Hebrew Words and Language

Hebrew Language: Root Words

Most Hebrew words are derived from three-letter root words

The vast majority of words in the Hebrew language can be boiled down to a three-consonant root word that contains the essence of the word’s meaning. Even if you cannot read Hebrew, you will find that you can get some insight into the meaning of the Bible by identifying the roots of words. If you see the same English word in two different places, but different Hebrew roots are used, this may indicate that there is a different shade of meaning. If the same Hebrew root is used in two different places, the words and their meanings are probably related.

Beit-Nun-HeiA substantial amount of rabbinical interpretation of the Bible is derived from the relation between root words. For example, the rabbis concluded that G-d created women with greater intuition and understanding than men, because man was “formed” (yitzer, Gen. 2:7) while woman was “built” (yiben, Gen. 2:22). The root of “built,” Beit-Nun-Hei, is very similar to the word “binah” (Beit-Yod-Nun-Hei), meaning understanding, insight or intuition.

banayeekh (your children); bonayeekh (your builders)Similarly, a familiar Talmudic teaching notes the similarity of the words banayikh (your children) and bonayikh (your builders), and suggests that Isaiah 54:13 (and all your children/builders will be students of G-d, and great shall be the peace of your children/builders) indicates that those who study Torah are the builders of peace.

Formation of Hebrew Words from Roots

Hebrew words are formed from roots by changing vowels and by adding a wealth of prefixes and suffixes to that root.

There are surprisingly few root words in biblical Hebrew, but we get a lot of mileage out of the ones we have. For example, from the root word Kof-Dalet-Shin, meaning “holy,” “sacred” or “sanctified,” we get kedushah (holiness), kiddush (a prayer over wine sanctifying Shabbat or a holiday), Kaddish (an important prayer commonly thought of as a mourning prayer), aron kodesh (holy cabinet – the place in synagogue where the Torah scrolls are kept), and kiddushin (betrothal).



Yiddish Language and Culture

• Yiddish was the language of Ashkenazic Jews, but not Sephardic Jews
• Yiddish is based on German, Hebrew and other languages
• Yiddish uses an alphabet based on Hebrew
• There are standards for transliterating Yiddish
• Yiddish was criticized as a barrier to assimilation
• Yiddish developed rich literature, theater and music

S'iz shver tsu zayn a Yid (in Yiddish) S’iz shver tsu zayn a Yid
(It’s tough to be a Jew)
– Yiddish folk saying

1798 [Yiddish] … a language without rules, mutilated and unintelligible without our circle, must be completely abandoned.
– David Friedlander, a member of the Haskalah Jewish enlightenment movement
1978 Yiddish has not yet said its last word.
– Isaac Bashevis Singer, upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature for his writings in Yiddish

The Yiddish Language

Yiddish was at one time the international language of Ashkenazic Jews (the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe and their descendants). A hybrid of Hebrew and medieval German, Yiddish takes about three-quarters of its vocabulary from German, but borrows words liberally from Hebrew and many other languages from the many lands where Ashkenazic Jews have lived. It has a grammatical structure all its own, and is written in an alphabet based on Hebrew characters. Scholars and universities classify Yiddish as a Germanic language, though some have questioned that classification.

Yiddish was never a part of Sephardic Jewish culture (the culture of the Jews of Spain, Portugal, the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East). They had their own international language known as Ladino or Judesmo, which is a hybrid of medieval Spanish and Hebrew in much the same way that Yiddish combines German and Hebrew.

At its height less than a century ago, Yiddish was understood by an estimated 11 million of the world’s 18 million Jews, and many of them spoke Yiddish as their primary language. Yiddish has fallen on hard times, a victim of both assimilation and murder. Today, less than a quarter of a million people in the United States speak Yiddish, about half of them in New York. Most Jews know only a smattering of Yiddish words, and most of those words are unsuitable for polite company. But in recent years, Yiddish has experienced a resurgence and is now being taught at many universities. There are even Yiddish Studies departments at Columbia and Oxford, among others, and many Jewish communities provide classes to learn Yiddish. Many Jews today want to regain touch with their heritage through this nearly-lost language.

