What does it mean?

October 31, 2004

Multicultural Mumbo Jumbo

For the last few months I’ve been enjoying a new CD that we got for the children. (There is so much quality children’s music out there that I don’t understand why anyone puts up with Barney!) It’s a CD of culturally distinctive music from around the world: World Playground: A Musical Adventure For Kids. One of the songs is Israeli, in Hebrew, about the recent exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. It’s a great song, very appropriate for the collection, by Shlomo Gronich.

Shlomo Gronich is a popular Israeli musician. He is distinctive in creating musically high-quality, yet popular songs. I would guess that he is classically trained. Around ten or fifteen years ago he started a children’s choir composed of recent immigrants from Ethiopia. Much of the material that he wrote for them reflected their experiences. The most well known piece is the one that appears in this collection. Though it is written in Hebrew, it sounds Ethiopian (so I understand – it certainly doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before) and it’s become a kind of anthem for Ethiopian-Israelis. Called: Zikhronot me’afrika (Memories from Africa), its subject is the journey from Ethiopia to Israel.

Believe it or not, until about thirty years ago, so little was known about the Ethiopian Jewish community that their very existence was doubted. The rulers of Ethiopia both persecuted the Jews, and forbade them to leave. (Why this repeated pattern? I don’t know. It seems to go back to ancient Egypt.) Excerpt:

During the reign of Haile Selassie (1930-1974) the Jews of Ethiopia were treated with indifference but their inability to own land was coupled with the scorn of their neighbors who attributed to them every misfortune which befell them. In the struggles following the deposition of Haile Saleassie, an estimated 2,500 Jews were killed and 7,000 rendered homeless. From the end of 1977, small groups of Jews began to flee, joining refugee villages on the other side of the Sudanese border. Those caught trying to flee Ethiopia were arrested and tortured.

Claiming that Hebrew was being taught in preparation for emigration to Israel, the governor of Gondar confiscated Hebrew books, the practice of religion was forbidden, Jewish schools and synagogues closed and students caught talking to tourists were questioned and imprisoned. Travel was restricted and a Jew without a travel pass was assumed to be trying to escape and liable for imprisonment. But, the exodus continued. Within three years, there were hundreds of Jews in Sudan living in terrible conditions.

Pressure from world Jewry increased, the government of Israel pledged itself to save the Jews of Ethiopia and the Jewish Agency shifted its policy from quiet diplomacy to call for a worldwide campaign to publicize their plight.

In secret operations beginning in 1980, Israeli operatives were able to smuggle hundreds of Ethiopian Jews through Kenya to Israel. By the end of 1982 there were 2,500 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel and throughout 1983, 1,800 left Sudan over land. Recognizing the need to move more quickly, the Israelis began to use a nearby air strip to land Hercules transport planes which could each bring out 200 immigrants per flight. Utilizing a variety of routes, a total of 8,000 Jews had reached Israel by late 1984.

However, it was clear that the large numbers of Jews crossing into Sudan exacerbated the already horrific conditions in the camps. On November 21, Operation Moses began. Refugees were bused out of the refugee camps to a military airport near Khartoum where they were flown directly to Israel under a blanket of complete secrecy.

When news leaks ended the operation in January 1985, 8,000 Jews had been brought to Israel, leaving behind about 1,000 Jews in Sudan and thousands more in Ethiopia. Initiated by Vice President Bush, a CIA sponsored follow-up mission called Operation Joshua brought an additional 800 Jews from Sudan to Israel.

Operation Moses separated many from their loved ones and more than 1,600 "orphans of circumstances" separated from their families began new lives in Jewish Agency Youth Aliyah villages, learning Hebrew and becoming acculturated not knowing the fate of their parents, brothers, sisters and loved ones. Others took the first difficult steps in Agency absorption centers where they learned to live in a modern society.

I remember when the news broke of this exodus. It seemed incredible. Israelis of all kinds were awed and curious. It was then that I learned the difference between racism and prejudice. Israelis had all kinds of prejudices about Ethiopians, mostly based on fact. There were all kinds of stories about Ethiopian reactions to modern life, not all of them plausible. But the bottom line was that Israelis loved the Ethiopians. They have a much better reputation than the Russians, for instance. For example, everyone remarked on their good nature, and most Israelis think they’re very beautiful (including me).

The journey to Israel was long and hard, and many people died on the way, walking from Ethiopia to Sudan, from where they were flown to Israel. Gronich’s song tells of it. A few days ago, I idly picked up the workbook that accompanies the CD. At the back are transcriptions and translations of all the songs. Naturally, I turned to Zikhronot me’afrika. The first thing I noticed was that the translation was much shorter than the transcription. This was odd. In a text of any length, a translation of Hebrew into English is almost invariably longer than its transliteration (you may have noticed this on my site). On closer look, I realized that a lot of the text was left out, and what was translated was quite distorted. Why? See for yourself, the following is the original text with my transcription and translation, followed by the translation that appears in the book:

נכנסנו לציפור גדולה עם כנפיים מברזל 
אמא קצת בכתה ואבא רוב הזמן שתק 
אחר כך הוא אמר לי: בן, החוצה תסתכל 
עכשיו שמיים עננים, בסוף זה ארץ ישראל

בספר הספרים כתוב שהיא טובה 
חלב אפשר לשתות שם מתוך האדמה 
אברהם אבינו עשה בה את הברית 
ומקומנו שם, אלוהים על זה החליט

נכנסנו לציפור גדולה עם כנפיים מברזל 
אמא קצת בכתה ואבא רוב הזמן שתק
הוא ידע שכל מה שהיה הולך להשתנות 
שלום לך אפריקה, הכל ביום אחד נמחק 

היום הוא מחפש פה את יצחק אבינו 
מדבר קצת לפעמים על הארץ בה היינו 
מזכיר שלא היה שם טוב,את זה אני יודע 
אך בעיניו אני רואה: הוא קצת מתגעגע

נכנסנו לציפור גדולה עם כנפיים מברזל 
אמא קצת בכתה ואבא רוב הזמן שתק 
הדלת נסגרה על כל מה שהיה
זכרונות מאפריקה, של רעב ושל אבק 

Nikhnasnu l’sipur g’dola `im k’nafayim mibarzel
Ima q’sat bakhta v’aba rov hazman shataq
Ahar kakh hu amar li: ben, hahusa tistakel
`Akhshav shamayim `ananim, b’sof ze eres yisra’el

B’sefer hasfarim katuv shehi tova
Halav efshar lishtot sham mitokh ha’adama
Avraham avinu `asa ba’ et habrit
Umqomenu sham, elohim `al ze hihlit

Nikhnasnu l’sipur g’dola `im k’nafayim mibarzel
Ima q’sat bakhta v’aba rov hazman shataq
Hu yada` shekol ma shehaya holekh l’hishtanot
Shalom lakh afrika, hakol b’yom ehad nimhaq

Hayom hu m’hapes po et yishaq avinu
M’daber q’sat lif`amim `al ha’ares ba hayinu
Mazkir shelo’ haya sham tov, et ze ani yodea`
Akh b`eynav ani ro’e: hu q’sat mitga`agea`

Nikhnasnu l’sipur g’dola `im k’nafayim mibarzel
Ima q’sat bakhta v’aba rov hazman shataq
Hadelet nisg’ra `al ma shehaya
Zikhronot me’afrika, shel ra`av v’shel avaq


We went into a big bird with wings of iron
Mother cried a little, and father most of the time was quiet
Afterwards he said to me: son, look outside
Now it’s sky and clouds, in the end it’s the land of Israel

In the book of books it is written that it is good
Milk it is possible to drink there from out of the ground
Abraham our father made there the covenant
And our place is there, God has decided about it

We went into a big bird with wings of iron
Mother cried a little, and father most of the time was quiet
He knew that all that was is going to change
Goodbye to you, Africa, everything in one day is erased

Today he is looking here for Isaac our father
He talks a little sometimes about the land in which we were
Reminds us that it wasn’t good there, that I know
But in his eyes I see: he longs for it a little bit

We went into a big bird with wings of iron
Mother cried a little, and father most of the time was quiet
The door is closed on what was
Memories from Africa, of hunger and of dust

The following is their translation:

We stepped into a great big bird
With enormous iron wings
Mama softly cried, and papa never said a thing
Then once he turned to me and said
“Son, take a look around
Although the sky is full of clouds
You’ll soon see Israel on the ground.”

The Bible says the land is very good and sweet
If flows with milk and honey
From every mountain peak

Sometimes, he speaks to me
Of the land we used to live in
Reminding me of hardships there
Of dust and drought he tells
But how he’s longing in his eyes
I can see very well

Not only does this translation simply leave out a lot, it changes the sense of what it leaves. What is left out? All mentions of the historical connection between the land of Israel and the Jews, and the sense of homecoming with which the song is infused. And what remains? A longing for Africa, when the emphasis of the song is that despite some longing, what was left behind was hardship.

