Word of the Day / Hazara B'she'ela: On a Wing, Hold the Prayer

How this clever term calls increased religious observance into question.

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The week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is one in which Jews are supposed to focus on teshuva. That is generally translated as "repentance" but actually comes from the same root as the infinitive lashuv meaning "to return."

In Jewish tradition, repenting for your sins is seen as a return to God and the path of righteousness, even if the person was never religious in the first place.

A person who repents – a born-again Jew, if you will – is a ba'al teshuva, one who has returned. The act of doing so is called hazara b'teshuva, which literally means "returning in return."

But while the teshuva in hazara b'teshuva refers to a return to religion, the word teshuva also means "answer," as in the teshuvot, or responsa, written by rabbis ruling on religious questions.

So what do you call it when people head in the opposite direction of a ba'al teshuva, leaving religion behind instead of picking it up? They are said to have gone through the process of hazara b'she'ela, literally "returning in question," a phrase that formerly ultra-Orthodox Israeli poet Asher Reich lays claim to coining.

By turning hazara b'teshuva on its head, the loaded term hazara b'she'ela (sometimes called yetzia b'she'ela, "going out in question") cleverly and succinctly evokes a questioning, questing soul. At the same time, it implies that increasing one's religious observance is less about penitence and more about thinking one has found the sole answer to the many questions life poses. Whether that's an accurate way of looking at teshuva is, of course, an open question.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

Not necessarily an atheist, but definitely not a Hasidic Jew.Credit: AP

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