Yiddish is referred to as “mame loshn” (“loshn” rhymes with “caution”), which means “mother tongue,” although it is not entirely clear whether this is a term of affection or derision. Mame loshn was the language of women and children, to be contrasted with loshn koydesh, the holy tongue of Hebrew that was studied only by men. (And before the feminists start grinding their axes, let me point out that most gentile women and many gentile men in that time and place could not read or write at all, while most Jewish women could at least read and write Yiddish).

The word “Yiddish” is the Yiddish word for “Jewish,” so it is technically correct to refer to the Yiddish language as “Jewish” (though it is never correct to refer to Hebrew as “Jewish”). At the turn of the century, American Jews routinely referred to the Yiddish language as “Jewish,” and one of my elderly aunts continues to do so. However, that usage has become unfashionable in recent years and people are likely to think you are either ignorant or bigoted if you refer to any language as “Jewish.” Likewise, the Yiddish word “Yid” simply means “Jew” and is not offensive if used while speaking Yiddish or in a conversation liberally sprinkled with Yiddish terms, but I wouldn’t recommend using the word in English because it has been used as an offensive term for far too long.

The History of Yiddish

It is generally believed that Yiddish became a language of its own some time between 900 and 1100 C.E., but it is difficult to be certain because in its early days, Yiddish was primarily a spoken language rather than a written language. It is clear, however, that at this time even great biblical scholars like Rashi were using words from local languages written in Hebrew letters to fill in the gaps when the Hebrew language lacked a suitable term or when the reader might not be familiar with the Hebrew term. For example, in his commentary on Gen. 19:28, when Rashi comes across the Hebrew word qiytor (a word that is not used anywhere else in the Bible), he explains the word by writing, in Hebrew letters, “torche b’la-az” (that is, “torche in French”).

It is believed that Yiddish began similarly, by writing the local languages in the Hebrew characters that were more familiar to Yiddish speakers, just as Americans today often write Hebrew in Roman characters (the letters used in English).

The Yiddish language thrived for many centuries and grew farther away from German, developing its own unique rules and pronunciations. Yiddish also developed a rich vocabulary of terms for the human condition, expressing our strengths and frailties, our hopes and fears and longings. Many of these terms have found their way into English, because there is no English word that can convey the depth and precision of meaning that the Yiddish word can. Yiddish is a language full of humor and irony, expressing subtle distinctions of human character that other cultures barely recognize let alone put into words. What other language distinguishes between a shlemiel (a person who suffers due to his own poor choices or actions), a shlimazl (a person who suffers through no fault of his own) and a nebech (a person who suffers because he makes other people’s problems his own). An old joke explains the distinction: a shlemiel spills his soup, it falls on the shlimazl, and the nebech cleans it up!

As Jews became assimilated into the local culture, particularly in Germany in the late 1700s and 1800s, the Yiddish language was criticized as a barbarous, mutilated ghetto jargon that was a barrier to Jewish acceptance in German society and would have to be abandoned if we hoped for emancipation. Yiddish was viewed in much the same way that people today view Ebonics (in fact, I have heard Yiddish jokingly referred to as “Hebonics”), with one significant difference: Ebonics is criticized mostly by outsiders; Yiddish was criticized mostly by Jews who had spoken it as their native language. Thus the criticism of Yiddish was largely a manifestation of Jewish self-hatred rather than antisemitism.

At the same time that German Jews were rejecting the language, Yiddish was beginning to develop a rich body of literature, theater and music.



The Name of God

• The name of God should be treated with respect
• God has many names in the Bible
• A Name should not be written, so it will not be discarded disrespectfully
• The most important name is the four-letter name
• The pronunciation of the four-letter name is unknown

The Significance of Names

In Jewish thought, a name is not merely an arbitrary designation, a random combination of sounds. The name conveys the nature and essence of the thing named. It represents the history and reputation of the being named.

This is not as strange or unfamiliar a concept as it may seem at first glance. In English, we often refer to a person’s reputation as his “good name.” When a company is sold, one thing that may be sold is the company’s “good will,” that is, the right to use the company’s name. The Hebrew concept of a name is very similar to these ideas.