Finally, the CD fades out during the last paragraph, so that you can’t hear the last two lines at all! And it doesn’t bother to transcribe or translate it. Here it is:

אז לא ידעת אבא, למה יש לצפות 
ושעל אדמת הקודש נוסעים במכוניות 
הדברים טיפה אחרת, פה בארץ האבות 
ובני עמנו השתנו, מאז עשרת הדברות 

Az lo’ yada`ta aba, l’ma yesh lisapot
V’she`al admat haqodesh nos`im bimkhoniyot 
Hadvarim tipa aheret, po b’eres ha’avot
Ub’ney `amenu hishtanu, me’az `aseret hadibrot

Then you didn’t know father, what there was to expect
And that on the holy land they ride in cars
The things are a little different, here in the land of the forefathers
And the children of our people have changed, from the time of the Ten Commandments

UPDATE: Amritas links and says: “At least David Boxenhorn was able to properly translate the song on his own.” Actually, on re-reading this post I see that my translation was exceptionally stilted, mostly as a result of closely following the Hebrew word order. I would certainly have accepted a translation that favors poetry over accuracy little more than mine. Making an accurate translation is hard enough, making it sound good too is even harder! I think you can see, though, that the World Playground’s translation isn’t attempting quality in either sense.

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October 30, 2004

Four-letter roots

Amritas has a very interesting post on onomatopoeic and emotive words in Japanese and Korean. It inspires me to write about the subject too! My general impression is that Hebrew has a huge number of verbs that sound like their action. If you have been reading this blog for any length of time you have frequently heard about Hebrew three-letter roots. However, Hebrew also has a large number of four-letter roots. These roots have limited productivity: out of seven verbal paradigms, only two can accommodate four-letter roots, and out of several hundred (my guess) patterns, only a handful can accommodate them. Luckily, the two verbal patterns, pi`el and hitpa`el, are for transitive and intransitive verbs respectively, so any action can potentially be expressed by a four-letter root. (Hebrew verbs never do double-time as both transitive and intransitive verbs, e.g. walking to school and walking the dog are two different words: halakh and holikh respectively. The only exceptions are the words for the five senses, which mostly work like English: Your dog has no nose, how does he smell? – Awful!)

There are three sources of four-letter roots. First, there are imported words, e.g. irgen (ארגן – organize. You may be familiar with this root from the Irgun – the Organization, short for Irgun Sva’i L’umi – National Military Organization). There is also a native mechanism for extending three letter roots by adding an extra root letter, usually adding a ’, m, sh, or t as the first letter of the root, or doubling the last letter. Compare: pisher – compromise, ifsher – enable; safar – count, misper – number; `avad – work, shi`abed – enslave; hazar – return, shihzer – recreate; dalaq – burn, tadleq – fuel (e.g. a car); sarat – scratch, sirtet – draw (a picture).

Finally, there’s the source I really want to get to: roots of the form XYXY. There must be hundreds of roots of this form; very frequently they are onomatopoeic. Here are a few: milmel – murmur, rishresh – rustle, sifsef – chirp, gilgel – roll, silsel – curl, zimzem – buzz, tishtesh – make blurry, tiqteq – tick, type, tiftef – drip.

I have given just the pi`el verbs that are formed from these roots (notice that they all have the pattern XiYXeY), but most have hitpa`el (hitXaYXeY) forms as well, e.g. hitgalgel – roll, intransitive. You can also make nouns, most often with the pattern XaYXaY, e.g. galgal – wheel, zamzam – buzzer.

UPDATE: Amritas also notices the similarity between the opening of the mouth to make the p sound, and the meaning of the Japanese word paku – open. The Hebrew word also begins with this letter: patah – open.

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Rishon Rishon endorses George Bush

I suppose I don’t have to tell you, but I support George Bush for president of the United States of America. I have a lot of reasons, but if I had to sum it up it would be thus: John Kerry is a liar and George Bush is a man of conviction.

When I call Kerry a liar, I am not referring to the numerous lies he told about his service in Vietnam, nor the numerous lesser lies he has told during the campaign, I am referring to the Big Lie: He is not who he claims to be. He is selling himself as a more nuanced, intelligent version of Bush. He is neither nuanced, more intelligent, nor a version of Bush.

On the other hand, where Kerry has rhetorical tricks, Bush has conviction. What you see is what you get. If you like it, vote for him. For the most part, certainly more than any presidential candidate since Ronald Regan, I like it.

If you want my view with more details, wit, and eloquence, visit David Warren: one, two, three, four.

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October 28, 2004

Hobbits discovered in Indonesia

This has to be the most incredible news I’ve seen in a long time:

Skeletons of these miniature people have been excavated from a limestone cave on Flores, an island 370 miles east of Bali, by a team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists. Reporting their find in today's issue of Nature, they assign the people to a new human species, Homo floresiensis.

The new finding is "among the most outstanding discoveries in paleoanthropology for half a century," say two anthropologists not associated with the study, Dr. Marta Mirazon Lahr and Dr. Robert Foley of the University of Cambridge, in a written commentary in the same issue.

The little Floresians lived on the island until at least 13,000 years ago, and possibly to historic times. But they were not a pygmy form of modern humans. They were a downsized version of Homo erectus, the eastern cousin of the Neanderthals of Europe, who disappeared 33,000 years ago. Their discovery means that archaic humans, who left Africa 1.5 million years earlier than modern people, survived far longer into recent times than was previously supposed.

For more, see Gene Expression and Amritas, also here.

According to local legend, they survived until modern times:

One of the village elders told us that the Ebu Gogo ate everything raw, including vegetables, fruits, meat and, if they got the chance, even human meat.

When food was served to them they also ate the plates, made of pumpkin - the original guests from hell (or heaven, if you don't like washing up and don't mind replacing your dinner set every week).

The villagers say that the Ebu Gogo raided their crops, which they tolerated, but decided to chase them away when the Ebu Gogo stole - and ate - one of their babies.

They ran away with the baby to their cave which was at the foot of the local volcano, some tens of metres up a cliff face. The villagers offered them bales of dry grass as fodder, which they gratefully accepted.

A few days later, the villagers went back with a burning bale of grass which they tossed into the cave. Out ran the Ebu Gogo, singed but not fried, and were last seen heading west, in the direction of Liang Bua, where we found the Hobbit, as it happens.

The anatomical details in the legends are equally fascinating. They are described as about a metre tall, with long hair, pot bellies, ears that slightly stick out, a slightly awkward gait, and longish arms and fingers - both confirmed by our further finds this year.

They [the Ebu Gogo] murmured at each other and could repeat words [spoken by villagers] verbatim. For example, to 'here's some food', they would reply 'here's some food'. They could climb slender-girthed trees but, here's the rub, were never seen holding stone tools or anything similar, whereas we have lots of sophisticated artefacts in the H. floresiensis levels at Liang Bua. That's the only inconsistency with the Liang Bua evidence.

Assuming the reporting is accurate, I find this story very convincing. It doesn’t sound to me at all like tales of elves and leprechauns – there is no magic, no special powers, and it’s full of unusual details consistent with what we know about the subject. In particular, I find the account of their language haunting. It reminds me of the behavior of children who are acquiring language, rather than the “little people” of legends. Even the supposed inconsistency can be explained by technology loss due to reduced population.

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October 27, 2004

“Everyone is planning to build nuclear weapons”

Spengler says (via Sarah):

Whether or not Saddam Hussein actually intended or had the capacity to build nuclear weapons is of trifling weight in the strategic balance. Everyone is planning to build nuclear weapons. They involve 60-year-old technology no longer difficult to replicate. It hardly matters where one begins. "Kill the chicken, and let the monkey watch," as the Chinese say. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, the theocrats of Iran, the North Koreans and soon many other incalculable reprobates have or will have such plans. It hardly matters which one you attack first, so long as you attack one of them.

Where are the anti-nuclear crowd when you need them?

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October 26, 2004


One way to understand things is to look at their opposites. Opposites are things that are alike in every way except the most essential one. The opposite of black is not up, but white. The opposite of up is not smooth, but down. Thus, the opposite of Christianity is Devil-worship. In order for Devil-worship to make sense, you have to except Christian cosmology before you choose to go to the other side. It is literally unthinkable in a Jewish context, for instance: no one would think of it because Judaism doesn’t posit a Devil in the Christian sense, as something that could, at least theoretically, be worshipped. The opposite of Judaism would be doing anti-misvot. (Jews are supposed to do 613 misvot – commandments, non-Jews, seven misvot.) This, in fact, was commonly practiced in certain quarters: eating pork on Yom Kipur, for example. Though you may (or may not) think it reprehensible, it is also, no doubt, Jewish.

So, if:

Anti-Christianity is Devil worship.
Anti-Judaism is doing anti-misvot.

What is:


The fact that I don’t know the answer to these questions shows me that I knew less than I thought I did.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:47 PM  Permalink | Comments (7)
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October 25, 2004

Quantum Leap of Faith

In the beginning there was free will. Why? Well, it was obvious that people thought for themselves, though they be constrained by circumstances, fate, and outrageous fortune. Likewise, it was obvious that God ruled the Earth. And if not God, then gods, spirits, leprechauns, etc. How else could we order the randomness of the world? Causality is fundamental to making sense of anything, and we humans cannot but believe in it.

Isaac Newton was the great dragonslayer of this point of view; with James Clerk Maxwell administering the final thrust though the heart. Gone were the capricious anthropomorphized forces of nature – they had no place in the cold new world. The new forces of nature were soulless equations, utterly predictable. And the new world proceeded like clockwork: all was determined by its initial state. It is perhaps not surprising that at this point in history we see the popular emergence of Deism: the belief that God created the universe, and stepped back, no longer intervening in day-to-day life. This is the Newtonian God.

