On Root / Going Back to Improve the Future

In the modern world, progress is about moving forward, but Judaism teaches that looking back is just as important.

We're still in the thick of the High Holiday season here in Israel. This week is part of the period known as bein keseh le'asor, “between the covering and the tenth,” referring to the covering of the moon, i.e. the new moon of Rosh Hashanah, and the tenth day of Tishri, Yom Kippur.

As we mentioned last week, Judaism emphasizes the cyclical side of time, from the seasonal festivals to the name of the holiday prayer book, machzor, "cycle" (of prayers). If any Jewish concept seems like it should involve moving forward rather than in a circle, it’s teshuva, “repentance”; but the word’s literal meaning its actually “return.”

The idea that progress involves return seems paradoxical in our society, where time is constructed or experienced in a more linear way. Progress nowadays means getting better by replacing backward, old or primitive things with new and improved models – whether ideas, values or gadgets. The Hebrew language, though, as expressed in some key liturgical phrases, and one special root, encodes a different view.

This leads us to the question: What’s the connection between kadum, "ancient," and kidmah, “progress”?

More than grape juice

A High Holiday prayer taken from the end of the Book of Lamentations (5:21) includes the words: “chadesh yameinu k'kedem,” meaning, "renew our days as of old." The first word in the phrase is related to chadash, “new,” which as we discussed last week, gives us “chodesh, “month” (since a month starts with a “new” moon). Another word for "month" is yerach, which comes from yareach, "moon." This is another example of newness and renewal, turning and returning, in a cyclical way.

The last word in the phrase, kedem, comes from the root k-d-m, which essentially means “before.” This is one of the most productive roots in the Hebrew language, and represents the dialectic view of time.

Besides being the name of a leading kosher grape juice brand, kedem is the time that came kodem, "before,” or “a time long ago.” Yemei kedem are literally "the olden days." If you go far enough back you get to the kadum, "ancient," times, populated, of course, by the kadmonim, “ancients.” These folks include not just Plato and Buddha, but also Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm from Mishpachat Kadmoni, "the ancient or primeval family," as the Flintstones are called in Hebrew.

The root k-d-m doesn’t always refer to the distant past, though. Someone or something can also just “arrive early,” makdim. Being mukdam,"early," is often wise, since sometimes it is kol hakodem zocheh, "first come, first served"(or "the early bird gets the worm").

The grand pre-

Many words with this root correspond to English words that use the particle "pre-." The word kidomet means"prefix," as in either the letters placed in front of a word to form a new word or the numbers that precede a phone number to denote the area, an “area code” in English. Also, on “round” birthdays – 20, 30, 40, etc. – you are said to machlif kidomet, "change the prefix" number.

A book has a hakdamah, “preface,” and a movie has a kedimon, “trailer.” You won’t often hear this high-blown word at the movies, though. In common use, trailers are called "bekarovim" (or even trailerim – how's that for Hebrew?), a sort of silly plural form of bekarov, meaning "soon" – as in the coming attractions.

When Israelis compete to decide who will represent the country in the popular international Eurovision singing competition, the event is called "The Kedam," "The Pre-".

And let’s say you need money behekdem, “as soon as possible,” and so ask your boss for a mikdama, "advance" on your paycheck. If you’re lucky, he’ll agree, but he may not want to give you “precedence,” kedimut, over your coworkers or to set a takdim, "precedent” of early payment. In that case, he may tell you to reevaluate your kedimuyot, "priorities” – something you’re supposed to be doing this time of year anyway.

Facing the future

The idea of "before" isn't just temporal; it's also spatial. In addition to being Israel's largest and most centrist political party, kadimah means "forward." Kedmah, with an "-ah" suffix that denotes "toward," should mean “toward the front.”

But since Semites traditionally oriented themselves toward the sunrise (the word "orient" itself means "toward the rising sun") – east was considered the front. Thus kedmah means “eastward.” The famous Steinbeck novel and Elia Kazan film starring James Dean, "East of Eden" – the place where Cain was exiled to (Gen 4:16) – is in Hebrew, Kidmat Eden.

Finally, the root k-d-m has a sense that's both spatial and metaphorical. "Moving forward," whether physically advancing, or socially “moving up,” is hitkadmut. Likewise, you can “promote”someone or something, lekadem, or receive a promotion, kidum, yourself. If you’re doing decent work, this should happen bemukdam o bimeuchar, "sooner or later."

And while the idea of "before," in a chronological sense, denotes what happened in the past, in the more spatial sense, we tend to think of what’s before us as being in the future. Thus kidmah is the Hebrew term for "progress." But as this word is related to kadum and kedem, it implies a different view of progress that sees eternal value in timeless wisdom and the startling newness of ancient truths: “renewing our days as of old.”

Next week: More circles and lines, gatherings and pilgrimages, in the holiday vein.

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