An example of this usage occurs in Ex. 3:13-22: Moses asks God what His “name” is. Moses is not asking “what should I call you;” rather, he is asking “who are you; what are you like; what have you done.” That is clear from God’s response. God replies that He is eternal, that He is the God of our ancestors, that He has seen our affliction and will redeem us from bondage.

Another example of this usage is the concepts of chillul Ha-Shem and kiddush Ha-Shem. An act that causes God or Judaism to come into disrespect or a commandment to be disobeyed is often referred to as “chillul Ha-Shem,” profanation of The Name. Clearly, we are not talking about a harm done to a word; we are talking about harm to a reputation. Likewise, any deed that increases the respect accorded to God or Judaism is referred to as “kiddush Ha-Shem,” sanctification of The Name.

Because a name represents the reputation of the thing named, a name should be treated with the same respect as the thing’s reputation. For this reason, God’s Names, in all of their forms, are treated with enormous respect and reverence in Judaism.

The Names of God

I have often heard people refer to the Judeo-Christian God as “the nameless God” to contrast our God with the ancient pagan gods. I always found this odd, because Judaism clearly recognizes the existence of a Name for God; in fact, we have many Names for God.

The most important of God’s Names is the four-letter Name represented by the Hebrew letters Yod-Hei-Vav-Hei (YHVH). It is often referred to as the Ineffable Name, the Unutterable Name or the Distinctive Name. Linguistically, it is related to the Hebrew root Hei-Yod-Hei (to be), and reflects the fact that God’s existence is eternal. In scripture, this Name is used when discussing God’s relation with human beings, and when emphasizing his qualities of lovingkindness and mercy. It is frequently shortened to Yah (Yod-Hei), Yahu or Yeho (Yod-Hei-Vav), especially when used in combination with names or phrases, as in Yehoshua (Joshua, meaning “the Lord is my Salvation”), Eliyahu (Elijah, meaning “my God is the Lord”), and Halleluyah (“praise the Lord”).

The first Name used for God in scripture is Elohim. In form, the word is a masculine plural of a word that looks feminine in the singular (Eloha). The same word (or, according to Rambam, a homonym of it) is used to refer to princes, judges, other gods, and other powerful beings. This Name is used in scripture when emphasizing God’s might, His creative power, and His attributes of justice and rulership. Variations on this Name include El, Eloha, Elohai (my God) and Elohaynu (our God).

God is also known as El Shaddai. This Name is usually translated as “God Almighty,” however, the derivation of the word “Shaddai” is not known. According to some views, it is derived from the root meaning “to heap benefits.” According a Midrash, it means, “The One who said ‘dai'” (“dai” meaning enough or sufficient) and comes from the fact that when God created the universe, it expanded until He said “DAI!” (perhaps the first recorded theory of an expanding universe?). The name Shaddai is the one written on the mezuzah scroll. Some note that Shaddai is an acronym of Shomer Daltot Yisrael, Guardian of the Doors of Israel.

Another significant Name of God is YHVH Tzva’ot. This Name is normally translated as “Lord of Hosts.” The word “tzva’ot” means “hosts” in the sense of a military grouping or an organized array. The Name refers to God’s leadership and sovereignty. Interestingly, this Name is rarely used in scripture. It never appears in the Torah (i.e., the first five books). It appears primarily in the prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, as well as many times in the Psalms.

Writing the Name of God

Jews do not casually write any Name of God. This practice does not come from the commandment not to take the Lord’s Name in vain, as many suppose. In Jewish thought, that commandment refers solely to oath-taking, and is a prohibition against swearing by God’s Name falsely or frivolously (the word normally translated as “in vain” literally means “for falsehood”).

Judaism does not prohibit writing the Name of God per se; it prohibits only erasing or defacing a Name of God. However, observant Jews avoid writing any Name of God casually because of the risk that the written Name might later be defaced, obliterated or destroyed accidentally or by one who does not know better.

The commandment not to erase or deface the name of God comes from Deut. 12:3. In that passage, the people are commanded that when they take over the promised land, they should destroy all things related to the idolatrous religions of that region, and should utterly destroy the names of the local deities. Immediately afterwards, we are commanded not to do the same to our God. From this, the rabbis inferred that we are commanded not to destroy any holy thing, and not to erase or deface a Name of God.

It is worth noting that this prohibition against erasing or defacing Names of God applies only to Names that are written in some kind of permanent form. Orthodox rabbis have held that writing on a computer is not a permanent form, thus it is not a violation to type God’s Name into a computer and then backspace over it or cut and paste it, or copy and delete files with God’s Name in them. However, once you print the document out, it becomes a permanent form. That is why observant Jews avoid writing a Name of God online: because there is a risk that someone else will print it out and deface it. See a 1998 discussion of the issue at The Sanctity of God’s Name, Part 1: Erasing Sacred Texts from a Computer Screen if you’re interested, but be aware that the lengthy article is thick with technical religious jargon, not always explained.

Normally, we avoid writing the Name by substituting letters or syllables, for example, writing “G-d” instead of “God.” In addition, the number 15, which would ordinarily be written in Hebrew as Yod-Hei (10-5), is normally written as Teit-Vav (9-6), because Yod-Hei is a Name. See Hebrew Alphabet for more information about using letters as numerals.

Pronouncing the Name of God

Nothing in the Torah prohibits a person from pronouncing the Name of God. Indeed, it is evident from scripture that God’s Name was pronounced routinely. Many common Hebrew names contain “Yah” or “Yahu,” part of God’s four-letter Name. The Name was pronounced as part of daily services in the Temple.

The Mishnah confirms that there was no prohibition against pronouncing The Name in ancient times. In fact, the Mishnah recommends using God’s Name as a routine greeting to a fellow Jew. Berakhot 9:5. However, by the time of the Talmud, it was the custom to use substitute Names for God. Some rabbis asserted that a person who pronounces YHVH according to its letters (instead of using a substitute) has no place in the World to Come, and should be put to death. Instead of pronouncing the four-letter Name, we usually substitute the Name “Adonai,” or simply say “Ha-Shem” (lit. The Name).

Although the prohibition on pronunciation applies only to the four-letter Name, Jews customarily do not pronounce any of God’s many Names except in prayer or study. The usual practice is to substitute letters or syllables, so that Adonai becomes Adoshem or Ha-Shem; Elohaynu and Elohim become Elokaynu and Elokim; Eil becomes Keil, etc.

With the Temple destroyed and the prohibition on pronouncing The Name outside of the Temple, pronunciation of the Name fell into disuse. Scholars passed down knowledge of the correct pronunciation of YHVH for many generations, but eventually the correct pronunciation was lost, and we no longer know it with any certainty. We do not know what vowels were used, or even whether the Vav in the Name was a vowel or a consonant. See Hebrew Alphabet for more information about the difficulties in pronouncing Hebrew. Some religious scholars suggest that the Name was pronounced “Yahweh,” but others do not find this pronunciation particularly persuasive. Historian Flavius Josephus, who was born a kohein at a time when the pronunciation of the Name was still known, said that the name was four vowels (War of the Jews, Book V, Chapter 5), probably referring to the fact that each of the four consonants in the name can serve in Hebrew as a vowel or vowel marker. See Hebrew Alphabet.

Some people render the four-letter Name as “Jehovah,” but this pronunciation is particularly unlikely. The word “Jehovah” comes from the fact that ancient Jewish texts used to put the vowels of the Name “Adonai” (the usual substitute for YHVH) under the consonants of YHVH to remind people not to pronounce YHVH as written. A sixteenth century German Christian scribe, while transliterating the Bible into Latin for the Pope, wrote the Name out as it appeared in his texts, with the consonants of YHVH and the vowels of Adonai, and came up with the word JeHoVaH (“J” is pronounced “Y” in German), and the name stuck.


“Yeshua” or “Jesus” in Greek, means ” Salvation. It comes form the same word ‘Joshua” or “Hosea”.


It was given to Joseph regareding Mary (Myriam) by an angel of the Lord saying ” She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Yeshua ( Jesus), for He will save His people from their sins.” Mat 1:21


Acts 4:12– Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.

Phil 2: 9-10 _Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:That at the name of Yeshua(Jesus) every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;