It’s Not What You Think! What Do These Jewish Words Really Mean?

by: Jay Lavine, M.D.

Mazal tov! – Does it mean congratulations? Good luck? You might think so, judging from the way people use the expression. But it’s actually a reference to astrology – “May you be under a good constellation!” The great scholar Rambam, who thought astrology was nonsense, would plotz if he heard this. If you’re as adamant as Rambam about the subject, you might want to think twice before saying mazal tov!

Bar mitzvah -Is this a party you’re going to? Not quite. Literally, it means “son of the commandment” and it refers to a boy who has come of age and is now responsible for observance of all the mitzvot, the commandments. So you’re going to a bar mitzvah celebration, not to a bar mitzvah.

Torah – On Simchat Torah, you dance with the Torah and on Shabbat, you remove it from the ark and read from it, right? No, that’s the Torah scroll. Torah, in its narrowest sense, actually refers to the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, the words of which a scribe has written on parchment to form a scroll. In its broadest sense, Torah refers to the whole corpus of Jewish law and teachings.

Mezuzah – Is this what you call those ornamental cases that you affix to all of the doorposts of your house? Well, you shouldn’t. Literally, mezuzah means doorpost. Because of the Torah commandment to affix the words of the Shema prayer to the doorposts, the word mezuzah has come to mean the small scroll of parchment on which a scribe has painstakingly written all those words. The slender box that encloses the mezuzah is the mezuzah case.

Levine, Lavine, et al – Many people think these names mean Levite. They don’t. They’re actually anglicizations of the Russian surname Levin, sometimes spelled Lewin in English. If you’re familiar with Tolstoy’s epic novel Anna Karenina, you know that Konstantin Levin was the aristocrat who was the male protagonist opposite Anna. When eastern European Jews of Levitical descent were forced to take on surnames, however, they saw the similarity between the Hebrew name Levi and the Russian name Levin, and many adopted the latter name. But Levi or Halevi, not Levin, means Levite.

Shiksa – A harmless epithet for a cute non-Jewish female, right? Not so fast. The word has had a very negative connotation from the start. Shiksa is derived from the Hebrew word sheketz, which means something loathsome or impure. In short, the word is derogatory to the core, so whenever the urge arises to use it, stifle yourself!

Reb – Some would say it’s either short for rabbi or someone who flies the Confederate battle flag. Although some Chasidic rabbis, in a show of modesty, have used this title to refer to themselves, it does not actually mean rabbi. It’s an honorific, similar to mister, but usually reserved for individuals who are learned, pious, or involved in community matters.

Kaddish – A prayer of mourning? Not at all. The Kaddish (an Aramaic word meaning holy) is a sanctification and glorification of God’s name. It was originally used to separate sections of the prayer service, sort of like the sherbet to cleanse the palate between the main courses. The Kaddish says nothing about those who have died. Later, the idea arose that the Kaddish would be a good thing for mourners to recite because it might help them maintain their faith and, according to some, might even help elevate the soul of the departed in the world to come.

Kiddush. Yum, yum Some people enjoy coming to Shabbat morning services so that afterward they can partake of the tasty buffet-style luncheon they call the kiddush. Although it has taken on that meaning, what kiddush really means is sanctification. It’s the blessing we say over the fruit of the vine (or the challah if there’s no wine) on Shabbat and on Yom Tov (holidays). Even if the refreshments that follow are meager, come anyway and partake of the food for the soul – Jewish spirituality!