Hebrew is Magic: A Slave to Our Past

Dear friends,

Pesach is upon us, and as you may know, it’s the holiday of fours: four names, four cups of wine, four children, four questions.

In that same spirit, we’re going to examine four words from the Haggadah and discover how they make our lives more meaningful.

 

Jewish holidays and biblical language are notorious for using words that didn’t make it into modern Hebrew, but the other day I overheard a familiar word that did.

Bedi’avad (בדיעבד) is the everyday Hebrew word for “hindsight”.

Take a close look at the word, particularly the last part. Do you see another word you recognize, straight out of the Haggadah?

Indeed, those final three letters, ayin-bet-dalet, form the word  עבד (eved), which means slave.

It’s also the shoresh (root) of numerous words related to the idea of work, everything from a 9-5 job to worshiping God.

What does this have to do with “hindsight”?

Although it can be painful to admit, Hebrew knows that as Jews, we are slaves to our past simply by existing and surviving one enemy after another. Coping with an irreversible, and often tragic history has a way of enslaving us to it.

But even so, reflecting in retrospect enables us to prevent undesirable parts of history from repeating themselves. In this way, looking in hindsight and confronting our history is also the very thing that helps us free ourselves from it.

 

Of course many of our  traditions are worth repeating. The fourth question at the Seder asks why we recline at the table instead of sitting regularly.

At least, that’s how the question is typically translated.

But as it turns out, mesubin (מסובין) is Hebrew for “sitting around the table”

based on the shoresh samech-bet-bet (סבב).

At first glance, this three-letter root might not look so familiar, but it appears in all things that turn or turn around, including a toy from another favorite holiday, the sevivon (dreidel).

In other words, what the child is actually asking in question number four is, “On all other nights we sit at the table wherever and however we want, but on this night we sit around the table, facing one another.”

This word makes another appearance on Passover when we sing the song “Betzet Yisrael.”

Ha-Yarden tisov l’achor

The song describes how the Jordan River turned backward as it paved a path for us to cross into Israel!

The takeaway?

Sometimes making positive changes in life demands that we turn our back on something else in order to pave the path forward.

 

As we move forward with the Seder, we reach the “sandwich stage” korech (כורך). Similarly, the shoresh kaf-resh-chaf (כרכ)

gets packed into multiple Hebrew words.

This same root appears in kricha (כריכה)

which means “book cover” and can also refer to the act of binding pages or ideas together.

And then there’s karuch (כרוך)

which means “to be contingent upon something else.” So, this year when you reach korech, I invite you to ask yourselves What is real freedom contingent on?

 

And for the cherry on top, we have the tastiest dessert of all: Matzah! Except that at this stage of the Seder, we call it tzafun (צפון)

where we hide a piece and make our children look for it, aka, the Greek afikomen.

It’s worth asking, Why don’t we just call this “dessert” like the Greeks do?

To answer that, we’ll decode the root – in this case tzadi-peh-nun (צפנ)

In the nature of the root, there is so much meaning to unpack – if you look for it. One pairing of the word is kod tzofen (קוד צופן), which literally means encrypted code.

On a more amorphic level, the word matzpun (מצפון)

is a variation of a code that’s hard to ignore – our conscience. It’s no wonder that the Hebrew word for compass is matzpen (מצפן).

How sweet of a metaphor! Hebrew is telling us that some codes are hard to decipher, but we can find the answers within (or under the sofa).

Whether a moral compass or a literal one, they can both point us north or tzafon (צפון)

and provide us guidance like the North Star.

 

Who Knows 133?

With 133 hostages still in Gaza, celebrating a holiday that’s symbolic of freedom is paradoxical at best. So to help you bear this burden and remain mindful of why this year is different from all other years, Benji and I created a Passover supplement that integrates what the Jewish people have been enduring for the past six months with traditions that originated thousands of years ago. It includes new takes on the Four Questions, suggestions for ways to keep the hostages in mind at your Seder table, and some relevant Hebrew is Magic. We invite you to incorporate it at the relevant stages of the Seder.

Download Passover Supplement

 

Sending wishes for a Seder filled with hidden meanings and a chag sameach,

Joel


Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian, podcast host, and co-author of Israel 201, winner of the 2023 National Jewish Book Award. You can find out more about his comedy, books, and upcoming tour at www.joelchasnoff.com, and sign up for his weekly newsletter, Hebrew Is Magic, to learn more about the hidden life lessons in Hebrew words.  

Hebrew is Magic: Take a Deep Breath

Dear friends,

As many of you know, I moved to Israel to enlist in the IDF when I was a whopping 24 years old. That means I was older than my comrades, my commanders, and my officers!

