"When there's no Hebrew word for something, it's a bad idea"

« previous post | next post »

From Pat Robertson's 700 Club, 3/31/2014:

As I recall, the Hebrew parts of the Bible have no difficulty in referring to many things that are officially regarded as Bad Ideas (not that I mean to Affirm the Consequent here).

And there certainly seem to me to be biblical passages in which the notion of fairness comes up, e.g. Isaiah 11:4, which has a decidedly Occupy Wall Street tinge to it. Among the published English translations:

But with righteousness shall He judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth; and He shall smite the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips shall He slay the wicked.

But with righteousness He will judge the poor,
And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth;
And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth,
And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.

But with righteousness and justice shall He judge the poor
and decide with fairness for the meek, the poor, and the downtrodden of the earth;
and He shall smite the earth and the oppressor with the rod of His mouth,
and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked.

He will judge the poor fairly and honestly. He will be fair when he decides what to do for the poor of the land. If he decides people should be beaten, he will give the command, and they will be beaten. If he decides people must die, he will give the command, and those evil people will be killed. Goodness and fairness will be like a belt he wears around his waist.

He will judge the poor justly.
He will make fair decisions for the humble people on earth.
He will strike the earth with a rod from his mouth.
He will kill the wicked with the breath from his lips.

he will judge the poor fairly
and defend the rights of the helpless.
At his command the people will be punished,
and evil persons will die.

The basic meaning of Hebrew word in question (מִישׁוֹר) seems to be "level surface", but in some ways that's a more appropriate source for the idea of fairness than the English word fair, whose root meaning was "shining, beautiful".

I'll leave it up to you all to sort out the associated theological/political/linguistic questions, along with the Hebrew expressions for retirement and adolescent. But this clip is already a great addition to our No Word for X archive.



  1. richardelguru said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 7:24 am

    Did you know that there is no word in any language for
    "There is no word in any language for…"

  2. richardelguru said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 7:25 am

    (The midnight recurser strikes again)

  3. Seth Grimes said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 7:53 am

    "When there's no Hebrew word for something, it's a bad idea."

    Sounds like something Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda would have said. Of course, his take-away was different.

  4. Chrisj said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 7:53 am

    Richardelguru may be technically correct, but you could presumably construct a German compound word meaning "a thing for which there is no word in any language", which would arguably fill the need.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 7:54 am

    There is, in fact, a Hebrew word for retirement (I have trouble entering Hebrew script on my computer). However, it is correct that it is not Biblical Hebrew. But then, neither is 'television' the field in which Mr. Robertson works. So there is the dilemma: Should Robertson continue to work in field for which there is no Biblical Hebrew word, or 'retire' which has no Biblical Hebrew word? Both are bad ideas.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 10:01 am

    The three translations you quote that explicitly use fair/fairly/fairness are all fairly (different meaning!) marginal, both in the sense of having little market share and in the sense of embodying controversial methodological choices. The line between a translation and a paraphrase is at least as blurry as that between a language and a dialect, but to the extent there is still a real conceptual distinction to be drawn there, I'm not sure that I would personally classify these versions as falling on the "translation" side of that blurry line. (At least two of the three were self-consciously designed to benefit a readership not primarily composed of L1 Anglophones, which, if thought a worthwhile project, presents all sorts of fascinating challenges.)

    So in the interests of, as it were, fairness, I thought I'd throw in the NASB rendering (NASB being generally thought of as a pretty "literal" – some might even say "turgid" or "wooden" — translation), which begins "But with righteousness He will judge the poor, /
    And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth."

    On the other hand, there must be a good reason why "fair" is ubiquitous in, say, the RSV's rendering of the originally-Hebrew bits of the Bible in its visual sense ("And in all the land there were no women so fair as Job's daughters") but completely absent in the righteous/equitable sense (although RSV uses it a few times in that sense in its NT when translating from the Greek).

    [(myl) NASB translation duly added.

    And at least some of the cases where the English word "equity" is used in Bible translations, the sense seems to me to be closely connected with the idea of "fairness" that Robertson and Lapin dislike.]

