REVIEW: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, History & Liturgy

David Curwin Tradition Online | August 30, 2021

Mitchell First, Roots & Rituals: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, and History (Kodesh Press, 2019), 256 pages
Mitchell First, Links to Our Legacy: Insights into Hebrew, History, and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2021), 252 pages

Whether conscious of it or not, most of us have a tremendous appetite for history. We want to know what happened in the past to better understand our present, and to have a greater chance of forecasting our future. But even beyond those momentous reasons for studying history, it also satisfies a curiosity that appears to be hard-wired into our brains. It is frustrating to have only partial knowledge of something familiar to us. For example, as we read and reread the Bible, we increasingly notice the details that are missing. Who told Abraham that Lot was taken captive? What happened during the period between Joseph’s death and the birth of Moses? What was the name of David’s mother? Either via midrash or through more modern means of research, these types of questions are investigated primarily to satisfy our curiosity. 

Some are content to read what scholars have written on these questions. Others find their inquisitiveness so strong that they are compelled to research the issues themselves and share the results with the rest of us. One of those so moved is Mitchell First, a personal injury attorney by day. In addition to his law practice, First also holds a degree in Jewish history, and has combined his academic training with his thirst for knowledge in the form of regular columns in the Jewish Link of New Jersey and other publications. These easily digestible columns cover the background of words and phrases in the Hebrew language, the history of the Jewish calendar, the development of practices in Jewish liturgy, and more general questions of Jewish history.

These columns have been collected into two books, Roots & Rituals: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, and History and Links to Our Legacy: Insights into Hebrew, History, and Liturgy. The lion’s share of both books is dedicated to the analysis of the etymology of Hebrew words and phrases. A chapter will frequently focus on a particular combination of letters in Hebrew, and try to determine whether the words that contain those letters also share a common root, or if the shared letters are only coincidental. For example, in “The Multiple Meanings of S-F-R” (Links, 80), First writes that the root “has a few meanings in Tanakh: the verbs ‘count,’ and ‘tell a story,’ and the nouns sefer (= letter or scroll) and sofer (scribe). A major issue is whether all these meanings are related.” To answer these questions, he draws on a wide range of sources: rabbinic commentary from the Rishonim and Ahronim, modern dictionaries, and cognates in other Semitic languages. He also provides a service to his readers by including the research of recent scholars, from journal articles and websites. (Full disclosure: First frequently quotes from the essays I have written about Hebrew etymology on my site, Balashon.)

He also provides essays that give a broader overview of the history of Hebrew, with chapters such as “Wordplay in Tanakh” (Roots, 180) and “The Order of the Letters in the Hebrew Alphabet” (Links, 115). These columns, while tackling a rather wide topic, manage to distill the essential points into something that can be understood in one sitting. 

The same format applies to his essays about the history of the Jewish calendar, the holidays, our prayer book, and other general topics of Jewish history. First’s wide-ranging knowledge, and perhaps more importantly, his remarkable curiosity, led him to investigate a number of topics that I found fascinating, even though I hadn’t considered them before. Those include “The Distinction Between Neviim and Ketuvim, and Insights into the Canon” (Links, 153) and “The Original Logo of the Israel Postal Company and Genesis 49:21” (Links,202).

Some of First’s columns are, as noted, a distillation of the scholarship of other writers. In those cases, when I hadn’t read the books or journals he reviewed, I appreciated his summaries. But for me, the true treasure in these collections is when First takes a leap and advances his own theories. For example, in his essay “The Meaning of the Word HitpallelI” (Roots, 240), after reviewing traditional sources like Rashi, Radak, and R. Hirsch, as well as modern works like Brown-Driver-Briggs, he eventually comes to his own conclusion, via comparison with other similar Hebrew roots, that the word means something different than any of them had suggested. He writes that the verb means “to make oneself the object of God’s P-L-L (assessment, intervention or judging).” I found this suggestion convincing and would enjoy reading more like it in the future.

First’s style is often rather casual, even playful. He includes a byline at the end of every column which contains a pun based on the content of the essay. While I personally enjoyed the humor and wordplay, I know that is a matter of taste, and some readers may need to get used to it.

More substantively, the range of First’s sources might cause some discomfort to readers. For those accustomed to traditional authors, the extensive citation of academic resources may be distressing. On the other hand, those who only rely on modern scholarship may find the references to pre-modern rabbis, in place of trained linguists and historians, as anachronistic. First does not address these concerns, and I find that refreshing. Additionally, there are theological issues that the books raise but do not confront directly. How could words in the Torah have derived from an earlier language? How do we relate to prayers once their evolution over time is well proven? First does well to allow the readers to address these questions on their own.

I would have appreciated if the books included an index to the topics discussed, and while First does provide much bibliographic information and references, there were times he omitted the author of a theory. As someone with a similar level of curiosity, I would have appreciated the opportunity to follow up and read those sources on my own. Overall, I found the books pleasant to read and a welcome companion when I had just enough time for an insightful, short essay. I look forward to future installments of Mitchel First’s contributions to our understanding of our history and ourselves.

David Curwin writes about the origins of Hebrew words on his Balashon Blog, and about Jewish thought in TRADITION and elsewhere.


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