Life and Hebrew

I am thrilled and delighted to welcome a new contributor to TBEmavens who has very kindly agreed to share insights into Hebrew language topics.


As every Hebrew student knows, most Hebrew words are based on three letters. And with a slight change of one or more vowels, these three letters can form related meanings that often provide a whole philosophy of life.

Take for example the famous phrase from the Pesach Haggadah – מַה נִשׁתָנָה …, ma nishtanah … How is it different…?

The three main letters of the term נִשׁתָנָה  are ש ,נ  and ה shin, nun and hey.  This has three basic meanings.  First, there is the meaning ‘to learn’, as Hillel famously declared,  “Do not say, ‘If I have free time, I will learn (אֶשׁנֶה)’ – perhaps you’ll never have free time!”

Secondly, there is the meaning ‘to repeat’, perhaps most famous for its Aramaic equivalent in the form תנה, Tanna, the name given to the professional learners, the Jewish sages who, perhaps from the time of Moses, committed to memory the precious Jewish texts and transmitted them orally through the generations, until they were eventually written down at the end of the second century CE.

The third meaning ‘to be different’ appears in the famous question in the Haggadah mentioned above.

What then is the connection between these three meanings, which seem totally unconnected in English thought?   Well, by repeating we learn, and we learn by repeating. In this way we become different and are changed.  Knowledge changes and empowers.

With a slight adjustment of the vowels – ‘e’ to ‘a’, but otherwise exactly the same letters, we could also ask at the Seder  נִשׁתָנֶה …, ma nishtaneh … How shall we be changed?  How shall we be different?  –  what have we learnt after yet repeating this amazing Haggadah?


 ה׳ בניסן תשע״ג

16th March 2013

Thank you for a wonderful article and we look forward to many more!