Word Nerd: A secular celebration of the Torah and its iconic phrases

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At sundown on October 21, observant Jews celebrated Simchat Torah, “rejoicing in the Torah,” as this marks the end of the annual cycle of reading the Torah and hence the time to start anew. 

During this holiday, the last section of Deuteronomy and the first section of Genesis are read in succession after a festival parade of the Torah scrolls embellished with singing and dancing. 

For secular Jews such as myself, or nonJews, who feel left out of this celebration, we can take solace that as English speakers we’re able to rejoice in the many words and phrases that the five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) have contributed to the English vernacular. 

Mostly, these words and expressions found their way into English through translations of the Torah, such as the King James Bible (KJB). Take the word jubilee. While a jubilee might be an occasion for an English queen to be jubilant, as in the 2012 “Queen’s Diamond Jubilee,” celebrating the 60th anniversary of Elizabeth II ascension, the word bears no etymological ode to joy. 

The first definition of this word in the OED is “A year of emancipation and restoration, which according to Leviticus 25 was to be kept every 50 years, and … proclaimed by the blast of trumpets.. ; during it the fields were … left uncultivated, Hebrew slaves were …set free, and lands and houses in the open country.. that had been sold were to revert to their former owners or their heirs.” 

This august year takes its name from the Hebrew word yobhel, “ram’s horn,” which was used to proclaim the advent of this event. The word “jubilee” is first used in John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Bible: “Thow shalt halowe the fyftith yeer… he is forsothe the iubilee.” Chaucer was the first person to use the word without its religious context and by the late 16th century its secular sense became the dominant meaning. 

Scapegoat is another word first found in Leviticus and once again its progenitor is Wycliffe who renders Leviticus 16 as “And Aaron cast lottes ouer the.. ootes: one lotte for the Lorde, and another for a scapegoote.” 

Most people think of a scapegoat as an innocent person or group that bears the blame for others and suffers a punishment in their stead. However, in the biblical ritual of the Day of Atonement a scapegoat referred to one of two goats that was sent alive into the wilderness. 

The sins of the people had been symbolically laid upon this “escaped” goat, while the other goat was sacrificed to God. So, I suppose, in the original sense, being a scapegoat was better for your well-being than the alternative. As well, our vocabulary has been enriched by several colourful expressions found in the five Books of Moses. These include brother’s keeper, (Genesis 4:9), land of milk and honey (Exodus 3:8), an eye for an eye (Exodus 21:23-27), and fat of the land (Genesis 45:18) Several words and phrases are thought to have a biblical provenance that, in fact, do not. Such is the case of helpmate. 

We read in Genesis 2:18, in the KJB, “God, having created man, observed, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone, I will make him a help meet for him’” i.e, “suitable help.” Hearing “help meet” pronounced, by the end of the 17th century churchgoers rendered the term as helpmeet and by the 18th century this hyphenated term transmogrified into “helpmate.” 

Another Genesis term whose meaning has been misconstrued is “mark of Cain.” We think of this phrase to signify a murderer just as the letter A denoted an adulterer in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. However, when God puts a “mark upon Cain” it is placed so that Cain will be labelled so that others would know not to punish him further. 

One of the best-known supposedly biblical expressions is forbidden fruit, but in Genesis 2 and Genesis 3 Adam and Eve are only instructed not to partake of the fruit of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” According to the OED, forbidden fruit is first used in Edward Stillingfleet’s 1662 Origines Sacræ: “He required from him the observance..of not eating..the forbidden fruit.”

Also, surprisingly, not found in Scripture is the expression “promised land” as this phrase was first used in Thomas Norton’s translation of Calvin’s Institutio Christianae Religionis written in 1561. N.B. This article is aimed for all readers; those who walk with God (Deuteronomy 10:12) and those who worship the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:4) 

hrichler@gmail.com

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