Within Judaism, however, a related debate had been going on for millennia about the nature of miracles: Whether God performed miracles through nature (בדרך הטבע – b’derekh hateva` – by way of nature) i.e. without breaking the laws of nature, or whether miracles were examples of God suspending the laws of nature to do His will. (Incidentally, even that most paradigmatic miracle, the parting of the Red Sea, is presented in the Bible as having a natural cause: a strong east wind. This is the hot, dry wind familiar around the Mediterranean as distinct from the relatively cool, moist, west wind. During a transition it can be extremely windy. Seen in this light, the parting of the Red Sea is no more, or less, miraculous than the destruction of the Spanish Armada.) This is reflected in the following quote from the Mishna (the oldest part of the Talmud):

עשרה דברים נבראו בערב שבת בין השמשות
פי הארץ פי הבאר פי האתון והקשת והמן
והמטה והשמיר והכתב והמכתב והלוחות
ויש אומרין אף המזיקין וקבורתו של משה ואילו של אברהם
ויש אומרין אף צבת בצבת עשויה

`asara d’varim nivr’u b`erev shabat beyn hashmashot
pi ha’aras pi hab’er pi ha’aton v’haqeshet v’haman
v’hamate v’hashamir v’hak’tav v’hamikhtav v’haluhot
v’yesh omrin af hamaziqin uq’vurato shel moshe v’eylo shel avraham
v’yesh omrin af svat b’svat `asuya

Ten things were created on the evening of Shabat as the sun set
The mouth of the earth, the mouth of the well, the mouth of the donkey, and the rainbow and the manna
And the staff, and the worm that cuts rock, and the writing, and the letter, and the tablets
And some say even the disembodied spirits, and the grave of Moses, and the ram of Abraham
And some say even the even the tongs with which tongs are made

Pirqey Avot 5:6

This is a list of various seemingly miraculous things, the implication being that they are not violations of laws of nature because they were created together with the creation of the universe, i.e. they have the same status as laws of nature. I like the image of a kind of appendix to the story of creation. After the universe was created with a broad brush: rules to be applied generally, that some miscellaneous exceptions were tacked on to the end as the sun set on the last day of creation. I particularly like the last line, which alludes to the fact that you need tongs to make tongs (to hold them in the fire) so how were the first tongs made? The dynamism and chaos that characterizes the universe – a result of the infinite recursion in which we exist, is itself a miracle that must be explained.

Then came Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and quantum mechanics. They demonstrated that the universe wasn’t deterministic at all! Einstein, whose mind-bending theories destroyed our notions of time and space, thought it an insult to God: “God does not play dice with the universe!” he declared. But, according to experimentation, it seems that God does. Or does He? Perhaps it is not dice, but free will after all?

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What happened to us?

Nelson Ascher is promising us a series in which will show the seriousness of the crisis we now face. The problem is not just the Islamists: it’s us. Nelson points out:

When the first Gulf War was fought, there was no lack of people who opposed it. But that opposition didn’t become a worldwide hysteria. So, let us forget 9/11 for a moment: what was so unexpected or scandalous about invading Iraq and deposing Saddam? Left-wingers would have complained and protested, but saving Saddam’s head wouldn’t have turned into a mainstream obsession. Who, except fringe lunatics, would have taken to the streets to save Saddam? I mean: there was no worldwide hysteria when the US intervened in Somalia. Most people couldn’t care less. Were American troops to go openly into Mogadishu again, there’d be a veritable earthquake now resembling the one that preceded the invasion of Iraq. So, in a way, the international reaction to this invasion is what was really amazing, though in a post-9/11 world that seemed quite natural.

My intention is to weave these threads together in order to try and grasp the whole. I’m not sure I’ll manage to do it, but I’ll do my best. Doing this maybe I’ll be able to show rationally, point by point, that the crisis we’re going through is serious, huge indeed.

My contribution: In the west religion gave way to secular modernism which gave way to nihilism. And that has made us unfit to fight Islamism. In the east religion gave way to fascism which gave way to Islamism. The experience of the modern world has been different, but in each case it led to dismay and rejection – interestingly, for different reasons: in the west it didn’t deliver happiness, while in the east it didn’t deliver prosperity.

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Dads and Cads

The question of why people are attracted to spouses who are bad for them is one that I’ve wondered about for a long time. It was made obvious to me at a fairly young age that girls were attracted to the “bad boys,” and I wasn’t one of them. Somehow, even armed with this knowledge, I was unable, or unwilling, to adjust.

But to this picture was added a more puzzling data point: a friend of a friend telling me about her friend who was in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic. The truly weird thing about it, to me at the time, was that her father was also an alcoholic. You would think that of all people, she would be most wary of getting into such a relationship, as they say: once bitten, twice shy.

In the years since then, I’ve come to understand the psychological mechanisms at work. I tried to describe it allegorically a while back. Put more bluntly: we try to recreate with our spouse the relationship that we had with our parents, in order to relive it, and hopefully fix it. By fixing our relationship with our spouse, we fix our relationship with our parents, and thus our whole life. Clearly, however, this is problematic when the child/parent relationship is dysfunctional to an extreme.

That is the psychological explanation, and it works. But what is the evolutionary explanation? For a characteristic to persist, it must contribute, somehow, to fitness. Razib, at Gene Expression implicitly asks this question. After thinking about it a little, I came up with the following: It helps to preserve culture. It drives human beings to marry people like their parents.

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October 24, 2004


ZAKA is on a long list of things I consider blogging about from time to time, but haven’t. Joe Katzman at Winds Of Change has blogged about them. I’ll take it as a sign that I should too.

According to Jewish law, all things that have been used for a holy purpose must be treated with respect, and what could have a holier purpose than the human body? In practical terms, this means that people must be buried when they die. Cremation is not allowed, because that is a willful destruction of the body. (Incidentally, preserving or entombing the body is also not allowed, a body must be buried in contact with the earth, so it can decompose naturally.) This injunction applies to body parts as well – they cannot be thrown in the garbage, no matter how small.

ZAKA (זק"א – Zihuy Qorbanot Ason – Identification of Victims of Disaster) is an all-volunteer, non-governmental, non-profit organization that receives no governmental support whatsoever. Its mission is to go to points of disaster (not necessarily as a result of terror) to collect body parts and make sure that they are treated with respect. In post-terror-attack pictures you often see them collecting bits of skin with tweezers from the streets and surrounding buildings.

Shortly after beginning operations, ZAKA discovered that they were often the first to arrive at the scene of a disaster. I don’t want to disparage Magen David Adom (Red Star of David – the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross), they are wonderful people doing an important job, and doing the best they can, but still they are a pseudo-governmental organization, with all the bureaucracy that implies. The ZAKA volunteers, on the other hand, arrive in their own vehicles: the central organization merely locates the closest volunteers to the site of the disaster, and tells them to go.

So ZAKA started giving its volunteers first-aid training, and they have become the shock troops of Israeli first aid.

Joe points to this page, which talks about ZAKA. Among other things it points out that burying the dead is referred to as hesed shel emet – true kindness (literally: kindness of truth). The reason for that: for any other act of kindness one might think that there might be some kind of reward, but the dead cannot repay their debts.

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Bears and Wolves

The Daily Recycler posts about Bush’s latest ad (via Instapundit), comparing it to Reagan’s famous bear ad. I can’t get his links to work in my browser, so for those of you like me, here they are:

Bush’s wolf ad
Reagan’s bear ad

Personally, I like Reagan’s bear ad better, for one reason: humor.

But Bush’s wolf add is good.

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October 22, 2004

A Parallel Universe

Every week, every traditional Jew goes to a parallel universe. It is a universe without cars, without electrical appliances, where people live in small communities, where everyone knows each other, and where children of all ages play together in the company of their parents. It is called Shabat: the Sabbath.

Usually, when you hear about the Shabat, you hear about the things that are forbidden: turning lights on and off, cooking, shopping, driving the car. It seems like a great sacrifice, a weekly abstinence, and from time to time it is. What you don’t hear about is the atmosphere that it creates.

I wasn’t in the US last year for the great North-East blackout, but I read a lot of accounts describing the joyfulness which ensued: people meeting their neighbors, sitting on the steps eating ice cream, enjoying simple pleasures. I experienced something similar, though, during Boston’s blizzard of ’78, which shut the city down for a week. This is how I remember it too:

The lack of electricity, the ban on driving, the snow-muffled landscape, the sight of people pulling sleds in the middle of streets, the fact that everyone was home — all of it combined to give a sense we were living in an older, more relaxed time.

“I loved the way my house looked at night. There were candles that bathed my home in a soft glow and created dancing shadows on the walls,” Mary Urbanek of North Dartmouth wrote.

“I felt like a pioneer girl. With the absence of television and radio, my family and I were forced to rely on the old-fashioned way of entertainment. We played games, read stories and told jokes,” she remembered.

There were those who behaved poorly in the chaos of the blizzard’s immediate aftermath, stealing cars or the valuables inside. But most folks recall those days as a time of community, of neighbors helping each other, of clear evidence that people were essentially good.

