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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
October 16, 2008
© Rabbi Jack Moline

The Italians have a saying that goes "traduttore, traditore." It means "translator, traitor," and, ironically, it doesn't translate well. But the notion is that any attempt to translate from one language to another is a betrayal of the original. Perhaps less hyperbolically, it is accurate to say that you lose nuance whenever your translate something.

The word in question, "t'kabeil," provides good evidence of the Italian adage. In the first case, it is in the imperative tense. In English, that implies a command, but since it is directed toward God, it is chutzpa of the highest order to presume to give God a command. Just like other words in this form, there is implied an urgent request. Not to diminish its sacred nature, but the imperative in prayer carries the same unspoken pleading as the third-grade student who knows the answer to a difficult question from the teacher and almost dislocates her shoulder raising her hand in hopes of being recognized.

In the second case, however, is the root of the word "k-b-l." Almost always, it is (as accurately as possible) translated as "receive." But receive is a neutral word in English, and therefore the nuance of Hebrew is lost. There is not value presumed in receiving a package or a piece of mail.

The most familiar form of the root of this word is "Kabbalah." Standing alone, it usually refers to the body of Jewish mystical thought and practice that is enjoying resurgence in our day. But if an Israeli walked into an office or hotel and saw the word "Kabbalah," he or she would know exactly where to check in; in English we might call it "Reception." And in its conjunctive form, we are familiar with the word from both "Kabbalat Shabbat," the introductory service to Friday night's evening prayers, and "Kabbalat Panim," the way one or many guests are hosted, usually for a happy occasion.

None of those usages is value-neutral. Each one has the inferred or explicit notion of "welcome" as part of its meaning. We welcome guests and Shabbat; the reception area welcomes visitors; the mystical tradition is one that welcomes God's presence.

So if I were to offer a translation of t'kabeil that included both nuances, I might say "please welcome." But what I would gain in expansion, I would lose in economy. When we address "t'kabeil" to God, there is a presumption of willingness on God's part that requires no explanation. Traduttore, traditore.

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