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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
September 26, 2008
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Though this word is recited three times or more each day in prayer, it is so unusual that it cannot help but be misunderstood. The prefix "li" is the preposition "to." So the word is "d'vir." Because of its form, it looks as if it is a contracted word in a conjunctive form (never mind), but the actual word is "d'vir," and its presence in the prayer book is a clue as to the diverse origins of the liturgy.

D'vir is one of the names given to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. In Talmudic Hebrew (and beyond), it has no other meaning, and does not seem to be related to "davar" (thing or word) or "dibra/dibrot" (as in "Aseret HaDibrot," the Ten Commandments). But d'vir was troubling to our Sages, and their discussion of it gives an insight as to its origins.

In Tractate Avodah Zarah (page 24b) is a discussion of the praises sung to God by various living creatures. Among the songs presented is the one allegedly sung by cows. It includes a reference to acacia wood, taken to mean the Ark, and the word "d'vir." D'vir is presumed to be a Persian word (or at least a word used by Persian Jews) to refer to a sacred book. Though it appears once in the Book of Judges referring to a scroll Moses placed in the Ark, it may be an interpolation from ancient Farsi rather than a native Hebrew word.

(However, an interesting interpretation suggests that it is originally Hebrew, migrating away from its native language into Persian.)

The Holy of Holies is called "D'vir" because this scroll – presumably the Torah – was placed by Moses into the Ark. Torah is so sacred that its presence can even redefine the role of the central location of God's in-dwelling spirit. Our prayer calls for the restoration of the Temple in its wholeness, with Torah at its spiritual center. The building itself is just a building without the D'vir.

I suggest that the same applies to our synagogues and schools, and even ourselves. We are the People of the Book, not the People of the Temple, because the holiness of our Holy of Holies is the Word more than anything.

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