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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
March 6, 2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Take away the two letters of prefix – vav and nun – and you are left with the word that contains only the root letters.

"Sapeir" means "tell," and one member of the congregation asked me earlier this week why it is that if we are supposed to "tell" the story of the Exodus, the booklet we use for Seder is called the "Haggadah" rather than the "Sippur," or some such thing.

It got me to thinking about the different between the two.

In a different Hebrew construct, this same root – s-p-r – means "to count." Sapeir is in a form that indicates intensity or reflexive action. The most literal (and accurate) translation of this verb would therefore be "recount." And of course, that does not mean to count over again, but to speak an accurate representation of something past.

The other root, from which "haggadah" is formed, is best translated as "to relate." Of course, that does not mean to find a family link, but to tell something in a manner that connects with the experience of others, or to draw a lesson out of a story in the course of telling.

The two ideas are used somewhat interchangeable in both Hebrew and English, but in the prayer book, the distinction is not only valuable, it is important. When we recount God's praises, as we say in this prayer's context – u'n'sapeir t'hilatekha, we do so without embellishment. In general God's attributes speak for themselves. They need no elaboration.

But the Psalmist uses "l'haggid," in particular in the Psalm for Shabbat: tov l'hodot laH' u'l'zameir l'shimkha elyon, l'haggid baboker chasdekha ve'emunat'kha ba-laylot; "it is good to praise God and to sing to Your exalted name, to relate Your love in the morning and Your faithfulness at night." A psalm is poetry, and uses the imagery of song and sun to connect the idea to God in the world. This "telling" is expansive.

"Sapeir" implies fixed and inalterable: like the numbers when we count, like the words in a storybook, this telling is the truth and nothing but the truth.

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