On Root / What Postcards, Incest, and Revelation Have in Common

The Hebrew root g-l-h covers the gamut from discover to uncover, from the New World to a child's stubborn secrets.

What do postcards, incest, birthright, revelation, and explorers have in common?

Not much, in English. Yet in Hebrew all are variations on one root, g-l-h.

This root gives us a family of words, which has the basic meaning of "uncover" or "discover," but can also mean "reveal, disclose, expose or explore."

Let's begin with revelation, since the occasion for choosing this root is Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which falls this week.

Revealing secrets

The Bible presents Shavuot exclusively as an early summer harvest festival. Later Jewish tradition designated it as commemorating the "Giving of the Law" on Mount Sinai. That experience of "divine revelation" is referred to in contemporary Hebrew as hitgalut, something which has been "revealed," or "uncovered."

Interestingly, the active verb form legalot can be used to describe two actions which are very different in English. If I know something and share it with you, I have "revealed" it. But if I don't know something, and find it out for myself, I have "discovered" it. Hebrew doesn't distinguish between the two, using legalot for both.

Thus, a child who knows a secret, and refuses to tell, no matter how much he is implored, will petulantly say: lo megaleh! "I won't 'tell'!" And the great explorers who sailed the globe in the 16th and 17th centuries are called megalei 'olam, "those who discovered the world."

When someone acts like they've had a revelation despite the fact that their great discovery is something perfectly obvious, you may – if you have a penchant for sarcasm – choose to respond: gilita et America, "wow, you discovered America there!" Use at your own risk.

Discovering your birthright

Young American Jews come to "discover" Israel on a specially designed 10-day tour called in English "Birthright" and in Hebrew, Taglit. Meaning "discovery," this is also the word for scientific breakthroughs and other types of Eurekas.

Note that there are two familiar words that look like they come from this root, but (probably) don't. American and other Jews come to Israel from the Diaspora, golah, or more pejoratively, the Exile, galut. There is some dispute on this point, but while the root of these words is indeed g-l-h, it is apparently a homonym of a different historical provenance, coming from another linguistic family related to g-l-l, "roll" and galgal, "wheel," which suggests the movement involved in these migrations and peregrinations.

But that shouldn't stop us from making all kinds of metaphorical associations between galut and hitgalut – which, after all, was reported to have taken place not in Israel, but in Sinai.

A "birthrighter" may make many discoveries during their revelatory week here, and if they're a little old fashioned and don't tweet their exploits, they might write home about them on a postcard, in Hebrew, gluyah. This simply means "revealed" or "uncovered," for as opposed to a letter in an envelope, on a postcard the words are exposed for all to see.

That's a modern term. One ancient coinage in a very different realm that still has currency today is the Hebrew term for "incest" – gilui 'arayot – literally "uncovering the nakedness" of one's close kin.

Full disclosure

Another kind of gilui is an appropriate or fair one, revealing a particular kind of truth. For instance, when you are asked for an objective evaluation of a product in which you have a financial stake, you are duty-bound to admit your connection – to make a gilui naot, a "fair disclosure" of your connection.

More broadly, it is advisable in most circumstances not to obfuscate one's intent, but rather ledaber gluyot, "speak openly or frankly."

Today's journalism is a little more ephemeral than the grand spiritual revelations of yore, but hopefully, columns such as this provide giluim and tagliot, revelations and discoveries, that last longer than just the daily edition, gilayon, in which they appear.

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

Marc Israel Sellem
Tomer Appelbaum