  7. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 10:18 am

    The RSV is a revision, at two removes, of the Authorised (King James) Version, and tends to follow the language of that version where it has not actually become obsolete; so 17th century usage will still have some effect on it. If, as seems likely 'fair' was used a lot at that time to mean 'beautiful' and rarely to mean 'equitable', that may be enough to account for it. (Though the NT passages would still need to be explained.)

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 10:32 am

    I apologize for having skipped over "fairness" in the second block quote which is from a version I think widely viewed as . . . eccentric, although it might be subject to different criticisms than the other three. That said, one can certainly find instances of the relevant sense of "fair" in a number of recentish translations with large market share, even if not always in this specific passage. (One way to do quick comparisons of versions without getting hung up by the false positives of the visual/aesthetic sense of "fair" is to see which versions use "unfair" and its derivatives.)

  9. Steve Cohen said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 10:33 am

    When there's no Hebrew word for something, there normally is a great (often profane) Yiddish word for it.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 11:11 am

    I agree with myl's point re "equity" as used in OT translation being reasonably synonymous with "fairness" in the relevant sense. The two NT places where RSV unequivocally uses "fair" in the relevant sense are Mt. 15:26 (where KJV has "not meet" to RSV's "not fair") and Col. 4:1 (where there's an ADJ/ADV difference so KJV has "just and equal" to RSV's "justly and fairly"). I haven't bothered to look at the Greek, although it seems somewhat unlikely to me that the particular Greek lexemes absolutely compelled "fair[ly]" as the optimal English word in a way that the Hebrew lexemes in the various OT passages where it was avoided did not. Perhaps there were slight differences in stylistic/aesthetic preference between the OT and NT subcommittees that did not all get fully identified and ironed out in the overall process? (Plus I think, but can't be bothered to consult wikipedia for the details, that the RSV NT was completed well in advance of the OT but then subsequently lightly revised after the OT text had been finalized, which is another way in which lack of stylistic uniformity could have crept in.)

  11. Milan said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 11:26 am

    @chrisj: There actually is a German compound with a similar meaning: "Bezeichnungslücke." Literally meaning "designation gap" or "need for a designation" it is used mostly in the context of the debate about Anglicisms in the German language and with reference to German itself: To many, Anglicism are only legitimate if they fill a "Bezeichnungslücke" –i.e. if they denote a concept that can only be circuitously named in so-called pure German.

  12. Jon Weinberg said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 11:44 am

    The biblegateway site's choices of which translations to include are a little idiosyncratic; the two translations in its database that it identifies as Jewish are both from "Messianics" (i.e., folks believing in the divinity of Jesus). That said, the translation with the most currency in my tribe is the 1917 Jewish Publication Society version: "But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the land." I would have said, indeed, that the concept was all over the Hebrew Bible. See, e.g., Psalms 9:9, which in the JPS version is "And he will judge the world in righteousness, He will minister judgment to the peoples with equity [be-meisharim -- same root as be-mishor in Isaiah 11:4]."

  13. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 12:00 pm

    From Google Translate:


    retire, withdraw, secede, explain, sail, clarify


    get away, withdraw, go away, be off, depart, retire


    retire, live in seclusion, be a recluse, keep oneself to oneself


    withdraw, retreat, recede, retract, back away, retire

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

    I take it that's Rabbi Daniel Lapin? I think his point about adolescence is that in Orthodox Judaism, womanhood starts at 12 and manhood at 13, so teenagers officially have adult privileges and responsibilities. Maybe he wants to lower the ages for driving, getting married, voting, and drinking alcohol to those numbers. Even if the U.S. did that, I think we'd still need the word "adolescent" (often combined with the words "alcohol-related crash").

    Modern Hebrew seems to use "na`ar" (masc.) and "na`arah" (fem.) for teenagers, as in some of the captions at the Hebrew Wikipedia article about adolescence, though the title of the article (which I can't read without the vowels) is a word that seems to mean something like "becoming adult". 'Na`ar" is the word used in 1 Samuel 17 for David.

  15. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

    The way you cite the word ("מִישׁ֖וֹר"), the middle letter has a cantillation mark (here: "tifcha": U+0596) beneath it. I think you meant to write "מִישׁוֹר".

