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What I mean is that religious Jews often use words like shabbos, mitzvot, teshuvah, siddur. Why not use the English words, Sabbath, laws, repentance/penance, and liturgal order (for example)?

After all, no two languages converge and represent each other perfectly or exactly, yet we usually submit to the compromise of [/the compromise that is] translation.

I feel like I'm missing something?

Thanks in advance.

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  • I think "siddur" is better translated "prayer book". Anyhow, a certain amount of technical terminology is unavoidable. This web site, though, tends to use a lot, maybe more than is needed. Commented Mar 28, 2021 at 2:41
  • Cf judaism.stackexchange.com/q/64273
    – msh210
    Commented Mar 28, 2021 at 17:59
  • en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeshivish
    – Joel K
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 9:50
  • Because it adds a certain je ne sais quoi. Seriously though, for some words the Hebrew is more precise and more efficient.
    – Damila
    Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 0:14
  • Older Jewish publications often do use those English terms. But those words aren't as accurate as using the Hebrew term. There also might be a fear of sounding non-Jewish, or an effort to make the writing more "yeshivish".
    – ezra
    Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 2:23

3 Answers 3

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Most of the users of this site are currently observing Pesach, so please do not be offended if you do not get an authoritative response for at least a couple of days. I am a Gentile believer, and am as such not permitted to observe Pesach, so I will do my best to ‘mind the shop’ whilst the more informed members of the community are away.

Firstly, you will see in Genesis (Beresheit) 1 that G-d uses the Hebrew language to name things - Day, Night, the Sky etc. - before ever a man was created. Note that in this chapter G-d is speaking ‘internally’: He is not addressing anyone outside Himself because these words were internal to G-d. It therefore follows that the Hebrew language is the language of G-d Himself, ‘in the beginning’: it has a special and preeminent status among languages. And if G-d says something is called X, then that is what it is, essentially.

You will see in Isaiah (Yeshayahu) 45 that Hashem, our god, speaks the Truth, and that He declares what is right. He did not say that English is the right way to speak of the essence of things. He declared, in using Hebrew to name the attributes of Creation, that the Hebrew language speaks of the essence of things. You will be aware of that famous question, ‘What is Truth?’. Jews will tell you that Truth is G-d’s seal. It is His thoughts, His wisdom, His understanding, that is Truth. And if G-d is unchanging (see Malachi 3), then Truth must be unchanging. Knowing the proper names of things is part of the Truth.

So, to answer your question, we use Hebrew words in the midst of English because we know that these are the correct ways of speaking of what we are speaking about. If one knows the correct way of speaking the Truth, but chooses to use another way of speaking, he is basically lying or deceiving. Using Hebrew words in the midst of English or any other language is a reminder that English is not a ‘final vocabulary’ and that we ought to be aware of the difference between Hebrew and other languages, and Hebrew speakers and other peoples.

You can find a much deeper explanation of the Jewish relation to Hebrew, on the one hand, and secular languages, on the other, in Part Three, Book One, of Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption (first published 1921 CE). This book may perhaps help you on your quest. Please let me know if you require any clarifications. Keep seeking.

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  • Thanks. If this were the reasoning, wouldn't you just exclusively use Hebrew? Why only leave certain (liturgical, say) words untranslated, and others you translate? What is the criterion/what are the criteria for deciding?
    – SolaGratia
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 13:00
  • @SolaGratia - Perhaps because Hebrew is a holy language and not everything we do in life is of the order of the holy. Speaking English with Hebrew words acknowledges the fact that we are not in Shul, or offering sacrifices etc. The holy and the profane are the two sides of life, and Jewish linguistic practice reflects this. Hope that helps.
    – Tom W
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 13:18
  • @SolaGratia - Also: What we are doing on this site (for example) is not completely holy, but neither is it completely profane. The mixing demonstrates the status of the activity. Jews are called to be holy, so complete profanity (translation of everything into English) would not be right.
    – Tom W
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 13:25
  • P.S. My sincere apologies to Israel for presuming to teach on these matters. Help needed!
    – Tom W
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 13:33
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A few reasons come to mind why Hebrew/Aramaic/Yiddish (HAY) terms are often used:

  1. Sometimes there are nuances to the terms that are more readily captured by the Hebrew/Aramaic/Yiddish term than the English translation. Shabbat denotes Saturday in a Jewish (or Israeli) context, as opposed to (lehavdil) Saturday, which is a secular day, or Sabbath, which may have a Christian flavour. A siddur is a Jewish prayer book used for daily prayer, and for some holidays. This is not quite the same as a machzor, a bentcher, a haggadah or a tiklal.
  • In halakhic matters, it is common to use technical terminology from the Talmud or other rabbinic works where these matters are discussed. In modern Law, Latin terms are similarly often used in part because historically, Latin was the lingua franca of legal discourse. Just as a lawyer says a fortiori, a Yeshiva bochur may say kal vakhomer.
  1. HAY terms can be prestige markers, since they are reflect education of the speaker. This is analogous to the situation in Yiddish, where Aramaic words and phrases are used far more frequently by (primarily men) educated in halakha.

  2. HAY terms can be used to distinguish Jewish religious terms from secular terms or analogous terms in other religions. I already mentioned how Shabbat (or Shabbes) can be used in contradistinction to Sabbath. Bible is another example of a term often associated with Christianity, which is why some Jews prefer TaNaKh or mikra. Some terms can even be used by Jews to distinguish themselves from other Jews. For instance, Temple is a word for Synagogue used by Reform and other liberal denominations, with the notion that they act as replacements for the destroyed temple in Jerusalem. Orthodox Jews, however, will often use the traditional Yiddish terms shul or shil. To quote the Jewish English Lexicon website:

When Jews use words from this list within their English speech or writing, they indicate not only that they are Jewish but also that they are a certain type of Jew. Some are Yiddish lovers, some are engaged in religious life and learning, some have a strong connection to Israel, some have Sephardi heritage, and some are all of the above. Because Jewish and non-Jewish social networks overlap, these words are not used exclusively by Jews. Some are English words that certain Jews use in distinctive ways, and some are Yiddish-origin words that have become part of the English language.

The usage of HAY terms in English speech tends to be restricted to Jewish circles, while in secular communcation these terms are not used. It is is therefore an instance of code-switching. For more information on Jewish modes of English, see the chapter "Jewish English" by Benor, in the Handbook of Jewish Languages.

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  • Don't Yemenites call their siddurimg tiklal?
    – Aaron
    Commented Mar 31, 2021 at 20:31
  • @aaron Certainly, and by that fact it is not a pure synonym of siddur. Both terms have special nuances and are used by different people in different contexts.
    – Argon
    Commented Mar 31, 2021 at 20:52
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Maybe similar to the reason Christians use the Hebrew words amen, hallelujah, hosanna. It is quicker than explaining them in English. The English terms aren't exactly equivalent.

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