Does "Synagogue Speech" Help or Hurt?

By Yoseph Viel

We use a lot of Hebrew words in the synagogue, and sometimes I wonder if the use (or misuse) of it helps or hurts.  In one sense, I guess its good if it helps people learn a few Hebrew words.  But often, people mislearn it, and it leads to warped theology.  

For example, many people are surprised to find out that Israel is called a "Goy" in the Scriptures, because in America, it is used as a synonym for "Gentile".  Hebrew doesn't have a word that means "Gentile" (someone who is not a Jew).  There's a word that means "foreigner" (ger), but then a Jew is a foreigner in Egypt.  Goy means "Nation", and Israel is one.  2 Sam 7:23 says,

"And who is like your people, like Israel, the one GOY (nation) in the earth that G-d went out to redeem to be a people to Himself"

But there's no word that means "non-Jew".  "Uncircumcized" is the closest one can find, but even that is still calling him by what he is NOT, not what he IS 

But since we use "Goy" to mean "Gentile" in English , it causes some people SHOCK to see this, because they gained an understanding of what the word "Goy" means by using in as a substitute word for "Gentile".  (Click here fore more detail.) Perhaps because it made them feel more Jewish to use all of the 35 Hebrew words they know as often as they can use them whether they are using them correctly or not.  In fact, out of all the people I have known, the person I have heard use "Synagogue speech" the least was a man who use to attend my congregation who grew up in Israel as an Orthodox Jew, and later came to believe in Yeshua.  He even called Him "Jesus" most of the time.  When he spoke English, he spoke English, and didn't see much need to mix Hebrew in with it.  

Lots of people are also shocked to find out that the word "Sabbath" can mean "week" in Hebrew, not just the 7th day of the week.  This shocks them because they've heard the word "Sabbath" used MANY TIMES in English to describe the 7th day of the week, but never heard it used to describe a week in general.  It generally implies a week that STARTS on the first day (Sunday) and ends on the 7th.  And there's nothing wrong with the way "Sabbath" is being used in English, its just the way its NOT being used that causes people to fail to understand the full breadth of the word's meaning. I'll give some examples of how the word "Sabbath" is used this way, both in Scripture, as well as other places, in my next email.  

And then there's the way we misuse the word "mezuzah" in English.  It's a Hebrew word that means "doorpost", but in English, most people think of it as something you attach TO a doopost, not a doorpost itself.  Lots of people think "Havdallah" refers to Saturday night, and they are surprized to find out it is a Hebrew word that means "separation".  But they've heard "Let's do havdallah" or "we'll have a havdallah service tonight" so many times they've concluded its a TIME reference of some sort.  You'll probably even run into people who think that "Shiva" means "mourn", because when someone dies you "sit shiva" for 7 days.  Actually, it means seven/week, and it refers to the LENGTH OF TIME INVOLVED, not WHAT YOU ARE DOING!  

In some cases, people get misperceptions of what Hebrew words mean because they only hear it used in one context, and they make presumptions about the meaning of the word based on those presumptions.  Sometimes its because the word is misused.  At other times, its because people project English based logic or thinking onto the Hebrew words they are using (such as PROJECTING the English concept of "Gentile" onto the Hebrew word "Goy").  

Sometimes these misunderstandings are harmless.  At other times, especially among those who are quick to reject traditional understandings in favor of modern "revelation", it leads to doctrinal error that could have been avoided had people simply known the full meaning of the Hebrew words they were using (or misusing).  

One such error is probably the Lunar Sabbath, which is based on a combination of logical arguments, one of which is a misunderstanding of what the word "mo'ed" means.  Many people think of this word as meaning "holiday", because that;s the way they hear it used.  They might be cognant of its literal definition, but they PROJECT the English concept of "holiday" onto the word "Mo'ed", because they don't want to say "holiday", because they think people might look at them as less spiritual.  Or maybe because they are afraid to say "Holiday" because it comes from the word "Holy", and they bought into the idea that the word "holy" is a pagan term of some sort.  But because they have PROJETED the English concept of "holiday" onto the word "mo'ed", they have developed a distorted picture of what a "mo'ed" is, and thus, developed the wrong conclusion about what the scriptures say about MOEDIM in general.  

The Lunar Sabbath is based on the following presumptions....  

2 of the three arguments that lead to the Lunar Sabbath conclusion are based on a misunderstanding of Hebrew words, due to the way these words.   "Mo'ed" simply means "appointed (time)", and there are many types of moeds (moedim) that have nothing to do with the calendar.  

The moon was not a necessary element in any of these above uses of the word MO'ED.  However, I'll get into that in more detail in another email.  

Let me first off simply offer these guidelines to help people avoid falling into the trap of developing warped theology based on "synagogue speech".

  1. Don't use a Hebrew word in order to AVOID saying an English word.  This is often the reason people PROJECT an English thought onto a Hebrew word.
  2. Learn to READ HEBREW BEFORE you draw conclusions based on your understanding of Hebrew words.  By that, I don't mean learn to use a concordenance.  Concordenances have given MANY people warped understandings of what words mean.  I don't mean get out your interlinear.  You need to be able to read SOMETHING OTHER THAN THE BIBLE, that is, something UNTRANSLATED, and understand it, before you conclude that all Hebrew speaking Jews are wrong about an issue that you've just gained some Hebrew language "revelation" about.  Be able to read a Hebrew newspaper.  Or a Book in Hebrew, with no translation.  Not the Tanach, which you've read numerous times in English, but something whose contents you are clueless to.
  3. Look up EVERY USE of a word before you draw any non-traditional conclusions about it doctrinally.
  4. Don't start using a word you heard in the synagogue without LOOKING UP what it means. If the meaning of the word and the way it is being used are not equivalent, don't use it that way.