    [(myl) Thanks -- I cut and pasted without paying much attention. Fixed now.]

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

    Ah, Google translate. It gives "retirement" as
    יְצִיאָה לְגִמלָאוֹת
    yətsiyah ləgimla'ot 'leaving to a pension', I believe. The Hebrew Wikipedia article replaces the first word with
    priyshah 'seclusion', related to the first word Victor Mair gave.

    The word for adolescence I couldn't read before is הִתבַּגרוּת hitbagrut, also 'maturation'.

  17. Jon Weinberg said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

    Israeli newspaper articles seem to use גיל הפרישה (gil ha-prisha) to mean "retirement age". Of course, as folks have already pointed out, that's *modern* Hebrew.

  18. D.O. said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

    The gentlemen in the clip are even more confused about "no word for X" than usual. Retirement is a certain state in individual's life that may come about or it may not. Quite independently, the concept of retirement does exist no matter whether Biblical Hebrew has a word for it or even whether Jews of long time ago had that concept. Adolescence, on the other side, does exist even if there is neither word nor concept for it and we choose not to recognize it as a special stage of life. Physiological and psychological changes are going to be the same whether we apply a label to them or not. Parallel concept to adolescence maybe old age rather than retirement.

  19. Y said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

    The mother of all "not in Hebrew" is Maimonides' commentary (Guide to the Perplexed 3, 8) where he argues for calling [Biblical] Hebrew a Holy Language—because, he says, it contains no words for sexual or excretory terms, except ones with transparent etymologies, which are euphemisms for the inexpressible.

  20. Sagi Ganot said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

    From a native (Modern) Hebrew speaker:

    התבגרות \ hitbagrut \ Adolescence is derived from the verb להתבגר \ lehitbager, which literally means to become mature/adult. There is also מתבגר \ mitbager, which is a technical/formal term for adolescent.

    יציאה לגמלאות / yetsi'a legimlaot is likewise rather technical; most people would use פרישה / prisha, or פנסיה / pensia which is of course a translation of "pension".

    The most accurate translation for "fair" is הוגן / hogen, which is indeed not Biblical. However, it is close in meaning to צודק / tsodek, which more accurately means "just". It's derived from צדק / tsedek, the word used for "justice" in both Modern and Biblical Hebrew. From "hogen" we also have הוגנות / hognut = fairness.

  21. Y said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 2:01 pm

    A couple of Hebrew-language sites mention this exchange (in translation). The words are translated in the Hebrew sites as פרישה לגמלאות ('retirement', lit. 'retiring on pension'), מתבגר ('adolescent', from the root בגר 'grow up'), and הוגן ('fair', based, I think, on the Mishnaic הגון 'decent'). All are well-known, everyday words whose meanings match the English closely.

    On Lapin's Hebrew remarks, one commenter writes, reasonably, "If there's no Hebrew word for it, then how did you translate it? Maybe he just doesn't know Hebrew?", and another wrote, "If there's no word for the word הוגן… then how did you write הוגן, idiot?"

    People appear more concerned with Robertson praising Jews for being such wonderful money-grubbers ("What is it about Jewish people that make them prosper financially? You almost never find Jews tinkering with their cars on the weekends or mowing their lawns [...] polishing diamonds, not tinkering [with] cars") and Lapin joining in the fun.

  22. Honest and Upright Idiot said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 2:04 pm

    I'm not sure if the best meaning for miyshor is really "level surface." The verbal root is yashar, which can mean something like "be level," but also seems to mean something more like "go straight," or "be pleasing," or even "be right" in a lot of cases. That seems interesting to me.

    If the "level" meaning of yashar were all there was to it, I'd have no problem going along with everyone else. A mem-preformative noun built on yashar would indicate a place where the basic verbal idea of "levelness" occurs. That would give us something very like a "level surface,” which would line up very nicely with the idea of a "level playing field," which seems to inform a lot of what we think about “fairness” in the present day. We would have a perfectly good word for (modern-day) “fairness” in Biblical Hebrew. “Miyshor” would be the word, and ha-ha what an idiot.

