Monday, August 11, 2008

What's a minhag?

My ulpan class includes some Americans but also folks from Russia, Poland, Norway, Peru, and France, as well as several young women whose first language is Arabic. Some are Israeli citizens, others are visiting for a summer or for the year. I love language learning and I'm always amazed and amused at the how language and culture so inextricably intertwine...and sometimes unravel from one another. One aspect of this which is particularly striking to me comes from being a rabbinical student learning Modern Israeli Hebrew in a secular Jewish/Israeli context. Not only the non-Jews in the class, but also a number of the Jews are clearly coming from a very different place than I am Jewishly.

Today, we were forming nouns from verbs. These are similar to but not necessarily gerunds (like "gardening" from the verb "to garden" or "driving" from "to drive"). One example that came up was the noun "minhag" (something that one does customarily, sometimes translated as "custom") which is related to the verb meaning "to behave." The world "minhag" comes up a lot in Jewish religious circles, not the least in the arguments about whether or not there is a difference between a minhag and a law and when something that starts as a minhag becomes a law. But it's also used informally to talk about the different customs of different communities or families. For example, in my school, some teachers have a minhag of starting class with some singing.

This morning, our teacher used the word "minhag" as an example of the grammatical form at hand. One of the Russian students, a new Jewish immigrant, asked, "Mah zeh minhag?" What's a minhag? And it was a shocking reminder of what different Jewish worlds we come from. Another funny example of this today was --in the context of the same grammatical form-- when the verb "l'khaper" (לכפר/to atone) came up. It was used as an example of an irregular noun form (kapara/כפרה/atonement) of the verb. This is the same root that gives us "Yom Kippur" or "Yom HaKippurim/יום הכפורים/The Day of Atonement." The teacher must have been getting blank stares from a number of students when she used this example. She quickly reassured us all, in Hebrew, that we should not worry about this irregular form since it wasn't a very important verb. Needless to say, in the world of rabbinical school, it is a very important verb.

On the other hand, I was totally lost in a recent conversation in the class between the teacher and many of the students because I had no clue that the phrase they were throwing around meant "bachelors degree."


Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the time in Russian class in Russia when I chose the verb for "going by vehicle" instead of "going by walking" to fill in a sentence "The girl goes to grandma's house". The teacher was very surprised and explained that very few Russians had cars, nor do they tend to live very far from their grandmothers.

Another time a teacher handed out pictures from a clothing catalog and asked us to speculate on what the people were doing based on how they were dressed. I got a woman wearing overalls. "Oh, she's relaxing on a Saturday, maybe working in her garden," I said. "No!" said the teacher. "She works in a factory!"

Minna said...

Thanks for these, Megan!

abayye said...

כפרה not very important . . . well, that's what I've always said. :)