Harold Crapo, long-time National Weather Service watcher, wrote in a note to The Standard-Times, “As I sit now and reflect upon this storm, what I remember most is how the community came together and helped one another.”

Carlton “Cukie” Macomber of Westport didn’t get far on his ride home from work in southern Rhode Island. Taking refuge first in a convenience store and then in a church, he found food, conversation and community. He didn’t get home for three days, but the experience told him, “This country has a lot of nice people in it.”

This is the world of Shabat. Every week, every observant Jew is transported to this world. Not driving, or using any other kind of transportation, every observant Jew (who does not want to be totally isolated) must live within walking distance of a synagogue, creating a community of walkers. Even the largest cities are reduced to small towns where everyone knows each other: virtual villages, invisible to the outside world.

It is a wonderful way to live. It squares the circle of the lonely city, the isolation of the individual endemic to modern life. It is a great way to raise children. It is said: more than the Jews have kept Shabat; Shabat, has kept the Jews.

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Trackback from Willow Tree, When You've Nothing to Say:
Point to those who do. David of Rishon Rishon talks about one of my favorite days of the week. This is a great place to go to learn about the facts of Judaism. Brain Fertilizer's Nathan has links to an...

October 20, 2004

Snobbery makes you stupid

John Ray has given me another eureka moment (the last one was here). Not long ago I wrote a post, wondering how it was that so many smart people in academia could so consistently be so wrong. My personal experience leads me to believe that academics on the whole really are smarter than average, and that they really do have far more than the average number of stupid notions. I hypothesized a culture of poverty to account for it, and attempted to define some of its characteristics. However, while I think that what I wrote is true, it didn’t satisfy me. I didn’t get that eureka feeling that what I said really accounted for what I saw. John responded to that post by saying:

I think there is only one main reason: Arrogance. They have to be pretty bright to get to be professors so they then think they know it all. And it offends their ego to realize that they have nothing to say on the big issues other than what plain folk have been saying for years. So most of what they say is just a pathetic attempt to be clever.

While I don’t disagree with this, it also didn’t give me that eureka feeling. I just didn’t feel that he explained what I saw. But now he has:

Ian McFadyen has an excellent analysis of what the calls the "Snerds" or "sneering classes" -- educated Leftists who dominate the media and cultural institutions. Some excerpts: "It is not a snobbery based on wealth or aristocratic origins. It is the snobbery of people, usually from modest backgrounds who have created sense of class superiority for themselves on the basis of possessing the right attitudes rather than property or wealth. It is a snobbery based on being "well informed", of being "concerned" and "having a sense of social morality."... What makes this class of people snobbish rather than simply pretentious is their tendency to sneer. It is a tone which implies that certain thing in life are so axiomatic that no discussion of them is necessary or even possible...

What is difficult about conversing with a Snerd is the degree to which their attitudes are locked down.... Any such challenge to the basic tenets of their beliefs will simply be sneeringly discarded and the questioner relegated to one of the baskets of ratbag, fascist, racist, right wing reactionary, capitalist, Philistine or ill-informed... The inflexibility of the Snerd arises from a personal arrogance that he or she is a well-educated, well-informed and intelligent person who has "worked all this out" and come to - what they believe to be - the only possible solution. Snerds are characteristically blind to the fact that their belief systems are based, not on an independent intellectual of the issues, but on attitudes received from a very narrow range of sources, and shaped by the prejudices of a sub-culture.....

When they express opinions on a matter they do so more to define the boundaries of their own class than to actually change anything in the community..... Thus, while Snerds are quick to opinionate in areas which they feel will enhance their image as culturally superior - politics, law, the arts, they have no opinions at all on, and are careful not to get involved with, matters which they consider down-market like agriculture. Primary production, manufacturing and manual labour simply do not exist in the Snerd universe.

I have always disliked fashion-consciousness. I was quite a young child when I was first exposed to it: the notion that dressing a certain way, talking a certain way, liking a certain kind of music, etc. made you a superior person. Even at a young age, there seemed to be a certain class of children who were born to it, were exquisitely sensitive to just what it was that one had to do to achieve superiority. The most amazing thing about it: their superiority seemed to be universally recognized by their classmates (not excluding, I am ashamed to say, me). They were the aristocracy. Needless to say, I was not one of them.

I think that many of these children went on to become the academic elite, but whether or not it was the same people; the phenomenon is essentially the same. To be a member of the self-described “cognitive elite” you must conform rigidly to intellectual fashion. It is the ability to conform to it that identifies you as a member of this aristocracy. It also destroys your ability to think. That, is why so many academics are so stupid: they are snobs – a kind of fanatic. Snobbery makes you stupid.

UPDATE: It’s characteristic of eureka moments that they lead to more eureka moments, in a chain reaction. Quite a few things have fallen into place for me, for example: Considering the success of the child Snobbists, it is clear to me that they are exploiting some kind of psychological glitch common to all (or most) human beings. I have to think some more about the exact nature of the glitch; clearly it must be linked to some kind of evolutionary advantage. But even without knowing its exact nature, I can predict with confidence that any institution which is independent of external constraints will inevitably be dominated by Snobbists. What are examples of such institutions? Academia (especially the humanities and social sciences), government institutions, the arts, the press: exactly where the Snobbists dominate.

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October 18, 2004

Evil Tongue

I have said before that one of the characteristics of a traditional religion is the traditions come first, the explanations later. This is certainly true of Judaism. In fact, you can usually find several, often contradictory, reasons given for a particular tradition. You can even make up your own! If it makes sense within the Jewish tradition, or illustrates a Jewish value, will be accepted as a hidush – renewal (חידוש). Moreover, a lack of logical justification is not seen as a good reason to abandon a tradition, unless the tradition actually runs counter to some other precept. (One way to think of this is as a memetic barrier, in favor of a more “genetic” method of cultural transmission.)

The traditional character of Judaism manifests itself in both trivial an important ways. One small example: There is a notion within Judaism of a “maqom qavua`” – having a “permanent place” in synagogue. When visiting an unfamiliar synagogue, before sitting down, it is polite to ask: “Is this someone’s maqom qavua`?” Now, those hyper-rationalists among you (you know who you are) will probably say: “That’s illogical, one seat is as good as another!” or some such thing. But the fact is that people like sitting in the same place all the time – something about human nature. I don’t know what it is, perhaps the natural preference for things that are “yours”, perhaps feeling like you know the “territory”, but I think if you looked you would find a “logical” reason for it.

A much more serious example is “lashon hara`” – “evil tongue”. This refers to saying bad (but true) things about other people (if it’s not true, it comes under the prohibition of slander). There is something about this issue that has always struck me as bizarre: There seems to be a subconscious awareness of it in day-to-day American culture, but somehow it has never risen far enough into people’s consciousness to be discussed. When I was a teenager, I would often hear people say things like, “I would never say something about someone that I wouldn’t say to his face,” – clearly, I think, an attempt to deal with the issue. It seems to be a part of human nature, but I have never heard it discussed seriously, with adults, or in school, outside of a Jewish context. (Yet another reason to rid ourselves of the government monopoly on education.)

Within Judaism, however, this is one of the most commonly discussed topics. Not only is it a day-to-day challenge, more so than murder or theft (I hope), it is also very complex. When is it permitted to say bad things about another? The general rule is that it’s not, however it’s permitted – even required – to warn a someone from having business dealings with a dishonest businessman. Daily life provides us with many borderline cases, and halakhic authorities will differ in the details, but I think that this important area of ethics is well worth thinking about consciously, and not left to our unconscious.

One borderline case which I deal with fairly often: The need to talk about something. Clearly (to me), saying bad things about people for fun is wrong. But often your psychological health requires you to discuss an issue, and often the issue involves lashon hara`. So what do you do? My answer: Find someone whom you can talk to in confidence, preferably someone who doesn’t know the person involved – someone who is as far removed as possible from the scene of the action.

The harm done by speech is even worse than the harm done by stealing or by cheating someone financially, because amends can be made for monetary harms, but the harm done by speech can never be repaired.

More here.

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The Future of Government (don’t we wish…)

I wish my town (and country!) had a government like this (via John Ray):

Mayor Stranczek, a trucking company owner, has been the Mayor of Crestwood since 1969. "Businesses don't become successful by running at a loss, said Stranczek. "When I became Mayor we scrapped the huge Public Works Department that handled water main leaks, etc. We simply contracted these problems out to private contractors. So, instead of having a bunch of workers sitting around when it was raining, collecting wages, insurance and medical benefits, plus machinery like backhoes rusting, we hired firms to do the work. The savings are fantastic. The same goes for bookkeeping. We simply pay an auditor $8,000 a year to do the work. Savings: around $35,000 a year. Thanks to efficient government, there's plenty of money to pay for needed services.

"We have only three full time policemen. But we have 40 part time officers who live in Crestwood and put in 10 - 12 hours a week patrolling the streets. A a result, we have one of the safest towns in America. This year alone we've given our taxpayers a $1,000,000 dollar rebate. When you pay your taxes in Crestwood, you get a 26% rebate. And, because of the sales taxes we're getting from new businesses moving into this desirable area, we hope that within four years, homeowners will have NO property taxes."