    But I’m not convinced that that’s what we actually have with the word miyshor. In the passage cited above, it should be pointed out that the idea of “fairness” – if that’s what we’re talking about – doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The word “miyshor” (“fair?”) corresponds to “tsedeq” (“righteous”) in the previous clause. This suggests that the meaning of “miyshor” probably has more to do with the idea of ethical uprightness than it does with evenhandedness or level surfaces. Cognates in languages like Akkadian seem to confirm this reading of the data, with words like mesharu(m) meaning more-or-less the same thing as the Hebrew word tsedeq (“righteous,” “just,” “upright,”). So again, it’s probably more a matter of “Right” and/or “Wrong” than it is a matter of “Even” and/or “Steven.”

    My question is: How well do Biblical concepts like “righteousness” line up with modern ideas about “fairness” – especially when we take into account what Pat Robertson probably has in mind when those terms get thrown around in debates about culture and public policy? I don’t know. Maybe they line up perfectly well. Or at any rate, maybe they line up well enough to land us back in the basically same spot: ha-ha what an idiot. Still, it’s not as obvious (to me, anyway) as it would have been if miyshor meant “level surface.”

    I guess I don’t mean to suggest that there’s actually no such word as “fair” in Biblical Hebrew. I get that the “no word for” thing is a fallacy, and I’m happy to grant that there may be a word for fair in the Hebrew Bible after all. It’s just that I don’t think miyshor is it. At least not if what we mean by “fair” in modern English has something to do with the notion of level-ness or even-handedness. I don’t think that’s exactly what miyshor is getting at.

    Interesting. If you’re me, anyway. Which you aren’t. So obviously, I should probably just apologize for all of this. Sorry. Thanks.

  23. Rubrick said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

    I feel compelled to wonder… "rod of his mouth"??

  24. Y said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 2:14 pm

    Sure, all of these words are post-biblical. Likewise Old English didn't have 'adolescent' and 'retirement'. It had to borrow them from the lazy, liberal Normans.

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

    I must say that I might enjoy it if some distinguished clergyman (I am not necessarily nominating either of these two . . .) could convince my children to reduce the usage of "fair" in their active lexicons and switch over to saying "but Daddy, it's just not equitable!" Even when expressions are synonymous as to truth-value, choice of register matters. (And indeed, disagreements about what register is appropriate in what context can be one of the things that separates competing Bible translations.)

  26. David Morris said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

    When I was young, I thought 'equity' and 'iniquity' meant approximately the same thing, and that the bible writers should make up their minds about whether it was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.

    'Equity' also has the meaning of 'the value of an ownership interest in property, including shareholders' equity in a business' (Wikipedia). After a quick search I found 'He rules the world in righteousness and judges the peoples with equity'. (Psalm 9.8 NIV) (It would be slightly more ambiguous as 'the people with equity'.) (By the way, saying 'a people' and 'peoples' *sounds* wrong to me.)

  27. DaveK said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 7:51 pm

    Rubrick: For "rod of his mouth" think "tongue-lashing".

  28. Graeme said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

    Interestng how the word 'judge' seems inapposite here to modern eyes, its predominant meaning having come to be 'judgment after an accusation' rather than 'apportion, assess merit'. The separation of governmental powers into a very distinct judiciary; and the ascendancy of corrective over distributive justice?

  29. Jon Weinberg said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 11:39 pm

    @Honest and Upright Idiot –
    Good points. I think it’s fair to conclude from exhortations like עֲשׂוּ מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה that the Bible contains words reflecting the concept of “justice”; does the modern concept of fairness differ from that? To the extent that by “fairness" we mean a particular modern principle of justice — the concept that (relevantly) similarly situated people should be treated similarly — then arguably that’s post-Enlightenment thinking not really encompassed in biblical conceptions of justice. Biblical exhortations to justice tend to be relational and status-based, e.g,
    עֲשׂוּ מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה,. . . וְגֵר יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה אַל-תֹּנוּ, אַל-תַּחְמֹסוּ
    (“execute justice and righteousness . . and do no wrong, do no violence, to the stranger, the fatherless and the widow”), which fits a society that was, I assume, structured on relational and status-based lines. As you point out, though, none of that makes the “No word for X” trope any more respectable, though, and in this case it's especially funny because the "No word for X in biblical Hebrew" move is explicitly a claim that we should blot out the last thousand years or so as if the Enlightenment had never happened.)

