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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
February 6, 2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

This intriguing little word means "rock." But there are a lot of words with similar meanings in Hebrew, and a lot of Hebrew words similar to "tzur."

Just as in English we have different words for different kinds of rocks (pebbles, stones, boulders, etc.), the word tzur is different from "even" and "sela" and other such terms in Hebrew. Tzur comes with a sense of being immovable. In fact, it is sometimes used to mean "cliff," something jutting out of the ground and into the air, creating a sense of impenetrability.

For that reason, tzur can also carry the meaning of "fortress." A fortress is formed of rock, which ties tzur into a meaning of "form," used regarding artists, including sculptors. And though the grammatical connection may be suspect, the word "tzar" (without the vav) means to besiege (as a fortress) or trouble. The Yiddishism "tzuros" comes from this word, meaning afflictions that seem immovable.

When we use tzur metaphorically we are always referring to God. "Tzur Yisrael" is the name we call upon when referring to God's unflagging support of Jacob, whose name was Israel, and of our people. "Ma'oz tzur y'shu'ati" are the opening words to the Chanukkah hymn we translate as "Rock of Ages." In this paragraph of prayer beginning "modim" we refer to God as "tzur chayyeinu," the "Rock of our lives."

This imagining of God is neither the warm and fuzzy lover of humanity, nor the stern and incorruptible judge of the universe. In the role of "tzur" God is unchanging and dependable, immovable and imposing, impenetrable by enemies and unalterable by attackers. God is our Rock and Redeemer, our Rock in whom there is no flaw, the Rock on top of which we stand victorious.

It is an attribute worth remembering in a world of change God who is today what God was yesterday and will be tomorrow. Not only is that reassuring to us in the midst of our daily upheavals, it is reassuring to everyone who reaches out to the same reliable Rock in every place and time.

Please note: no "vocabulary word" will arrive next week.

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