Crestwood has just 17 full time employees, compared to a near by town of the same population that has 150 full time employees. "Our budget is $2 million dollars a year while a town of similar size, with 12,000 people, might have a budget of $10 million, said City Director Frank Gassmere. Added Mayor Stranczek: "Folks are happy here and I intend to keep them that way."

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October 17, 2004

Boxenhorn’s wager

Well, three days have passed since I introduced the term: logoism, and nobody has told me the real word for the concept. Could I be the first to need such a term? It seems highly unlikely. I have known for a long time that logoism is my most fundamental belief, that I am a theist for this reason, and not the reverse. I would think that this would be true of others, as well, and that some great mind would have described it.

To be more precise, I had a choice between nihilism and logoism, and chose logoism because nihilism would have made me miserable. I think that is a perfectly good reason, considering that there is no proof either way. Instead we must rely on heuristics. Nihilists will invoke the heuristic of Occam’s Razor – but I invoke the heuristic of human nature. Besides, I have a wager that I’d like to win:

  Believe in Logoism Believe in Nihilism
Logoism true happy, right miserable, wrong
Nihilism true happy, wrong miserable, right

Which wager appeals to you?

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October 15, 2004

Shabat Noah

This Sabbath is Shabat Noah, the day when we read the part of the Bible that tells the story of Noah. Now, most of us know the story of Noah: He was commanded to build a huge arc on dry land, three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high – that comes out to about 600ft X 100ft X 60ft – in other words, very large. It took 120 years for him to build it, and during this time he had to endure the ridicule of his neighbors.

And in spite of its great size, as Rabeynu Bakhya pointed out in the 13th century, it wasn’t nearly large enough to fit all the animals in the world! So what happened? God caused a miracle to happen, and miraculously all the animals were able to fit in.

But if a miracle was necessary, why then did God command Noah to work so long and hard build such a huge arc? Even a small one would suffice! Because God wants you to do as much as you can. Only then, will He make a miracle happen.

(Or, as Arnold Palmer once said: The more I practice the luckier I get.)

Shabat Shalom!

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Irrational Logoists

My recent post, Nihilists and Necrophiliacs, inspired some very interesting feedback. Among them, Pixy Misa said:

I believe that the only meaning there is to existence is that which we create ourselves.

Where do I fit in? I'm no Islamist, nor a nihilist, but I'm not sure I'm a logoist either.

Jinnderella added:

David, I'm with Pixy Misa-- if I believe what Francis Crick believes-- "The Astonishing Hypothesis, is that 'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: 'You're nothing but a pack of neurons.'" (via Belmont Club) I guess I do believe in the-god-in-the-genes. Does that qualify me to be logoist?

It seems a lot of people I respect fall into this category – people who (if I understand correctly) think it doesn’t make sense to believe that existence has meaning, since there is no evidence for it – yet betray by their actions that in spite of everything, they do. Often, like Pixy Misa, they will say that they believe in “creating meaning” – I don’t fall for this for a minute! Though I have no trouble with the phrase if you mean to say that you should pursue a life that has meaning for you, if I take it as it seems to be intended, it would imply that an Islamist’s meaning is just as meaningful as Pixy Misa’s, since they are both meanings that they have “created themselves”. Such a meaning for meaning seems to me meaningless. I’ll call these people irrational logoists; since they have an irrational belief in meaning that persists in spite of what their reason is telling them. I know them well, since I was once one of them. (When I made up the term: logoist, to describe people who believe that there is a meaning to existence, I was sure that someone would soon tell me what the “real” term is. So far they haven’t.)

I parted ways with irrational logoism deliberately – I couldn’t stand the cognitive dissonance. I didn’t want to give up my belief in meaning, assuming that that was possible. To do so would be to fall into the abyss, to embrace death in life, passing the time aimlessly with nothing more than sensual pleasures to relieve the boredom. So the choice left to me (besides the continuing anguish of cognitive dissonance) was to embrace meaning wholly, and derive what I reasonably could from it. It took a while, but in the end I succeeded. I did it by doing – by living life as if it had meaning, and eventually I came to understand that, in fact, it did. I am now rarely attacked by nihilistic self-doubt. And the world has become lit up.

There are people who claim it is I, a rational theist, who is suffering from cognitive dissonance. I can only conclude that they have chosen the other path: nihilism.

(My apologies to those whom I have wronged by misunderstanding you. It should be clear that I am talking, here, primarily about myself. I await the clarifications.)

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October 14, 2004

Jinnderella and the Jews

Jinnderella has written a very touching post in support of the Jews:

I want Jews to be cherished and respected citizens of the world. I want them to be able to go on vacation without fear of their hotel being blown up, to be able to get on a bus or go to a restaurant without death stalking them. Last week six Jews won the Nobel prizes for Physics and Chemistry. Think of the contributions made over time to literature, science, government and arts by Jews. Species Homo Sapiens needs these people badly.

The only way I can think of to avert "Secret Israel" is to stand for the Jews. Never tolerate an anti-semetic slur. Never avert your gaze. Be fierce against anti-semitic language. It cannot be tolerated. Our government must do the right thing for Israel. Who cares what the UN thinks? They all hate us anyways. Write letters, cancel subscriptions, buy kosher. But stand for the Jews, stand for Israel. And stand strong.

I must say that I am very glad to have her on my side! But she also says some things that, I think, would give most Jews a rueful smile:

So Judaism is a religion without modern defectors. A religion so appealing to its constituency, and to "outsiders" looking in, that it needs no safeguards against defection.

It is true that defection to another religion is rare, but it is my impression that this is true of most religions – in the last century, at least. The primary means of defection is passive, not active – an apathy toward Judaism which usually results in lack of transmission of Jewish consciousness to the next generation. While in Israel, these people can remain nominally Jewish indefinitely; in the US they quickly become indistinguishable from the nominally Christian.

However, it is my impression that within the last two generations we have reached a kind of stability within the Jewish world. There is now a clear distinction between observant and non-observant Jews (observant of halakha, or not), and it is a question in my mind whether non-observant Jews have a Jewish future outside of Israel. Not that I am ruling it out, it’s just a question! On the other hand, the observant community is strong, and as jinderella says, has few defections. Of the 13 million Jews in the world, probably 1.5 million are observant. While non-observant Jews are assimilating quickly (a 50% intermarriage rate is a good indication of this) and are reproducing at below the replacement rate, as is consistent with their non-Jewish peers in the west, observant Jews have a fertility of about 4 children per woman. Do the math.

So, barring catastrophe, which is by no means impossible, especially with a nuclear-armed Iran, I am optimistic about Jewish survival. But why should I care, aside from chauvinism? It is because I do think that Jews have something unique to contribute, something not restricted to Nobel prizes and scientific advance. It is our unique point of view.

It is a pedagogical principle that knowledge is transmitted in three ways: hearing, seeing, and doing. Teachers of children try hard to design their lesson plans to include all three. But in the adult world the last is severely neglected. We think we can gain understanding by reading, talking, and listening. No doubt we can understand much, but there are some things you can understand only by doing. (Marriage is one such thing: the reason to get married is not what you expect before you do it.)

I think there are things you can learn only by living a Jewish life. I try to communicate some of them in this blog.

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Nihilists and Necrophiliacs

Two nights ago, in a rare act of leisure, my wife and I went out to a movie: Ha’ushpizin (clip here). We enjoyed it very much. It is about Moshe, who has some kind a shady, or not very virtuous past, and his wife Malka, who have become Breslover Hasidim. Just before the holiday of Sukot, the couple have some unexpected guests from Moshe’s past – fugitives who have just escaped from prison, and have nowhere else to go. In Judaism there is a specific commandment to welcome guests (hakhnasat orhim), which is particularly appropriate during the holiday of Sukot. Ushpizin means guests in Hebrew (–in is a dialectical variation of –im), but more specifically refers to the ancestral guests who spiritually share your Suka during the holiday. For those of you who see the movie, unfamiliar with either Israel or Judaism: Know that the Israel and Judaism in this movie are almost as exotic to most Israelis as they are to you.

Moshe’s former friends (or whatever they are) are clearly disreputable, but not entirely inhuman. One of them shows some sign of appreciation of Moshe’s new life. The other, however, is clearly challenged by it. He thinks Moshe is a fake, and repeated tries to provoke him – evidently, Moshe was once known for his temper.

I found this completely believable, though you might expect a fugitive to be careful not to provoke his benefactor. What could motivate a person to do such a thing? What could be more important than his freedom?

The answer is his worldview. Moshe’s new life was a danger to his dog-eat-dog worldview. And since our worldview is our existence, Moshe was an existential threat. He had to prove to himself that Moshe was a fake, or die.

Back in 2004, Steven Den Beste proposed a three-way struggle to explain the current conflict with Islamism and its left-wing allies in the US and Europe. His three sides were materialists, idealists (excellent explanation here by our very own Pixy Misa), and of course, Islamists.

That it is a three-way struggle is clear: Islamism’s leftist allies are clearly driven by an agenda that is completely different from, and incompatible with it. What is puzzling is why these people should see in Islamism an ally at all – for it most assuredly is a threat to everything they desire and believe. According to Den Beste’s theory, the idealists are allying with the Islamists because otherwise the realists would win. I am not convinced, for as Pixy Misa points out, the idealists’ survival depends on the peace and prosperity of the materialists. If the Islamists win, idealists and materialists alike will suffer.