  30. Shalom Lappin said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 3:03 am

    There is a very clear paradigm of retirement in the Bible. In Numbers 8:25 the terms of service for the Levites in the Temple are specified as from the ages of 25 until 50. After reaching 50 a Levite retires (on full pension of sacrifices dedicated to the Levites) to an "emeritus" status, in which he serves his colleagues in the Tabenacle.

    Modern Israeli Hebrew has הוגן
    (hogen) for just. Biblical Hebrew uses צודק
    (tzodek, just) for much the same sense.

    The Bible establishes a detailed and elaborate set of taxes (obligatory tithes) on income and agricultural produce to support the poor, and Rabbinic law interprets and extends this system in legal binding rules of charitable giving (which are not optional).

    The distortion of Biblical Hebrew and Jewish traditions for perverse political purposes on display in this interview follow a long and dishonourable, pattern of misappropriating ancient (and not so ancient) texts to serve a variety of unpleasant agendas.

  31. Shai Shapira said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 3:29 am

    Isn't there a contradiction between "the word 'fair' is undefined" and "there's no Hebrew word for 'fair'"? If it's undefined, then it kind of makes it difficult to find an appropriate Biblical word.

    In my opinion, the Bible does not need a word for "fair" because it does not make a distinction between law and ethics – God gives his laws (which, by the way, include quite a few income taxes I imagine the people in that interview would not be excited about), and people are ordered "not to add or remove" anything from it – meaning that nothing can be fair but not required by law, or legal but unfair. So the word צֶדֶק (commonly translated as "justice") is enough for both meanings. In a society where people make their own laws, the concept of fairness can become relevant.

    For that reason, I don't think the Isaiah quotes are any different from countless other prophet quotes of that time (Isaiah and Amos being the strongest quote providers) who spoke against discrimination suffered by poor people – you could call it unfair, or you could call it unjust (being a violation of God's law) – both would mean the same thing.

    As for "retirement" and "adolescence" – obviously these words (at least as these guys define "adolescence") have no meaning in a society based on agriculture, without much hired work. If someone wants to retire they can just stop working their fields, and if someone wants their child not to work at a young age they are free to do so. A society where everyone owns land is completely different, and therefore needs a different vocabulary, than a society based on owning money. When that society started, we adopted a new vocabulary for it.

  32. GeorgeW said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 5:43 am

    As to cultural norms in the Hebrew Bible, there are, as I recall, three different periods and social structures: the Bedouin period, the agricultural period and the urban period. So, to describe social norms in the Bible as being uniform is a mistake. Ideas of matters such as justice could be quite different from one period to another.

  33. Rodger C said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 11:13 am

    @David Morris: Or as we used to start Sunday morning in the olden days, "Forhecomth forhecometh to-judge-the-eaaaaarth, and with righteousness to judge the world, and the peo-ples-with-his-truuuuuth."

  34. Dave said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 2:26 pm

    So, are the guys in the video schmucks or putzes?

  35. Y said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 7:51 pm

    A rabbi and a minister walk into a bar, then go on national TV…

  36. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 9:25 pm

    In the arid and bloodless sort of moral discourse suitable for the Harvard philosophy department at the tail end of the 20th century, "fairness" was a word of some numinosity and resonance, thus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justice_as_Fairness. I assume that in that time and place words in a more Biblical register such as "righteousness" might have caused the tweedy faculty to drop their teacups in consternation.

  37. un malpaso said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

    So does that mean that anything Hebrew DOES have a word for is automatically a good idea? :P

  38. Belial said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

    Surprised nobody has yet pointed this out, but better late than never…

    Modern Hebrew seems to use "na`ar" (masc.) and "na`arah" (fem.) for teenagers … 'Na`ar" is the word used in 1 Samuel 17 for David.

    …and is, of course, the source for the Yiddish term narishkeit, foolishness. As good a term for adolescence as any.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment