On Root

Back to School Special - the Alphabet of Education

If the first day back at school is making students grind their teeth, perhaps it's because of the connection between the word for 'education' and the term for 'chewing.'

Last year they didn't get away with it, but this year the Israeli government managed to change the date of an event that is both one of the most anticipated, and dreaded, days on its sacred state calendar.

It's back to school time! But instead of the year beginning on the usual 1st of September, this year students are returning to school today, on August 27, almost a week earlier. Joy abounds in parental circles, less among the young ones.

In honor of the beginning of the term, and while trying not to be overly didactic, this week's column is devoted to terms pedagogical and educational.

Making education palatable

Children will be going from home, bayit, to school, beit hasefer, which means literally "the book-house," or "home of the book" (beit being a form of bayit meaning "house of").

What is supposed to be taking place in those bookish buildings is education, chinuch. English speakers may be familiar with the root of this word from the holiday "Chanukah," which means "dedication" – and that is essentially what the root chet-n-kaf means – dedicate, inaugurate or initiate – with the final kaf being hard, like a "k" or soft like a "ch," depending on its place in the word.

Chanukah commemorates the Maccabean dedication of the Beit Mikdash, the Temple, but we use this term for the chanukah of any bayit, i.e., "house warming."

The root is actually related to the word for gums, chanichayim, and palate, chech, which is almost onomatopoeic, since it sounds like you're clearing your throat and palate as you say it.

But what is the connection with education? While "education," from the Latin, "e- ducere," to lead out or away," is leading a person out of something (darkness, ignorance), chinuch, stemming from "initiate," is to introduce them to new things, or to lead them in. According to the venerable "Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language" (Ernest Klein, 1987) the verb form chanach originally meant "to rub the palate of a child with chewed dates." New subjects, like new foods for a toddler, can be hard to digest; first, you have to spoon-feed your chanichim, students, before they can chew things over for themselves.


Educators are mechanchim, though, as in English, the more commonly used words are morim and morot, teachers (masc. and fem.). If we're already talking about the transition from bayit to beit sefer, home to school, we should mention the connection between teachers, and parents - in Hebrew, horim. Or to be more specific – the lack thereof.

While there are often amazing verbal connections between seemingly unrelated words, here is a case of words that seemingly could and should be connected, but in actuality aren't.

Whatever they may teach you, the main achievement of your horim is that they brought you into the world, and so the word comes from the root for pregnant, harah, and pregnancy, herayon. This word may be related to the word for mountain, har, for the shape of a pregnant belly, but that's another story…

Morim, on the other hand, engage in horaah, "teaching," performing different types of "instruction," i.e, torah. Yes, that's the same Torah that means Pentateuch, divine Law, scripture, etc. It originally and literally means simply "instruction." In contemporary Hebrew it also means something like "theory" (sounds similar, though no relation), as in Einstein's torat hayachasut, the theory of relativity, or "the study of" or "the science of", as in torat habishul, the study or science of cooking.

Shoot now, ask questions now

Here the root is not h-r-h, but y-r-h. There is a section of the well-known code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, called the Yoreh De'ah, "teacher of knowledge." And one ordaining a new rabbi proclaims: "Yoreh, yoreh!" meaning something like, "let him teach!" This very cerebral root may actually be the same as the more violent y-r-h, that means "shoot," as in an arrow or a gun.

If they are related it could be from one of two possibilities. One is the yoreh that means the "former rains" – those early autumn rains that come shooting down with great force after a lengthy dry season. From the life-giving waters of the rain to teaching life-giving knowledge is but a small semantic step.

Or, just as in English, if I were to request to ask a question, you might respond, "Shoot!", to which I might react by "firing" some questions, which might "trigger" some more responses. A variety of "thrust-and-parry" metaphors of discussion might be relevant here, especially in the highly dialogic and competitive world of Talmudic pedagogy.

It's just a coincidence, though, that a "firing squad" is called a kitat yorim. But that brings us back to school which is made up of kitot, which means both classrooms and grade levels.

Students who progress through the ma'arechet chinuch, the education system, go from kitah aleph, first grade, up through yud-bet, the Hebrew letters whose numerical values are 10 and 2 (which adds up to 12th grade).

Biologically, they undergo a process of maturation, hitbagrut. Regardless of educational achievements, at 18 years old a person is deemed an adult, mevugar.

These are both from the root b-g-r, "grown up" or "mature" (remember that in Hebrew, the "b" and the "v" alternate for each other). However, if that system has done its job, and they successfully complete their studies, becoming bogrim, graduates of their high school, and passing their bagruyot (sing. bagrut), matriculation exams, then we can say that they are also mechunachim, educated.

Next week: the connection between spitting (gar'inim, sunflower seeds) and splitting (the gar'in, atom), and other threats to our well-being.

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Add your comments here, or write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.