I would like to propose a different three-way struggle. In addition to the Islamists, are the nihilists and the logoists. I have created the word logoist to describe the opposite of nihilist – one who believes that there is meaning to existence. (Can it be that I am the first to need this word? Someone, please help me!) In the absence of meaning, it is natural for the nihilist to seek pleasure before all things – even in the face of certain destruction. If pleasure is our only joy, why jeopardize it when in the future we are, in any case, dead? And it is easy to see why a nihilist would naturally ally with an Islamist. Fighting them is painful, while losing to them would be confirmation of their beliefs.

Fortunately for the world, there are still logoists in the west. And they say: If there is nothing worth dying for, then there is also nothing worth living for.

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October 13, 2004

Election Odds

A very interesting column on election betting, by Donald Luskin (via John Ray):

Here’s the record. From 1884 to 1940 — the heyday of organized election betting — there were thirteen elections. In nine of them, the betting markets strongly favored one candidate by setting the odds at a 60 percent-or-greater probability a month before the election. The favorite won in nine out of ten elections. Also, there were three very close elections, and the betting odds correctly put all three near 50/50. For the remaining election, in 1908, regulatory issues kept the betting markets from functioning until just before Election Day — but the odds did call the winner correctly.

The old Wall Street betting market dried up after 1940 with the advent of stricter anti-gambling regulations and the arrival on the scene of the first public-opinion polls — the same kind we still use today. But thanks to the Internet, election betting is back, and it’s better than ever.

Right now the election betting market makes George W. Bush the favorite to win re-election, with a probability of about 62 percent. This is above the threshold at which — a month out from the election — betting markets have only been wrong once in 116 years.

Today the dominant election betting market is Tradesports.com, a website based in Dublin, Ireland, where you can bet on all manner of sporting, political, and current events. Presidential bets at Tradesports.com take the form of online futures contracts. After the election, the Bush futures will settle at a value of either 100 if he wins or zero if he loses. So the price today is always in-between zero and 100, and indicates the betting market’s estimate of Bush’s probability of winning.

The Bush futures at Tradesports.com trade several thousand contracts a day. They are deep and liquid markets, but small — trading represents a dollar value that is far less than that traded in typical futures markets. Yet similar political futures contracts, traded in even smaller size on the Iowa Electronic Market, a website operated by the business school of the University of Iowa, have correctly predicted every presidential popular-vote winner since 1988. (If you want to track the Bush futures, and a dozen other futures contracts on the election and current events, I’ve set up a feed on my website where they are all together in one convenient place.)

I'll be keeping a eye on Donald's feed.

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October 12, 2004

Last Words

From Mark Steyn:

None of us can know for certain how we would behave in his circumstances, and very few of us will ever face them. But, if I had to choose in advance the very last words I’d utter in this life, “Tony Blair has not done enough for me” would not be high up on the list.

I would never criticize anyone for weakness in the face of death, but I hope that if I were in Kenneth Bigley’s place (which I fervently hope I will never be) I would have the courage to say something like: Don’t give in to terror!

UPDATE: Here's how to handle terrorists: never give in. Here too.

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October 11, 2004

Religion Genes

Razib of Gene Expression has a very interesting post on religion. He raises a lot of interesting questions, too many for me to summarize here without rewriting the post or boring you with a long laundry list – go read it yourself. I left the following responses in his comments section:

It seems to me that different religions would tend to appeal to different alleles (if religious alleles exist at all). Christianity and Mormonism, for example, are primarily faith-based religions, which require their adherents to believe in a particular theology, eschatology, and/or history. Skepticism about such beliefs would be a serious barrier to any member remaining religious, even if they were attracted to social or other aspects of the religion. Judaism (and I think, Islam), on the other hand, is primarily a lifestyle-based religion, the lifestyle being defined by halakha (Jewish Law, literally: "the way"). It requires only a vague belief in an undefined God (which according to the figures you cite, seems to be compatible with 80-90% of the population). Within Judaism, you find a wide variety of theological, eschatological, and historical beliefs, and a wide variety of social styles, from cold/analytical, to fiery/zealous, to warm/fuzzy - all of which are tolerated as being differences of style, not substance. On the other hand, to be Jewish, you have to be willing to follow halakha. Inability to do that would be a serious barrier to being religious, no matter how much you are attracted to the religion.

On the question of whether a religious revival is taking place or not, within Judaism, at least, the evidence is clear. The answer is both. Most Jews are getting less religious, but at the same time the religious community is growing. It used to be that there was a large middle ground: Jews who didn't keep halakha, but nonetheless considered themselves religious. This community is disappearing.

I don't think this is surprising. The modern world of the last 200 years or so has been a major challenge to inter-generation propagation of established religions. Only recently have modern-world-resistant strains of religion become common enough to be noticed. What we are seeing is the simultaneous growth of the modern strains, and the decline of the pre-modern strains. Our picture is muddled because the figures you cite combine both.

As to the pattern of observed religiosity, I think the most important factors are the degree of religious diversity, and the speed of incursion of the modern world. High diversity increases the likelihood of modern-world-resistant strains being present in the population, while a slow rate of incursion of modernity increases the time available for resistant strains to develop. We see the former in the US, and the latter in the Arab world.

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October 10, 2004

An Eye for an Eye

A couple of posts down I made the following comment: “Not only that, the way a 21st century American reads the Bible is definitely not necessarily the way it is intended to be read. How do we know how it was intended to be read? Well, we can start with a tradition that is as old as the Bible itself. But that is a subject for another post.”

I didn’t particularly mean that to be a teaser, only that that subject merited its own post. And since I’ve talked about it before (one example here), I didn’t think the answer would be a mystery. But I’ve gotten responses by comment, blog, and email asking for me to elaborate. So here it goes. 

The answer is the Talmud (root: l-m-d – learning, teaching), also referred to as the Oral Tora. The Oral Tora (תורה שבעל פה) was given alongside the Written Tora (תורה שבכתב), but around the time of the Roman conquest of Israel, when there was genuine and willful cultural imperialism by the Romans against the Jews, it began to be written down. The oldest part of the Talmud is called the Mishna, the later part the Gemara. Here is a translation of Suka – the portion of the Talmud that discusses the building of a Suka. Here is what the same page actually looks like in the original. (Hint: If you are having trouble following the meanderings of the discussion, try reading it out loud. Remember, this is an oral discussion written down, and the traditional way to study it is to read it out loud.)

After the completion of the Gemara, later scholars added their traditions. Rashi, for example, didn’t consider himself to be an innovator. He considered himself to be merely recording for posterity his encyclopedic knowledge of tradition. 

All this has sometimes surprising (to us) results. Take for example:

עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן
שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן
יָד תַּחַת יָד
רֶגֶל תַּחַת רָגֶל

`ayin tahat `ayin
shen tahat shen
yad tahat yad
regel tahat ragel

An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
A hand for a hand
A leg for a leg

Exodus 21:24

According to the usual reading of this passage, this is paradigmatic example of “Old Testament Justice” – i.e. harsh, barbaric justice that was thankfully superseded by a more merciful, loving faith. All this ignores the fact that there is a tradition, as old as the Bible itself, which tells us how to read it: The value of an eye for an eye, the value of a tooth for a tooth, etc. In other words, one who damages another’s property or person is to pay monetary damages. Do you find this reading implausible? Then imagine reading this three thousand years from now: “If you damage my eye, or my tooth, or my hand, or my leg, you’ll pay for it!”

Try explaining that that DOESN’T mean monetary compensation.

Note: The second appearance of the word “leg” is ragel instead of regel. This is the sof pasuq form of the word. In Biblical Hebrew some words have a different form when occurring before a pause – usually with longer vowels, sometimes preserving older forms of the word whose vowels have been shortened.

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Thought and Language

In my last post I talked about two ways of representing thought: words and pictures. There are others, among them what are usually called formal languages. While you might think that formal languages are artificial, or maybe highly structured, languages which are nonetheless languages much like natural languages, I challenge you with this observation: Formal languages cannot be spoken (and understood) in more than a trivial sense. They can only be understood to any degree of complexity when written down – so maybe they are pictures! (Since we are talking about thought, the way human beings understand them is critical to my definition of what they are.) I hope you agree with me that it is absurd to call mathematical notation and computer languages kinds of pictures! Nevertheless, they do help us think.

One of the remarkable things about natural languages, the point, I think, that Amritas was making here and here, is that though they differ incredibly, they all seem to be equally capable of expressing thought. As I understand it, there have been quite a few attempts to find cases where language influences thought, without success. (If I am not mistaken, this is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.) The only area where languages differ in a way that is relevant to thought is vocabulary, and this is easily remedied.

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Representations of Thought

It seems that Steven Den Beste has become the Elvis of the blogosphere. Rumor has it that he has passed on to a better blogosphere (some say it’s a mythical paradise called, “Chisumatic”), but sightings of him in this blogosphere still seem common. I, for one, believe them to be real! Some philanthropic blogger should do us a favor, and start a blog of Steven Den Beste sightings, perhaps calling it: Den Beste Lives!

My most recent sighting is at Amaravati (my first sighting was on Daily Pundit), where he graced us with his thoughts about thought, and language. No doubt wisdom from the next blogosphere.