Plenty of people, including my parents and then-girlfriend Dorit, tried to talk me out of it.

I had my own doubts, too:

Was my Hebrew strong enough?

Were my glutes strong enough?

And, of course, there was the biggest question of all: Was I willing to die?

Some context: This was the late ‘90s, when just about all combat soldiers would eventually do a tour in Lebanon as part of Israel’s war of attrition with Hezbollah. Did I know for sure that I wanted to be part of that?

No, I did not. But what I did know was that if I didn’t join up, I’d regret it forever (however long “forever” might be).

You see, I realized that serving in the IDF wasn’t just another item on my bucket list. It was a sense of fulfillment I needed to claim in order to feel like life had a bigger purpose.

It was, in other words, something I aspired to.

 

The Hebrew word for “to aspire” is lish’of (לשאוף)

And while I may not have realized this then, I now know that Hebrew sees us during the challenges we face –  and helps us see our way through them. Here’s how:

It turns out that lish’of is a homonym that also means “to inhale.”

Hebrew is handing us a package deal: Aspiring to the best version of who we are necessarily means overcoming difficulty and self-doubt.

In this sense, lish’of is more than just a word, it’s an instruction manual. Hebrew knows that short, shallow breaths are the diagnostic for stressful situations. Lish’of literally spells out how to cope with the anxiety we feel when embarking on a new challenge: deep inhales. This small act equips our brains with enough oxygen to tackle what’s ahead.

Science backs this up. But, once again, Hebrew knew it first.

And I have a feeling that with lish’of, Hebrew is telling us something else, too: In the same way that breathing is involuntary, so too is our need to aspire and reach for more. The day we stop growing is the day we stop living.


Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian, podcast host, and co-author of Israel 201, winner of the 2023 National Jewish Book Award. You can find out more about his comedy, books, and upcoming tour at www.joelchasnoff.com, and sign up for his weekly newsletter, Hebrew Is Magic, to learn more about the hidden life lessons in Hebrew words.  

Hebrew is Magic: Under Contract

As a self-employed stand-up comedian and author, I spend a lot of time with contracts – writing them, reviewing them, and once in a while, arguing over the finer points within.

I know I’m not alone.

It used to be we dealt with contracts once or twice a year – when buying a house, renting an apartment, buying or leasing a car.

But in our modern world, contracts are a daily fixture. Whether it’s downloading an app, signing up for an email account, or ordering a pizza online, we’re first presented with a War-and-Peace-length contract stating the terms and conditions, which we must the acknowledge that we’ve read, understood, and agreed to. (If not, no email address. Or pizza.)

Is it simply the nature of contracts that they’re like this?

And why do we have contracts at all?

Believe it or not, Hebrew has the answer…

 

CHEST SELF FORWARD

The Hebrew word for contract is chozeh (חוזה)

If you’re familiar with Hebrew, look closely: Do you see another word hidden inside it? (Hint: it’s a body part…)

Indeed, embedded in chozeh are chet-zayin-heh (ח–ז–ה)

which gives us chazeh (חזה)

a three-letter word that means “chest.”

Now, why might this be?

As I see it, Hebrew is trying to tell us something about the nature of contracts. And it has to do with two unique aspects of the chest.

First, when facing another person, the chest is the only part of the body that you can’t conceal. You can cross your leg behind you, hide your arm behind your back, and you can even swivel your neck and turn away your head…but so long as you’re in front of that other person, your chest remains fixed in place. Move it, and you’re no longer facing them .

Second, the chest is the only part of the body that you can’t move in isolation. Fingers can be curled, faces scrunched up, but your chest? Move it, and other parts start moving too. Your chest is you: what you see is what you get.

According to Hebrew, our contracts should be the same way: forward-facing, declarative, and encompassing the entirety of the deal.

Nothing hidden, no fine print.

Once again, Hebrew proves itself an instruction manual for how to live an ethical life.


Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian, podcast host, and co-author of Israel 201, winner of the 2023 National Jewish Book Award. You can find out more about his comedy, books, and upcoming tour at www.joelchasnoff.com, and sign up for his weekly newsletter, Hebrew Is Magic, to learn more about the hidden life lessons in Hebrew words.  

Hebrew is Magic: Lost in Transition

Dear friends,

I don’t know about you, but transitions have always been hard for me.

The final morning of summer camp? Yep, that was me curled up in the back of the bus, crying like the proverbial baby.

The day I graduated college? A disaster. I was literally sick to my stomach.

And then there’s July 30, 1997 – the day I entered the IDF. The 48 hours leading up to my induction I couldn’t eat, sleep, or carry on a normal conversation. On the way to the Induction Center, I trembled so badly that my buddy Mike had to pull the car over so I could step out and get some air.

