and it's
Another version of this blessing is:
] - (Have a) good and sweet year!
I could write volumes about this expression only. E.g., the traditional
spelling of [ metuka ] is [ m:tukkA ] which worth a whole new discussion. And
why the usual "ve-" turned into "u-"?
Here is a quick note, on the very fingertips: "ve-" turns into "u-" before
the letters [m], [b], [p], and [w], and also before a letter with a [shwa]
under it, like u-metuka.
Why? This would deserve a separate article indeed. Just remember it for
now. And it's classical Hebrew anyway; modern spoken Hebrew uses "ve"
Another blessing which comes after Rosh ha-Shana and continues till Yom
טוֹבָה תֵּחָתֵמוּ וְתִכָּתֵבוּ!
That's masculine plural, of course, and it's the most commonly used form
for this blessing. Since it's very official, it's usually used while talking
to many people.
Note the "pausal" form of the verbs: the stress is not moving to the end of
the word, and therefore the tzeire [-E-] is not falling out. In simple modern
language you'd rather say "techatmu
What it means is "For a good year may you be written and sealed (in a Book
of Life)." Quite complicated, very mystical, and that's probably why this
blessing is not really popular today, but we use a short version instead:
טוֹבָה - [ ktiva
-- (Have a) good sealing (in the Book of Life)!
literally: "good writing and sealing!"
Speaking of what is popular... We the Jews always have some traditional
food for every holiday: we eat a lot, it's part of national habit, I guess. :)
Different Jewish communities may have different customs, but in Israel we
have two traditional things for Rosh ha-Shana: apples in honey, and fish head.
(The rest of that fish is being actively consumed too; the head should be
present on the table as a symbol. Unlike many other things in our culture,
this is rather a popular custom than religious obligation... for the best of
Let's learn some Hebrew at the table then:
- [ tapuchim
- apples in honey
] - apple
[ dvash ]
You'd wonder, why it's bi-dvash, and not just be-dvash?
That's a rule in classical Hebrew grammar: once we have two schwas
following each other, the first one turns into chirik. This rule is quite
obsolete in modern language, however, when we talk about idioms or traditional
names, the classical grammar prevails quite often.
Apples in honey symbolize the above idea of "sweet year",
שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה
so it will be good and sweet year for us!
You can see it on postcards sometimes, or everywhere: !שנה
טובה ומתוקה - (Have a) Good and Sweet Year!
Another thing we eat is:
- [ rosh dag ] - fish head - this is simple, isn't
it? just head (of) fish.
For those who didn't know,
is fish, plural:
דָּגים. Don't confuse with a dog: the difference is,
So, why fish head? The answer is as symbolic as it is simplistic:
שֶׁנִהְיֶה בְּרֹאשׁ וְלֹא
[ she-nihye be-rosh ve-lo be-zanav ] - So we'll
be in the head, and not in the tail.
[ Be-rosh ] also means "in a leading position", and this proverb actually
means, we want to lead the events / the people, to be successful, to be
among the best, rather than to be losers. I would say, this saying is
quite American: Napoleon Hill could be proud of this motivational statement.
שנה טובה ומתוקה!