Hebrew Mat­ters: 110 Hebrew Roots; the Roads They Take; the Sto­ries They Tell

  • Review
By – September 19, 2022

In his pref­ace, Lowin states that he has been writ­ing a Hebrew lan­guage col­umn for Hadas­sah Mag­a­zine for thir­ty years, and that three col­lec­tions of these columns have become books: Hebrew Speak, Hebrew Talk, and now, Hebrew Mat­ters. The lat­ter includes over one hun­dred short essays, arranged accord­ing to the Alef-Bet,” the Hebrew alpha­bet. Lowin writes that in his work, he has attempt­ed to elucidate:

…not only the mech­a­nisms of the trilit­er­al (three-let­ter) root of Hebrew, but also the beau­ty of Hebrew vocab­u­lary as it devel­ops in Bib­li­cal, Tal­mu­dic, Medieval, and Mod­ern Hebrew, right up through the col­or­ful slang of the streets and fields of the mod­ern State of Israel.

Lowin achieves his stat­ed goals in each of these infor­ma­tive and enjoy­able columns. The major­i­ty of cita­tions relate to the Bib­li­cal, Rab­binic, and Litur­gi­cal ety­mo­log­i­cal bases of var­i­ous word forms, and begin and end with con­tem­po­rary appli­ca­tions. Most columns dra­mat­i­cal­ly sep­a­rate the tra­di­tion­al and cur­rent dis­cus­sions, but oth­ers pre­fer to mix them. The chap­ter head­ings are humor­ous, and each chap­ter ends with a wit­ty remark tying togeth­er some of the ele­ments men­tioned previously.

This all leads a read­er to ponder:

1. why Hadas­sah Mag­a­zine would be inter­est­ed in such mus­ings, being an orga­ni­za­tion whose web­site states that it is pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with Israeli med­ical and edu­ca­tion­al issues, not the Bib­li­cal and Rab­binic under­pin­nings of a lan­guage spo­ken by Israelis, and

2. why if Hadas­sahs mem­ber­ship and read­er­ship is Zion­is­tic — albeit not over­ly Jew­ish­ly obser­vant — the orga­ni­za­tion would care about the tra­di­tion­al ori­gins of the Hebrew language.

While it is pos­si­ble that Hebrew speak­ers are sim­ply unaware of their language’s ori­gins, and speak Hebrew reg­u­lar­ly with­out giv­ing much thought to how their lin­gua fran­ca devel­oped, one won­ders about the column’s endur­ing appeal.

Note: In 1982, Yaakov Biel­er and Joseph Lowin were Jerusalem Fel­lows together. 

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions