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Drash Praying in Another Language

Praying - In Another Language

Drash on June 26, 1999 by Mark Berch



The Dvar Tefila program, begun by David Cohen, looks at the prayers of Shabbat. I want to turn inward this morning and look at the words for praying itself.

The common Hebrew word for prayer, tefila (Isaiah 1:15), has as it root p-l-l, which is variously given as “intercede” (I Samuel 2:25), “judge” (Ezekiel 16:52) and “hope” (Genesis 48:11). There are other biblical words which have been translated as praying or pray, notably tza’ak (Exodus 14:10), za’ak (Judges 3:9) and shivv’a (Psalm 72:12).

The verb, pray, from this p-l-l stem is hitpallel, which is in the reflexive form. This says, in effect, in the words of Moshe Kohn, “I, the praying person, am examining myself, then interposing myself on behalf of myself or of whomever I am praying for, thereby expressing myself as a hoping creature.” This is perhaps a bit much to derive from the use of the reflexive form.

But when Ashkenazi Jews want to use the word pray, they don’t normally go to the Hebrew, but instead to Yiddish, where there are two verbs. The more common is “daven”. Indeed, “daven” is probably the best known Yiddish word among all Yiddish words which have not migrated into English. Daven can be used in the intransitive form, without a direct object, as in “Are we ready to daven?” Or it can take a direct object, as in “Is it too late to Daven mincha?”

A massive dispute has arisen over the origin of “daven”. One theory is that it arises from the Aramaic “d’avhatana”, meaning “from our fathers.” Others point to the Hebrew “daf”, meaning “page”, so that “dafnen” would mean “to turn the pages.” Others point to the Rumanian “divinare” meaning “to divine” or “devovere”, meaning “to consecrate.” Some say that “daven” originally meant to say the morning prayer, and hence look either to the English “dawn” or to Middle High German for “tagewen”, meaning “to do one’s morning chores” or “digen” meaning “to request.” There is also the Arabic “da’awa”, meaning “to pray”. Even the Lithuanian word “davana”, meaning gift has been suggested. The theory is that Jewish peddlers were asked by Lithuanians as to why they stopped to pray in the middle of the day. The answer was that they were saying Mincha, which means gift. The Israeli Yiddishist Mordechai Kosover proposed that it comes from Middle High Germans’s “doenen”, meaning to sing, and the word was used in 15th century Yiddish for the cantor’s chanting. But Solomon Birnbaum used phonetic arguments to show that “daven” could not have come from that word. Other suggestions have come from Greek and Turkish.

Perhaps the most logical choice choice is the Hebrew “davav”, generally translated as “to move the lips” or “to speak”. The root appears once in the Bible, in the Song of Songs, for the lips speaking. But Hebrew poets since the 6th century have also used the word, as in “davevu” , meaning to pray.

What I find so charming about these proposals, is that each, from turning the page to the morning chores, seems to have a little piece of what it means, to pray.

The other Yiddish word used is “Bentsh”. This is a narrower term, used for reciting specific prayers. Thus, the word does not really overlap “daven” at all. In its most common form, it is used alone, and refers to reciting the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals, as in “The food’s all gone, so we might as well Bentsh.” Indeed, the Anglicized version, ““Bentshing” is often used as the noun instead of Birkat Hamazon, as in “Who will lead the Bentching.”

Otherwise, it is used with a modifier. The most common of these is “Bentsh Likht”, to say the blessings over the candles for Shabbat or Holidays. The noun form is generally pronounced as “Likhtbentchen”, all one word. There is also “Bentsh Hanukkah Likht”, for the Hanukkah candles. “Bentsh gomel” is the Yiddish form of Birkat Ha-Gomel, a blessing said by someone who has recovered from a serious illness or has survived something dangerous. “Bentsh Esrog” means to recite the blessings over lulav and esrog. Supposedly, the term is ““Bentsh Esrog” rather than “Bentsh Lulav” because the Biblical verse which says to take a beautiful fruit first names the esrog. “Bentsch Rosh Khodesh” has been used for the blessing of the new moon. “Bentsh der kinder” refers to the blessing of the children on Friday night. Other types of blessings, such as those on the spices or the flames of the Havdalah candle, don’t seem to get the use of “Bentsch”.

There isn’t a controversy over its origin. It comes to us, probably via the Old French, from the Latin word “benedicere”, meaning, “to pronounce a benediction” or “to bless.”


Given by Mark Berch at Tifereth Israel 26 June 1999