Hebrew Wordshops: Praying Jewish in Honor of Thanksgiving

Written by Dr. Jeremy Benstein, "Hebrew Wordshops - A New Way to Connect to Hebrew" explores the potency of the three-letter roots that enrich our connection to Hebrew and Jewish values. 

"To pray" in Hebrew is לְהִתְפַּלֵּל l’hitpalel, a term that actually means "judge, judgment.” This verb and the word for prayer, תְּפִילָּה t’filah, come from the root פ-ל-ל (p-l-l), and words derived from it mean "to be judged" or even "to judge oneself." This is a far cry from our usual ideas of liturgy.

There are actually several different types of Jewish prayer, with a range of Hebrew words that help us express an attitude of gratitude, and more. Judaism traditionally acknowledges four types of prayers: petition (bakashah); penitence (s’lichah); praise (hallel); and thanks (todah).

These prayer words have become super-useful words in secular Israeli Hebrew. When learning conversational Hebrew today, sometime after learning shalom, you’ll discover the words s’lichah, “sorry,” b’vakashah, "please," and תּוֹדָה, todah, "thank you”—all words that originated in prayer.

The word בַּקָּשָׁה bakashah is a request, from the root ב-ק-ש (b-k-sh), meaning "request, ask for," a supplication or entreaty, whether we’re asking a friend or asking God. When the psalmist is explaining what it means to be a person who desires life, the answer is “Turn away from evil, do good,” and bakesh shalom v’rodfeihu, "seek peace and pursue it" (Psalm 34:15). And when Israeli poet and songwriter Naomi Shemer (composer of "Jerusalem of Gold" and other Israeli megahits) adapted the Beatles’ "Let It Be" for Israeli audiences, her song Lu Yehi both brilliantly captures the trisyllabic rhythm of the original title and includes the plaintive refrain Kol shen’vakesh, "All that we ask—let it be."

S’lichah means "sorry" or "excuse me" in common Israeli Hebrew. Use it when you bump into someone or want to get their attention. But if you meet this word in the synagogue, it will probably be during the High Holidays in the context of forgiveness and repentance. There is even a special late-night service before Rosh Hashanah called S’lichot (plural), meaning "penitential (prayers)." At this time of year, God becomes Elo’ah s’lichot, "the God of forgiveness."

Hallel, meaning "praise," is the source of the most common Hebrew word worldwide after amen. Put it in the plural command form, add an object, and you get “Hallelujah!” You’ll find this word throughout the Book of Psalms, which are called Tehillim and come from the same root (the a in hallel becomes an i in Tehillim). If it wasn’t already, this very Jewish prayer word is now indelibly etched in modern musical consciousness, thanks to that priestly troubadour Leonard Cohen (Cohen/kohen is the Hebrew word for "priest").

This root also appears in what may be the most radically succinct Hebrew aphorism of all time: al yithalel choger kimfatei’ach (1 Kings 20:11). These four short words literally mean "don't boast buckler as opener." Got that? How about: "Let not one who buckles on the battle belt praise himself as one who takes it off (after winning the battle) would." Or simply - don't count your chickens before they hatch.

That brings us to todah. In English we say either "thank you" (short for "I thank you") or "thanks." In Temple times, the thanksgiving sacrifice was known as zevach todah, but today Jews offer thanks verbally through prayer. "I thank" in Hebrew is אֲנִי מוֹדֶה ani modeh, but in formal written Hebrew (ancient and modern), a verb can be placed before a noun, resulting in modeh ani (or its feminine form, modah), the name of the prayer said first thing in the morning expressing thanks for waking up.

And this time of year, this root is especially relevant, for only in the venerable Hebrew language does turkey, tarnegol hodu (literally: an Indian chicken) remind us to be grateful: hodu!,"Give Thanks!"


Benstein is the author of the recently released Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World.