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« Los Angeles, Mexico | Main | My Ketel for a comma! »

May 01, 2005


language hat

Thanks for that -- I'd always said it the Hebrew way just because, well, it was obviously a Hebrew word (and I find, looking into my dictionary, it means 'pharmacist, druggist,' which is weird), and I'm glad to know the Truth. And I thank you as well for the pronunciation site, which seems well researched -- you have to be in the know to know that Rao's is pronounced RAY-ohz.


If you plant an orchid in the desert...this is like the habit of dropping the vowel from "God", which doesn't comport with any aspect of English culture.

Semantic Compositions

LH: Happy to oblige. I didn't know about Rao's; while I've seen the jars of tomato sauce in some grocery stores, I thought it rhymed with "wows".

Jim: I think you're referring to the habit I share with a number of other Orthodox and Conservative Jews, of writing G-d when referring to the deity of Western monotheism. I don't think anyone claims it's Anglicization. To the best of my knowledge, it derives from the habit of avoiding spelling out G-d's name in full in Hebrew (so as not to take it in vain), and is done to maintain the same practice when writing in English.


If you will forgive a digression (and I know you will, gracious host) this reminds me that I've always considered "take God's name in vain" to be a peculiar collocation, and have never been certain exactly what behavior the relevant commandment is meant to prohibit. I have two reasons for confusion: the use of the verb "take", and the adverbial "in vain".

I don't know other context where one takes a name, except when one is adopting a new name to use instead of one's present one; for example, we say that Cardinal Ratzinger took the name Benedict XVI. But interpreting the Commandment as "Don't call yourself 'God' ..." feels wrong to me. What verb is used in Hebrew? Is it laqaxat, "to take"?

Similarly, the only meaning I know in ordinary English for "in vain" is "fruitless", as in "For years he tried to learn Hebrew, but all his efforts were in vain". But this usage doesn't match the syntactic context of the commandment, which is clearly adverbial, while the "in vain" that is familiar to me is a predicative adjective.

Most people seem to interpret the commandment as meaning, "Don't say (or write) 'God' for trivial reasons, especially in an expletive.". But I'm having a lot of trouble extracting that interpretation from the English sentence. Does the Hebrew shed any light on this? (I'm more interested in the linguistic question than the Talmudic one: the sages repeatedly demonstrated their ability to interpret anything as anything else.)

Semantic Compositions

It's a worthwhile digression!

The exact text in transliteration is:

Lo tisa et-shem-Adonay Eloheycha lashav ki lo yenakeh Adonay et asher-yisa et-shmo lashav.

ORT's translation renders this in the familiar way as: "Do not take the name of God your Lord in vain. God will not allow the one who takes His name in vain to go unpunished." Other translators
render it as "misuse" instead of "take". A word-by-word translation makes clear that the verb is "tisa", which Strong's dictionary gives as a derived form of "nasa", which they translate as "to lift, bear up, carry, take". So I don't think it's supposed to be take in the sense of Cardinal Ratzinger taking a new name, but as a rather poetic way of saying "utter" or "speak".

As for "in vain" or "lashav", the word-by-word translation above suggests that it's derived from the same root as "shoah", which literally means "storm" (and only lately "Holocaust"). Strong's renders the root as "emptiness" or "nothingness" as well as "vanity". I think from this we can conclude that a very literal translation would be "do not utter the name of the Lord in emptiness", which perhaps is a better way of getting at the "no trivialities" interpretation than the common translation. Taking the "storm" translation, we'd get something more like "don't say the name in anger".

I should add that more than a few Jews reject the notion of using a hyphen in place of the "o", on the grounds that the word in English has no meaning in Torah. They're not wrong, in the technical sense that there is no English anywhere in the Torah, but my preference is to be cautious since the word clearly is intended to refer to the same entity.


Excellent answering and links, thank you! I was amused that I actually knew that -sa verb root, because it also occurs in the verse/song:

lo' yisa goy el goy xerev

"Not shall-raise nation upon nation sword"

Is the shav-word the same one that is translated as "vanity" in Qohelet?

By the way, despite the scholarship, I think there's still considerable ambiguity concerning exactly what class of acts is being criticized. It isn't even clearly verbal. (Perhaps there used to be a practice of writing the name of a god on a plaque and waving it around to intimidate ones enemies or to make a political statement. I'm being farfetched, but still , "Don't lift up the name of God for nothing" doesn't convey any obvious single meaning to me.)

language hat

Are you sure about 'storm'? My Bantam-Megiddo dictionary says 'catastrophe,' and the AHD says 'devastation, calamity.'

Semantic Compositions

LH: I went with Zola Levitt's account of Shoah as originally meaning "storm". Strong's gives a meaning for the root that "shav" came from as closer to catastrophe/calamity, but also gives the following list of translations for that root in the King James translation: "desolation 5, destruction 3, desolate 2, destroy 1, storm 1, wasteness 1". But then they also give a similar word -- found in Proverbs only, and apparently not from the same root -- "sha'vah" as "devastating storm". So I'd guess that Levitt -- and I -- mixed up two similar words.

ACW: The "vanity" in Qohelet/Ecclesiastes is hebel according to Strong's. ORT makes it next to impossible to search for Haftarah passages, but this Chabad page includes Rashi's commentary, where he remarks specifically on "hebel". So the short answer is "no, not the same vanity".

As regards the ambiguity in what's being proscribed by the commandment, you're right -- it's not clear that it's verbal. While I don't always agree with the maximalist readings of the sages, I think Nachmanides had it about right (see here and scroll down) in taking it as a prohibition against "unnecessary" use, where "necessary" and "ritual" are probably interchangeable.

language hat

I went with Zola Levitt's account

Um, I think this shows the downside of relying on evangelists rather than dictionaries.

Semantic Compositions

No arguments here!

But just to be safe, I've ordered one of these based on your endorsement, since this probably won't be the last time I need to dig up something about Hebrew.


Back again after an absence.

Yes, I was referring to that practice. It looks mostly like an adaptation of the habit of leaving vowels out of YHWH, even though it is not technically necessary, since God is a title rather than a name. The purpose seems more to be to make English feel more homey and familiar as a language, since it is not anything an English/Anglo-Saxon person would think to do. It's a nice touch, I think.


The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That's pride f*cking with you. F*ck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps.

new balance

It is nice one, the pic is very cool, i just wonder if the real matter also cool enough. I have got a watch which have nice photo but do not really good before, it is so bad...


Good food for thought here. Thank you very much for the extensive explanation.

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