A Secular Celebration of the Torah
At sundown on October 16th, observant Jews will be celebrating Simchat Torah, “rejoicing in the Torah,” as this marks the end of the annual cycle of reading the Torah. During this holiday, the last section of Deuteronomy and the first section of Genesis are read in succession after a festival parade of the Torah scrolls embellished with singing and dancing. For secular Jews such as myself, or non-Jews, who feel left out of this celebration, we can take solace that as English speakers we're able to rejoice in the many words and phrases that the five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) have contributed to the English vernacular.
Mostly, these words and expressions found their way into English through translations of the Torah, such as the King James Bible (KJB).
Take the word “jubilee.” While a jubilee might be an occasion for an English queen to be jubilant (as in the 2012 “Queen's Diamond Jubilee”) celebrating the 60th anniversary of Elizabeth II ascension), the word bears no etymological ode to joy. The first definition of this word in the OED is “A year of emancipation and restoration, which according to Leviticus 25 was to be kept every fifty years, and to be proclaimed by the blast of trumpets.. ; during it the fields were to be left uncultivated, Hebrew slaves were to be set free, and lands and houses in the open country.. that had been sold were to revert to their former owners or their heirs.” This august year takes its name from the Hebrew word yobhel, “ram’s horn,” which was used to proclaim the advent of this event. The word “jubilee” is first used in John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Bible: “Thow shalt halowe the fyftith yeer.. he is forsothe the iubilee.” Chaucer was the first person to use the word without its religious context and by the late 16th century its secular sense became the dominant meaning.
“Scapegoat” is another word first found in Leviticus and once again its progenitor is Wycliffe who renders Leviticus 16 as “And Aaron cast lottes ouer the.. gootes: one lotte for the Lorde, and another for a scapegoote.” Most people think of a scapegoat as an innocent person or group that bears the blame for others and suffers a punishment in their stead. However, in the biblical ritual of the Day of Atonement a scapegoat referred to one of two goats that was sent alive into the wilderness. The sins of the people had been symbolically laid upon this “escaped” goat, while the other goat was sacrificed to God. So, I suppose, in the original sense, being a scapegoat was better for your well-being than the alternative.
The OED defines the word “tithe” as “the tenth part of the annual produce of agriculture being a due or payment for the support of the priesthood..specifically applied to that ordained by Mosaic law.” Tithing is mentioned in many places in Scripture, such as Leviticus 27:30, and aside from support for the priesthood and the Temple, it was also used as a form of tax collection for secular purposes.
Also, our vocabulary has been enriched by several colourful expressions found in the five Books of Moses. These include: “brother's keeper,” (Genesis 4:9), “land of milk and honey”(Exodus 3:8), “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:23-27), and “fat of the land” (Genesis 45:18)
Actually, there are several words and phrases thought to have a biblical provenance that, in fact, do not. Such is the case of “helpmate.” We read in Genesis 2:18, in the KJB, “God, having created man, observed, 'It is not good thar the man should be alone, I will make him an help meet for him' ”, i.e, a “suitable help.” Hearing “help meet” pronounced, by the end of the 17th century churchgoers rendered the term as help-meet and by the the 18th century this hyphenated term transmogrified into “helpmate.” Another Genesis term whose meaning has been misconstrued is “mark of Cain.” We think of this phrase to signify a murderer just as the letter A denoted an adulterer in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. However, when God puts a “mark upon Cain” it is placed so that Cain will be labelled so that others would know not be punish him further.
One of the best-known supposedlymbiblical expressions is “forbidden fruit,” but in Genesis 2 and Genesis 3 Adam and Eve are only instructed not to partake of the fruit of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” According to the OED, “forbidden fruit” is first used in Edward Stillingfleet's 1662 Origines Sacræ: “He required from him the observance..of not eating..the forbidden fruit.” Also, surprisingly, not found in Scripture is the expression “promised land” as this phrase was first used in Thomas Norton's translation of Calvin's Instutio Christianae Religionis written in 1561.
N.B. This article is aimed for all readers; those who “walk with God” (Deuteronomy 10:12) or those, like me who are closer to worship of “the golden calf” (Exodus 32:4)
Howard's next book Arranged & Deranged Language will be published in 2015.