I must respectfully build on this wisdom. I think he’s half right, in that he gets all the right concepts down, but I think he doesn’t correctly specify their relationship to each other. He correctly points out that it is a fallacy that people necessarily think in words:

There are a number of problems with that. For one thing, there is a substantial minority of people for whom the subjective experience of thought is fundamentally visual and image oriented, rather than word oriented.

I would like to propose a different organization. I propose to divide up the concept of thinking into two very different acts, which for lack of better terms I will call: imagination and analysis. Imagination is the process of coming up with new thoughts, while analysis is the process of verifying their truth or utility. Thus words and pictures are both tools for analysis. And indeed, the right vocabulary, whether verbal or pictorial, does help in this process. I very much agree with the aphorism, attributed to Socrates, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” So often, a poorly defined terminology leads to muddled thought. Just look at what passes for political analysis today. How did I begin this paragraph? By defining my terms!

Imagination, on the other hand, is neither verbal nor pictorial. Indeed, it is inexpressible. How can we express a thought before it is thought? And after it is thought, it can no longer be imagined, only analyzed. Imagination is the most remarkable thing in the world. Though my profession demands it on a daily basis, I have never ceased to be amazed at it. Where do these thoughts come from? Surely they are not random; in fact I myself have had some success at directing them. But I have only a vague idea how I do it.

One thing I do know: A clear expression of the problem, whether in words or in pictures, is one of the keys to imagining its solution.

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October 09, 2004

Six days of Creation

Today was Shabat B’reshit (שבת בראשית) – the Sabbath of “In the Beginning”. Every week Jews read a Tora (Pentateuch) portion, such that over the course of a year, we read the entire Tora. Today, the first Shabat after Simhat Tora, is when we start over. The Tora portion of B’reshit covers the entire creation story, from “In the beginning”, through the story of Adam and Eve, and up to the story of Noah, which we will read next week.

I talked about the story of Adam and Eve not too long ago. I should point out, that the story I told is not a radical reading – it is the normative Jewish reading, at least in its major features. Here’s some more support for the two-in-one theory of Adam:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ
בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ
זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם

Vayivra’ elohim et ha’adam b’salmo
B’selem elohim bara’ oto
Zakhar unqeva bara’ otam

And God created the Adam in his image
In the image of God he created him
Male and female he created them

Genesis 1:27

At the time of his creation, Adam is referred to as both singular and plural, male and female.

Getting back to this post, the Bible (of which the Tora is the first five books) begins with the epic description of the six days of creation, supposedly laying out the case for what is known today as creationism. Now, while this idea may be critically important in some other Bible-based religions, it is irrelevant to Judaism. In the 11th century, long before the idea of six days of creation was a problem from a scientific point of view, Rashi, probably the most normative of Jewish scholars said about the story of creation, “Scripture did not [intend to] teach anything of the earlier or later sequence [of creation]”. 

If the purpose of this story is not to each about the sequence of creation, what then is its purpose? I don’t have a clear answer to that question, though if pressed, I could suggest some. But it is important to understand that the Bible is not meant to be a history book – it is meant to teach us how to live. Not only that, the way a 21st century American reads the Bible is definitely not necessarily the way it is intended to be read. How do we know how it was intended to be read? Well, we can start with a tradition that is as old as the Bible itself. But that is a subject for another post.

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October 08, 2004

Terror in Sinai

I woke up this morning to the news of a terrible terror attack in Sinai. The attacks were aimed at areas that cater to Israeli tourists. Clearly, the international terror groups are targeting Jews outside of Israel (think Kenya, Argentina) because they are having trouble attacking in Israel. Jews in Arab countries must make particularly easy targets.

A word of advice: If you must be a tourist in an Arab country, avoid places which cater to Jews.

By the way, people talk about Sinai as if it were part of Egypt from ancient times. However, the Bedouins who live there are not Egyptian, and in fact are no different from the Bedouins who live in Israel. Sinai is only part of Egypt because it was captured from the Turks by the British in World War I, and incorporated into Egypt – an act widely condemned in the Arab world at the time.

UPDATE: Just two weeks ago Rinat was in Ra’s al Shaitan (Satan’s Head, one of the targets of the attack). Today, this is what she has to say.

UPDATE: If you want to see what Ra’s al Shaitan looks like go here. (It is written Ra’s a-Shaitan in Hebrew because the “l” assimilates into the “sh”.)

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October 06, 2004

Simhat Tora

Tonight is Simhat Tora, also called Shmini `Aseret. Outside of Israel, these holidays are celebrated separately. This is the day when Jews leave their Sukot, and “return in joy to their homes”. It is the last holiday of the season, and it marks the end of summer – it is the day when we start praying for rain. It is also the day when we finish reading the Tora (the Pentateuch) and start over from the beginning. (Every week of the year has its own Tora portion, which is read on the Sabbath, such that the whole Tora is read every year.)

The synagogue service for this day is the longest of the year, except for Yom Kipur. There are two reasons for that. First, there are seven haqafot (dancing with the Tora scrolls), then there are `aliyot to the Tora. On Sabbaths and holidays, when the Tora is read, several people are honored with the task of reading from the Tora, seven on the Sabbath, and five on holidays. But on Simhat Tora, everyone gets an `aliya (ascent to the Tora), which can take a very long time. At one time, people who were called up to read, read their own portions. This custom is still observed in the Yemenite community, but in all other communities a different person is appointed to be the ba`al qore (master of reading) to do the task for him, even if he knows how to read for himself. This is done so as not to embarrass those who don’t know how to read. The result is that the `ole (one who ascends) says the blessings before and after reading, while the actual reading is done by the ba`al qore.

I have to end here, preparations for the holiday are calling. For more, go here.

Shana Tova to all – Happy new year!

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Trackback from Willow Tree, Oh Why Don't I Like Me?:
My own blog wouldn't talk to me. I tried to access her and she kept telling me she wasn't there. Liar! I knew she wsa home and just hiding behind the sofa. Maybe she knew my brain was blank; at...

The four humors

I got a laugh out of this comment from Amritas, in response to a comparison of European and “indigenous” education:

Is European education inhuman? Isn't it ... 'indigenous' to Europe?

It reminds me of a bone to pick that I have with the proponents of traditional medicine: the traditional medicine of Europe seems to be ignored, though exceedingly logical. It is based on the theory of the four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile. Disease is a result of them becoming imbalanced, so when you're sick, steps are taken to rebalance them. Since the cause of many diseases is an excess of blood, the cure for many diseases is bleeding.

Why is the traditional medicine of Europe ignored? Surely it is unnatural to treat Europeans with foreign traditional medicine!

Propoents of traditional medicine will surely say I'm simplifying things, so here's an account of how it was practiced on George Washington.

Dr. Craik arrived shortly after nine o'clock and hurried to his friend's bedside. He diagnosed Washington's illness as "inflammatory quinsy," an infection of the throat. He applied a blister of cantharides externally to the throat, hoping to draw the inflammation to the surface, and he performed a second bleeding. Washington inhaled a steaming mixture of vinegar and water, but he could not gargle the potion of vinegar and sage tea offered him. By this time, he was unable even to cough effectively, although encouraged to do so by Dr. Craik. Upon seeing no improvement in Washington's condition, Craik bled him for a third time.
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October 05, 2004

First Presidential Debate

I belatedly watched the first presidential debate. (Click to view the debate online.) I must say, after reading many analyses, I was quite surprised. I thought it was a clear win for Kerry. Not that anything he said made sense. Does anyone think he could have gotten France and Germany into the war on terror? Does anyone think that giving Saddam more time would convince him of anything? And if Saddam refused for a 19th time (or whatever) would it then be the right war at the right time in the right place? And why doesn’t it make sense to “outsource” the war in Afghanistan to locals? Etc. (I’m sure I’m missing a few things.)

But how many people are listening that closely? The impression that I came away with is that Kerry sounded confident and presidential, while Bush sounded tired and defensive. And I think that’s what counts.

Not that I think it will be enough to turn the election, thank heavens!

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Culture of Intellectual Poverty

I sometimes use the term: culture of poverty. When I say this, I am not referring to a particular culture, rather to cultural characteristics that tend to lead to poverty. I am of the opinion that this, rather than circumstances of birth, chance, or oppression, is the leading cause of poverty worldwide. For example, if your culture does not value and encourage hard work, planning for the future, or education, you are very likely to be poor, but if your culture values and encourages all three, it considerably less likely.

But there are many kinds of poverty, material poverty being only one of them. Many years ago, being single and spending very little time at home, I decided to rent an apartment in a poor suburb of Tel Aviv. The people who lived there were indeed weak in the values mentioned above. Nevertheless, they led spiritually rich lives – they just had fewer things. The typical home was made of cinderblocks, and had a tin roof. Of course, there was no central heating, and the furniture was ragged and worn. But life was good. People were open and honest, and had friends nearby whom they cared about. Families were tight. While probably over 95% were below the US poverty line, I think they led better lives than the average American. One of the things that confuses Americans about the nature of poverty, is that in the US material and spiritual poverty are almost invariably seen together. Being poor in the US really is horrible, not because of material want, but because being poor means living in a crime-ridden drug-infested neighborhood, and the only way to get out is to have money.

