10 English Words that Come from Torah

10 English Words that Come from Torah photo

The Bible is the best-seller to end all best-sellers (or maybe to start them), so it would be surprising if it didn't have an impact on our language. Here are just 10 of the many words we still use from the Torah today, what they mean now, and what the Torah meant by them.


This word means a large animal, such as a rhino, or, metaphorically, any ridiculously huge entity. It's actually the plural of a Hebrew word, beheyma, which usually refers in the Torah to a type of cow or cow-like cattle, such as a water buffalo or bison. The word also is used for a mythical, mystical, horned land-beast of large proportions; some say the description in Job 40:15-24 most closely fits that of a hippo.

Cherub (plural: cherubim)

Today, it means a pudgy baby angel, and is sometimes confused with Cupid (also not originally a winged baby). But the original keruv was a much more powerful (also adult and slender) angelic figure. Two keruvim adorned the lid of the Ark of the Covenant itself, the box that held the tablets of the Ten Commandments.


This is a long speech about what is wrong with the world or society, and it can be sad or angry in tone. Such a speech was given frequently by the prophet Jeremiah, who warned about and ultimately witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem. We read his description of that event on Tisha B'Av, a major summertime fast day, in the Book of Lamentations. The Book of Jeremiah itself is 52 devastating chapters long.

Jubilee (jubilant, jubilation)

This is a major celebration (this link is to a song, "Jubliee," by country-folk singer Mary Chapin Carpenter), often on a major anniversary. It comes from the Hebrew word yovel. Every seventh year was shmita: the land lay fallow, debts were forgiven, and indentured servants were set free. But every 50th year was yovel, and even the servants who chose to stay on at a shmita year were made to leave servitude and reclaim their independence, in addition to the ban on land cultivation and return of all real estate to its original owner. With not much else to do, it was a time of frequent festivities.


Another mythical monster, the word leviaton today means "whale" in Hebrew; like the behemoth, the leviathan is a huge beast, but one with fins. It is mentioned in Psalm 74:13-14, Job 41, and Isaiah 27:1. In the End of Days, the Behemoth will fight the Leviathan, but God will slay them both and prepare them in a feast for the righteous, we are told (best surf-n-turf ever!). There is also a giant bird called a ziz, but that hasn't caught on as a word. Well, not yet -- a children's author is working on it.


"Like manna from Heaven," goes the saying. And, according to the Exodus story, a bready substance called mun fell from the sky to feed the Jews wandering in the desert. Some say it tasted like crackers and honey, or fried dough (so why are we stuck with matzah on Passover again?) Today, "mun" refers to the poppy-seed filling found in some hamentashen.


Today, a "nimrod" is a doofus. This is a massive comedown for this word, since Nimrod in the Torah was revered as "a mighty hunter before the Lord" who also established a whole city. So why is his name now an insult? Some say his city included the Tower of Babel, one of the most "epic fails" ever. Others say he was too strong, a tyrant deserving of scorn. Others say it was Bugs Bunny; he insulted Elmer Fudd as being a "poor little nimrod," and viewers, not catching that Bugs was insulting Elmer's hunting skills, thought he was insulting him altogether.


American Pharoah is a book by the late, great Mike Royko about (not a racehorse, but) Mayor Richard J. Daley, which gives us a clue about how Americans see this word. Ancient Jews probably had mixed feelings about it, since some Egyptian pharaohs -- it was a title, like "caesar" or "king"-- did nice things like elevating Joseph, and some were so stubborn even plagues couldn't change their mind.


This adjective describes a time, often an academic year, that is taken off. It's often used for scholars to research and write a major work, but it can also just be a vacation. It comes from the root "sabbath"… or as we say, Shabbat. The modern meaning is very apt since the word itself is from a Hebrew verb meaning " to rest."


The "fall guy," the person or group who takes the blame for something even though they are, in fact, blameless. Jews are way too familiar with this concept; we have been scapegoated for everything from the Black Plague to the contagion that is Pokemon Go. Totally unfair, considering that we gave the world so many great things, including the very word they use for the idea. The original scapegoat was an actual goat, sent away from the Temple (it's from the same root as "escape") into the wilderness as atonement for our sins during the Yom Kippur ceremony. Even though the goat itself was, of course, as innocent as a lamb -- poor thing.

The Torah is many things: A storybook, a law book, even a cookbook. We can add "dictionary" to that list, or at least a book whose words continue to permeate our language even to today.

Paul Wieder photo 375
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