Not surprisingly, by the time I got home from camp and college, and into the army, I was fine. It was the transition I struggled with, more so than with whatever came next.

I’m telling you this not because I feel I’m especially unique, but because I know I’m not.

Many of us struggle with transitions. Whether it’s a big one, like getting married or moving to a new country, or small, like packing for a trip, transitions can be harrowing.

But why?

And might there be a better way to think about transitions?

Whenever I find myself looking for insight into the human condition, I turn to Hebrew and the wisdom embedded in Hebrew words…

 

The Hebrew word for “transition” is ma’avar

Look closely. Do you see any other words embedded within ma’avar, perhaps one you already know?

Indeed, ma’avar is actually a combination of two expressions: ma’

which means “from,” and avar

Hebrew for “the past.”

This, according to Hebrew, is what transitions are: departures “from the past.”

It’s worth noting that the Hebrew word for transition could just as easily have been l’atid

a made-up word that, theoretically, would mean “to the future.”

But instead, it’s ma’avar. And as such, Hebrew is telling us something: that the hardest part of any transition is leaving a situation we’re familiar with.

To see what I mean, go ahead and think about a transition from your own life. What scared you most?

I have a feeling that if you really dig deep, you’ll discover it was leaving behind a world you knew, more so than any fears you had about the future.

This idea is backed up by science. One of the primary motivators of all living creatures, including humans, is homeostasis – our desire to “keep things as they are.”

One of the most common pieces of advice people give to someone going through a transition is to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Personally, I’ve never found this helpful. And with good reason: the question is predicated on the idea that what we’re afraid of is the future, when in fact we’re afraid of leaving the past.

So the word ma’avar can actually offer insight into how to handle transitions.

Namely, that when going through a transition, we should remind ourselves of the many aspects of our lives that are constant and will remain in place: our friends, our families, our values.

The transition from the avar will always be difficult.

But the best parts of our past stay with us. Always.


Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian, podcast host, and co-author of Israel 201, winner of the 2023 National Jewish Book Award. You can find out more about his comedy, books, and upcoming tour at www.joelchasnoff.com, and sign up for his weekly newsletter, Hebrew Is Magic, to learn more about the hidden life lessons in Hebrew words.  

Hebrew is Magic: Rooted in Courage

Dear friends,

Three years ago, my longtime friend Rachel and her husband adopted two children – siblings from a small town in Wisconsin.

Last summer, they adopted two more kids from the same family.

As you can probably guess, Rachel is a kind-hearted, generous person.

Still, when it comes to adopting a child – or four – simply being kind, or generous, isn’t enough. As I watched Rachel go through the process – the interviews and site visits, the intensive training, the complicated transition from strangers to family – I realized that there’s so much more to adoption than paperwork and waiting for the right “match.” The word “adoption” doesn’t come close to capturing the basket of emotions, questions, and, at times, frustrations involved.

What does Hebrew tell us about adoption?

What insights does Hebrew offer into what it means to create an adopted family…and about adapting to change in general?

HINT: LOOK INSIDE YOU!

The Hebrew word for “adoption” is imutz (אימוץ)

To understand the essence of this or any other Hebrew word, the first place we look is the shoresh (root) in this case alef-mem-tzadi

giving us the three-letter word amatz

which means “strength.”

Right off the bat, Hebrew hints at what Rachel and other adoptive parents go through.

But the lesson doesn’t end there. Because from this same alef-mem-tzadi root we get two more words: ometz

which means “courage,” and l’hitametz

Hebrew for “to make an effort.”

What a beautiful concept! Hebrew knows that the act of adoption, whether a child or a new idea, is one that requires courage, strength, and effort. Any one or two on their own wouldn’t be enough.

And where do these attributes come from? That last word, l’hitametz, offers a clue.

You see that l’hit– at the beginning?

That means it’s reflexive: According to Hebrew, “making an effort” is an action we perform upon ourselves, one where we literally “self-strengthen.” The not-so-subtle message is that the strength we need is already there, inside us.

What’s wonderful about this collection of alef-mem-tzadi words is that they apply to any obstacle we face.

Because if there’s one thing we know for certain it’s that change is inevitable.

How we react, meanwhile, is up to us.

When adapting to new circumstances, you can either hide from the challenge, or call upon the strength already inside …

And, as has been the case for Rachel and her now thriving family – you grow.

 


Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian, podcast host, and co-author of Israel 201, winner of the 2023 National Jewish Book Award. You can find out more about his comedy, books, and upcoming tour at www.joelchasnoff.com, and sign up for his weekly newsletter, Hebrew Is Magic, to receive event updates.