Word of the Day Otiyot Kiddush Levana

Grandma may have told you never to read by moonlight because it would harm your eyes, but a solution devised by observant Jews gave us this Hebrew term.

Ronen Shnidman
Ronen Shnidman
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Ronen Shnidman
Ronen Shnidman

Modern Hebrew is the revival of a language that had fallen out of vernacular use for nearly 2,000 years, but that doesn't mean there was no linguistic evolution in the interim.

Many Modern Hebrew expressions have roots in rabbinic Hebrew and in Jewish practice, from the time of the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's creation of the first dictionary of Modern Hebrew.

An interesting expression, not found in the rabbinic literature but more a reflection of it, is “otiot kiddush levana” - literally “letters of the Sanctification of the Moon.

It simply means “big letters.”

Kiddush Levana is a Talmudic prayer that is recited in the days following the beginning of a new lunar month, during the moon's waxing phase.

Because the prayer is typically said outside in the night while gazing at the moon, many synagogues post the text in large type on an exterior wall. Simply, the letters are large so they can be read in the low light.

As Hebrew came back into everyday use this century, the term “otiyot kiddush levana” came to refer to any large type, without any religious meaning necessarily implied.

Haaretz correspondent Yair Ettinger made (perhaps unwittingly) ironic use of the phrase in an election-season article describing "scare tactics" used by the United Torah Judaism party to drum up votes in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak.

Ettinger describes a UTJ campaign leaflet titled “No. 7 bus” which, he wrote, were in “otiyot kiddush levana”. The explanation, in smaller type: "Get to know it, it’s the bus from Bnei Brak to the induction center." The irony is of course use of the religiously-inspired phrase to hint at Haredi horror at looming conscription.

Of course, Ettinger's amusing word choice of would have been missed by readers of the Haaretz English edition, which simply noted that the words, “No. 7 bus,” appeared in “large letters.”

Some things are just lost in translation.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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