Tuesday, November 22, 2005

224. Of prayer and a farm animal


I was caught up in spiritual fervor, and feeling confident and pretty satisfied with myself. We finished the silent Amidah.

"Please turn to p. 441 for the chazara," said the rabbi.

"Chazara." This was the second time in my life I had heard the word. I had no idea what it meant, but was apparently about to do it. On Rosh Hashonah, during a moment of distraction from my vocal struggles, I first heard the rabbi invite us to this thing; I never got around to checking a dictionary, but guessed it had to do with "chazzan," cantor, me, since we were about to begin the reader's repetition of the Amidah. (The Amidah is traditionally read twice, the first time silently and then again sung by the cantor. We repeat it at my synagogue only on the High Holy Days.) That Yom Kippur morning I pondered the word for a few seconds with a clearer head, and noted with some alarm that it sounded suspiciously like another, more familiar one: "chazzerai," the not very complimentary Yiddish term meaning pig stuff, treyf, that which is non-kosher. Or, more generally, garbage food. Echoes of my mother yelling, as I emerged from a candy store, "Don't eat that chazzerai! You'll spoil dinner!"

The rabbi would not be calling me a pig, and I was certain that "chazara" and "chazzerai" could not in any way, shape or form mean the same thing. Never. Well, almost certain. The following day I Googled the word, and discovered I wasn't the only person confused by the similarity in sound. Here was the answer, in very proper academic terms, from a Yiddish language discussion list:

Q: Can anyone suggest why the Yiddish word iberkhazern, which means "to review, to repeat, to go over," is derived from the Hebrew word "khazer," meaning "pig." What is the connection?

A: The word iberkhazern is a combination of the Yiddish "iber" [above, beyond] and the Hebrew "la-chzor" or "chazara" [to repeat, repetition]. It has nothing to do with chazir (i.e., pig).

As usual, the rabbis at my synagogue were trying to expand our knowledge by using a traditional Hebrew term instead of the English, so "chazara" (which has no connection to the word "chazzan") rather than "repetition of the Amidah." I imagined the writer of the discussion list query sitting down at the keyboard after Shabbat: "Of course they wouldn't be talking about pork during services. But it sure sounded like they were. Nah, no way. Oy. How can I ask this question without sounding stupid?" I am grateful to Google for saving me from similar embarrassment.


Regina Clare Jane said...

Language is amazing, aa... each time we go to Hong Kong, we try to learn a little more of the local language and you have to be so careful to get the intonations correct for the word because they have 4 different tones for Mandarin and 7 for Cantonese! A slight variation of tone for the same word can mean something totally different- and maybe not so nice!

alto artist said...

oy! (Hebrew isn't nearly as complicated, thank goodness.) Yes, I'm always glad that God understands all languages, even when we pronounce them incorrectly.