On Root / How a Word for Religious Faith Turned Into a Refrigerator

And how the story of the Golem of Prague ties into to military training through the Hebrew root form.

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Here is a short trivia quiz: What Hebrew word has made its way around the world into (almost) every language of man? Hint: This Hebrew root gives us a huge family of words, tying together religion, art, philosophy, sports, politics and the military.

The answer is true and reliable – that is, amen! The word amen is used in over a thousand languages as an affirmation, be it of a blessing or a statement. It comes from the Hebrew root aleph-m-n, which at its core means "firm, straight, steadfast, enduring, trustworthy, faithful."

Do you believe?

In the world of religion, the root brings us the verb ma-amin, which means "believe, trust, be devoted to or have confidence in."

Hebrew distinguishes between ma-amin l- which is to "believe" the veracity of something, versus ma-amin b-, which means to "believe in" the existence of something. The first affirms whether someone is, say, telling you the truth. The second is for questions like whether there is a god.

The difference in nuance continues in noun forms: religious faith is emunah.

Trust, or have confidence, is emun.

What I believe - my credo (Latin for "I believe"), in Hebrew is my "ani ma-amin," literally my "I-believe."

Closely related is the very fundamental Hebrew word emet, "truth". The root letter "n" fell off at some point. Here the word is the same, whether one is talking about God's truth, or just not fibbing.

Truth is indeed said to be "God's seal:" In the famous story of the golem of Prague, the Frankenstein-like "monster" was brought to life by inscribing the word emet on his forehead – aleph mem taph. When the clay monster proved uncontrollable, he was killed by erasing the aleph, leaving the word met – which means "dead."

Jocks and grunts in training

Sports wouldn't seem related, though some people seem to hero-worship their beloved team, and cries of yesh elohim!, "there is a god" are common whenever they score a goal. But a host of words came from the same aleph-m-n root. There is emun, "trust," spelled the same way as imun, "training." And while ma-amin is "believe," a me-amen is a "coach."

The army also gets into the act, since "military maneuvers" are imunim.

We now move from the athletic to the aesthetic, for this root is central in the world of art. While nowadays the ability to draw a straight line doesn't seem essential for an artist, the "straight and orderly," "well-trained" side of aleph-m-n gives us omanut, "art," with oman being "artist."

Trust is the order of the day

A different sort of order is reflected in a word that combines the idea of mutual trust with a vision of social order: amanah, "covenant, pact, treaty, contract, or convention." This is used in contemporary Hebrew in terms like amanah chevratit, "social contract," and amanat Geneva, "the Geneva convention" peace initiative.

If this sounds like the name of a refrigerator, it's because an industrious branch of German Lutherans set up a network of communal settlements under the name Amana, first in New York, and then in Iowa. They ended up creating a large corporation for household appliances – the Amana brand – which was later sold to Whirlpool.

They chose the name for its covenantal associations, but it wouldn't be a bad name for a company of that sort in Israel, since one of the central things the public looks for in consumer goods is aminut, "reliability." A gadget or a person who is amin is "trustworthy" or "reliable."

Amen, emun, imun, oman, amin – Confusing, perhaps, but with just a few letters Hebrew expresses a rich and nuanced family of ideas that have fascinating interconnections. Can I get an "amen" to that, anyone?

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

Amen to that: The Soweto Gospel Choir performing in Johannesburg, South Africa.Credit: Reuters
An Amana appliance. Do you trust it?Credit: Bloomberg

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