Lost in Translation: Rabbi Reuven Leigh

Anyone who has made the effort to compare translations of the Torah or the Siddur will know that a slight change of word can alter the whole meaning of the text. We find that with regards to Yom Kippur there is a crime of mistranslation that not only fails to capture the meaning of the liturgy but actually describes the opposite of the intended understanding.

In the Yom Kippur prayers we proclaim that Teshuva, Tefila and Tzedaka will remove any negative decree. These three concepts are commonly translated as repentance, prayer and charity, however, after a closer look it will become clear that these three words contain a far deeper and demanding intent.

The word repentance comes from the Latin word poenitire which means make sorry, however, the Hebrew word for make sorry is Charatah and not Teshuva. Teshuva is commonly understood as the act of turning over a new leaf, when someone has made a mistake in life and after coming to the realization that he has erred, he commits himself to change and become a new person. This explains why the word repentance is used as a translation of Teshuva. However, the real concept of Teshuva is not a process of changing ourselves but rather a process of returning to our true self. The core of every person is good and it is only a superficial reflection of the self when a person behaves inappropriately, the solution to any momentary lapse is not to transform oneself into something else but rather to revert back to our default state of goodness. Therefore, a more accurate translation would be return.

Secondly, the word prayer comes from the Latin precari which means to ask or to beg, the Hebrew word for ask/beg is Bakasha and not Tefilla. This translation is due to the common understanding of Tefilla as an act of requesting something we need. Tefilla could mean to cleave or attach oneself. Were Tefilla solely an act of asking for ones needs then it would be irrelevant when there was nothing lacking, However, Tefilla is relevant at all times and in all places and serves as a mode of communication and connection between ourselves and G‑d.

Thirdly, the word charity comes from the latin caritas which means affection, which in this context would be represented in Hebrew by the word Chesed and not Tzedaka. The implication of charity is that one is not obligated to give to another but rather out of goodness one offers to help, however, Tzedaka means righteousness and suggests that one has a moral obligation to give.

So rather than repent, pray and be charitable we need to return, cleave and be righteous to ensure ourselves to be written and sealed for a Shana Tovah.

With warm wishes for a Happy and Healthy New Year in the most literal sense.