On Root / Another Round of Repentance

As we prepare for the New Year, it’s worth remembering that repentance is more about the process than the product.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is upon us, with its foods (apples and honey, anyone? How about a fish head?), rites, and yes, also words. One of the central ritual objects of these High Holidays is the machzor, the “prayer book” used for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which itself contains a lot of words. Believe it or not, secular Israelis actually associate this word more with menstruation.

Why on earth would a prayer book, a sacred object, used on the holiest days of the year, have the same name as a menstrual period?

Getting loopy

While this question could fire the etymological imagination, conjuring up connections to the new moon and its effects or even metaphors involving, say, seminal texts, the reason is actually much more prosaic. Machzor means “cycle,” as in machzor hachayim, “the life cycle,” or “machzor hamayim,” “the hydrological cycle” in nature. While chayim, “life,” has been a personal name for generations, as in Israel's poet laureate, Chayim Nachman Bialik, mayim meant "water" long before it became the given name of Bialik’s celebrity great-great grand niece.

Machzor is short for machzor chodshi, “the monthly cycle.” Chodshi meaning "monthly" is from chodesh, "month," which is called that because the Hebrew lunar month starts when the moon is “new,” chadash. Actually, the term "menstruation" itself comes from the same Latin root as "moon" and "month."

The word became a name for a prayer book in the Middle Ages. It refers to the special cycle of prayers, including piyutim, “liturgical hymns and poetry,” that are used during the holidays. These are significantly different from the liturgy of the rest of the year, which are collected in the siddur, which just means "arrangement"(from seder, "order").

Machzor comes from the root ch-z-r, which has meanings related to "return" or "repeat” in a variety of senses. For instance, in the financial sense, it means “turnover,” as in monthly or yearly gross income, and in the physiological sense it means “circulation,” as in blood.

But the word has also come to function as a new root on its own, and a new verb has been formed from it: Lemachzer means to keep or put something into a closed loop or cycle, i.e. "to recycle," and its corresponding noun form, michzur, means "recycling." Israel may lag behind the United States and Western Europe in recycling rates, but at least the language is keeping up with the times!

Stuck on repeat

Machzor shares a root with many other cyclical words. A person can “return,” lachzor, to a place, or “return,” lehachzir, a purchase to the store. If one returns often enough to the house of another, they can be said to be “courting,” lechazer. The Hebrew name of the film "Fatal Attraction" is Chizur Gorali, which literally is more like "fateful courtship."

When that movie, or any other show, is repeated on TV, it is a shidur chozer, a "rebroadcast" or “rerun.” And when actors in a show review their lines together, repeating them over and over, they are having a chazarah, a “rehearsal.”

However, if they were to collectively "get religion," that would be a different kind of chazarah, known as chazarah betshuva, literally "returning in repentance," becoming religiously observant, or ba'alei teshuva, “penitents” or "born again."

Which brings us to the other big High Holiday root, which is actually a synonym for ch-z-r. That root is sh-u-v, and it too means something like "return" or "repeat". When you go somewhere, and want lachzor, or lashuv, " to return," you buy a ticket that is haloch veshov, "there and back," or "round trip."

Sometimes lashuv is a one-way trip. As part of the age-old idea of Shivat Tziyon, the national return to Zion, Israel has the Law of Return, chok hashvut, allowing any Jew to "come back" to Israel and become a citizen – even if they've never been here before. Similarly, many Palestinians claim zechut hashivah, "the right of return," which they say entitles them to come back to areas in the State of Israel and also become citizens.

Even though these rights are meant to be solutions to problems, they yield as many questions as “answers” – teshuvot.

As we've seen, the word teshuva means two different things: "answer" and "repentance." On the surface, it's not clear why the word for "answer" should be formed from this root. But note that the idea of answer – as in "reply," "retort” or "rejoinder" – also uses the "re-" prefix, and is a response that is “returned” to the asker.

Repentance, too, is often discussed as a type of return, perhaps to a certain conception of truth or a pristine spiritual state. But as opposed to the common stereotype of a chozer betshuva, a “newly devout person” who has found all the answers, sincereteshuva, whether religious or secular, should be more process than product, more searching, asking and opening up than answering and closing off. This is true whether the search is in machzor hatefilla, “the sacred liturgy,” ormachzor hachayim, “the cycles of our lives.”

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