I’ve been thinking lately about intellectuals, wondering how so many smart people can be so wrong. Bunker Mulligan has been thinking about it too. I really do believe that the IQ of the average intellectual is way above average, why then is their WQ (wisdom quotient) usually so much lower than average? It occurs to me that they must be handicapped by a culture of intellectual poverty. What are the characteristics of this culture? Here’s my first attempt:

1. Fear of failure (lack of courage)
2. Belief that life is a zero-sum game (one person’s gain is another’s loss)
3. Belief that they can learn nothing from their “inferiors”
4. Unwillingness to empirically test their hypotheses
5. Unwillingness to intellectually confront their detractors
6. Willingness to lie for a “good reason”
7. Belief that ultimately, life is meaningless

UPDATE: John Ray writes, "I think it's simpler than that: Success leads to arrogance and it takes a strong character to resist that."

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Neighborhood Sukot

I went for a short walk around the neighborhood, and took some pictures of the sukot I saw.

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October 04, 2004

Presidential Election Markets

I’ve been checking these every day, so I thought I’d post the links:

Iowa Electronic Markets


Between the two, I trust Tradesports more. It’s bigger and more professional.

(Is anybody else annoyed that they don’t mark the 50% level? After all, that’s what counts in the end.)

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October 03, 2004

Shlomo Bar

There’s a concert going on down the street from me. It’s a time of celebration – Sukot. I walked over with my kids, to tire them out before putting them to sleep, and was just about to leave when to my great surprise and delight, the bandleader invited Shlomo Bar onto the stage.

Shlomo Bar is one of the pioneers of Israeli East-West fusion. It’s really a very interesting fusion of western popular music and Middle Eastern music. The closest thing to it is Greek music, which is also an East-West fusion, but to my ears it sounds very different. Shlomo Bar is a musician’s musician, and a more popular fusion is now the most popular style of music in Israel today.

Here’s his website. Try listening to אהבתה של תרזה די מון (The love of Theresa Dimon), or ריצתו של העולה דנינו (The run of the immigrant Danino), or את אצבעותיך (Your fingers), and see if you can hear the hets and `ayins. (The first words of the last song are: et esb`otekha et yadeykha et paneykha et `eyneykha – your fingers, your hands, your face, your eyes. The word: et is an object marker.)

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October 02, 2004

Names with God

I forgot two important names of God, two posts down: Yah (יָהּ) and Yahu (יָהוּ). These are clearly related to each other, and possibly to the Tetragrammaton. The former is known to English speakers from the word: hallelujah (הַלְלוּיָהּ – hal’luyah). Usually, in Hebrew a final –h indicates a final vowel (usually –a), but in this case it is meant to be pronounced. In fully pointed Hebrew, this is indicated by a dot in the –h, called a mapiq (if you have the font, you should be able to see it in the examples above). Hal’luyah is composed of two Hebrew words: hal’lu, the plural form of halel, which is the command: praise, and yah: “the Lord”. So the whole word means: Praise the Lord!

These two names, along with the word: El, are frequently found as components of names. Since Hebrew doesn’t normally have compound words, there is some dispute about how to translate them. For example, does Nathaniel (N’tan’el) mean God gives, or gift of God? In the following examples I use whatever seems best to me: Daniel (Dani’el: God judges), Rafael (R’fa’el: God heals), Gabriel (Gavri’el: God overcomes), Ariel (Ari’el: Lion of God), Israel (Yisra’el: Strives with God, explained in Genesis 32:29) Isaiah (Y’sha`yahu: God saves – saves as in salvation), Elijah (Eliyahu: Yahu is God), Zechariah (Z’kharyah: God remembers).

You might think that people would have a problem speaking or writing these names, but they don’t. Which reminds me of a joke (remember that people sometimes deliberately distort names and words for God when speaking them, usually by substituting “k” for some other letter):

A young, single man meets a very attractive young woman, and asks her her name. She replies, “Batkah [daughter of God], and what’s your name?” He answers, “Kelikaku.”

UPDATE: Amritas contributes some Chinese names of God. He reminds me of a common attempt at vocalizing the Tetragrammaton: Jehovah. This word has an interesting history: it is based on the vocalization commonly found in Jewish sources. But this vocalization has a different purpose entirely: it is meant only to remind the reader to say A-donay! It does so by pointing the Tetragrammaton with its vowels. Why then, you may ask, is the yud pointed with a shva’? Because, according to the rules of Hebrew grammar, a yud cannot be pointed with a hataf-patah – this vowel occurs only with the letters alef, he, het, and `ayin as a result of the fact that they cannot be followed by the vowel: shva’ na`.

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October 01, 2004

An American in Jordan

Just discovered a really interesting blog (via Winds of Change). It’s by an American student in Jordan. Excerpt:

Israel is a problem.

When I say “problem,” I do not mean that I am opposed to the Israeli state or its people. But you cannot possibly understand the magnitude of Arab hate for Israel unless you are here daily. The hate for Israel muddles every aspect of politics. You can be on the subject of politics in China and somehow, someway Israel is at fault. This is a problem.

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Names of God

Languages have words for things that are important to their speakers. I, for one, am always astounded by the numerous words English has for articles of clothing (I also have only vague notions about what differentiates a lot of them from each other – sweater, jumper, pullover, for example, only the first of which is a word I would use). Surely this is a measure of the importance of clothing in our society. In spite of the myth of Eskimo words for snow (debunked here), I think this is generally true. In Hebrew, there are a lot of words for God.

However, there are only a few basic words for God – the others are words or phrases that are used to describe God, like “the Almighty” in English. The most common word for God is Elohim (אֱלֹהִים) which looks like a plural form of Eloha (אֱלֹהַּ) another word for God, but isn’t – it is always used with singular verbs when it refers to God. (Elohim can also mean gods, as in Elohim aherim – other gods, in which case it is used with a plural verb.) These words are clearly both from the root ’-l-h, as is Arabic: Allah. In fact, eloha is a cognate of Arabic: ilah, God. In addition, there is a word from a related root: El (אֵל). There is also the mysterious word: shaday (שַׁדָּי), not often used, and frequently found together with El: El Shaday. And then there is the name of God.

Up till now, we have been talking about words for God, but Hebrew also has a name for God, which is a proper noun. But before I start talking about it, I have to give some background about a related topic. Judaism prohibits erasing, or otherwise destroying the name of God. For that reason, you will not see it written in contexts where it is not meant to be long-lasting, such as newspapers, nor will people write it casually on a piece of paper. Documents which contain the name of God cannot be thrown away, instead, when they must be retired, they are put in a g’niza (root: g-n-z – hidden). A particularly famous g’niza was discovered about 100 years ago in Cairo, which contained an enormous number of important documents written between 1000 and 1250. In addition, there is a prohibition on speaking the name of God, which was consequently forgotten before Hebrew vowels were invented, we can therefore only guess at its pronunciation. As a result, the Hebrew name of God is read as “my Lords” – and this too has been proscribed in usage: it can only be spoken when praying, saying a blessing, or quoting a passage from the Bible in its entirety. Instead, in everyday usage, people usually say: Hashem, which means “the Name”. I presume that this originally referred to the name itself, but it has come to be used as God’s name. English translations of the Bible reflect the Hebrew usage, the name of God is translated as: the Lord, while the words for God are translated as: God.

Now, though closing a window on a computer screen is not considered erasing, it is the custom not to display God’s name online in contexts in which it would not appear if it were a printed document. I will abide by that custom. There are several ways in which people get around the rule: replace one of the letters with a dash, change one of the letters to a different letter, or separate the letters with a dash. I will use the latter strategy, so in reading what follows, ignore any dashes you see.

The name of God is Y-H-V-H (י-ה-ו-ה). This is clearly from the root: h-v-h (also called h-w-h, h-w-y, h-y-y depending on the root-naming scheme that you’re using) which means something like: being. It looks to me like a passive verbal noun, which would mean something like: is being. This relationship is explicitly acknowledged in the Bible (Exodus 3:14) when God tells Moses to call him: Ehye asher Ehye – I am that I am (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה).

Now, since pronouncing the tetragrammaton (the four-letter name of God, usually called in Hebrew: shem Hashem) is forbidden, and in any case has been forgotten, we say a-donay instead (אֲ-דֹנָי), which literally means: my lords. Lord in Hebrew is: adon, the plural of which is adonim, and to say: my, in this case you replace the –im with –ay. But remember: use this pronunciation only when praying, blessing, or saying a Biblical passage in its entirety! Otherwise use: Hashem.

When writing a passage that contains the tetragrammaton, in a non-permanent context, the most common transcription is: 'ה. That is the transcription that I usually use.

Hebrew also has numerous words and phrases, which refer to God. I will list some of them off the top of my head:

Adon `Olam – Lord of the Universe
Ribon `Olam – Master of the Universe
Ribono shel `Olam – Master of the Universe
Haqadosh barukh hu – The Holy One blessed be He
Eyn Sof – The Infinite
Hamaqom – The Omnipresent
Avinu shebashamayim – Our father in heaven
Sur `Olamim – Rock of Universes

UPDATE: I forgot two names of God, yah and yahu. For more go here.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 05:57 AM  Permalink | Comments (3)
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