Z’man Ivri: Jewish Time, Jewish Tongue

Jeremy Benstein

Language is history, and it is worldview. It is the connection to the present moment, even as it is a view to the future that is not yet come. Language is memory [zikaron] and becoming [hithavut]. S. Yizhar, One Hundred Years of Spoken Hebrew

Being Jewish is tied to a yearly cycle rich in celebrations and commemorations that translate collective memory, spiritual values and identity into actual days of the year. “The catechism of the Jews is their calendar,” wrote Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. It’s not only Shabbat that is a “cathedral in time,” to use Heschel’s felicitous phrase, but the entire Jewish year that is an intricate structure for the engaged Jew to inhabit or a detailed path to follow.

Key Hebrew roots and words shed light on our connection to time and how it impacts our lived Jewish experience.

Top of the Morning

When do you start your day? Not, when do you get up, but when do you believe the day begins? Dawn is a logical choice, but technically the Western day starts in the middle of the night—at midnight. Jews, though, count the day from the evening before. Our date changes at sunset. With each of the six days of Creation, “[First] there was evening, [then] there was morning.”

Genesis relates the drama of the world coming into being through distinctions: between light and darkness, sky and earth, water and land. “Distinction” is in the roots of the words: בּוֹקֶר boker (morning), whose root means “distinguish, split, differentiate,” and עֶרֶב erev (evening), from a root meaning “mix, blur distinctions.” Right after shalom, most Hebrew students learn boker tov, “good morning.” In Israel, a common response to boker tov is boker or—“a morning of light.” Morning is when we see things distinctly; with erev, “evening,” those distinctions blur.

Though we create light and darkness at the flip of a switch, for most of history the rising and setting of the sun were momentous occasions, which are encoded in the very names of the directions. East is מִזְרָח mizrach, from the root ז-ר-ח (z-r-ch), “shine”; the direction the sun shines from or rises. West is מַעֲרָב ma’arav, from ע-ר-ב ([ayin]-r-b), the same root as erev, “evening.” (The name of the Arabic region known as the Maghreb is a cognate.) Changing one vowel, we get מַעֲרִיב ma’ariv, the evening prayer service. Secular Israelis know this as the broadsheet Ma’ariv, originally an evening newspaper, when there used to be such things.

The dusky transition hour is bein ha‘rbayim, “between the two evenings,” the same as English “twilight,” literally “two lights.” The name Europe may derive, through Greek, from this root, with “p” replacing “v,” via the god of darkness, Erebus, associated with Europe through the sun setting in the west, like “the Occident” (from the Latin, occidens, “sunset” or “west”), versus “the Orient,” in the east, the place of the rising sun.

The Circle and the Journey

After the daily days, let’s look at the holi-days: chagim. What exactly is a chag? And how is it related to our experience of time? Like light in physics, both a particle and a wave, Jewish time is both a circle and an arrow, both cyclical and linear. The root of the word chag encodes this deep truth through its connection to circles and lines.

חַג chag is from the root ח-ג-ג (ch-g-g), which gives us לַחְגוֹג lachgog, “to celebrate,” חֲגִיגָה chagigah, “a celebration,” and חֲגִיגִי chagigi, “festive.” These words are both secular and religious: You can lachgog a birthday or a holy day, and anything from a nice shirt or fancy meal to a solemn ceremony can be chagigi.

ח-ג-ג connects to two other roots. One is ח-ו-ג (ch-v-g), whose core meaning is “circle” or “round.” חוּג chug means both circumference and area of a circle, such as Chug Hagedi, the Tropic of Capricorn, a big circular line around the globe. But chag is apparently also related to a more linear word, the Arabic haj (the ג gimmel is soft). A haj is a pilgrimage, which for Muslims is always to Mecca. It’s no accident that Hechag, “the” Festival, Sukkot, is one of our three pilgrimage festivals, originally to Jerusalem. A pilgrimage is “linear,” a straight line to a destination.

So a chag is a chug, a circle, and also a haj, a journey.

The word evokes images both of sitting, eating and dancing in circles, whether around a fire or the table, and of “going up on foot”—the literal translation of aliyah laregel, “pilgrimage.” Whether you celebrate in the chug hamishpachti, “the family circle,” or on some journey, inner or outer, sacred or secular, may it be a joyous one!

Excerpt from Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World by Jeremy Benstein.

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HaYidion Time Spring 2020
Spring 2020