Monday, August 24, 2015


The Bible was written a long time ago, and therefore needs to be appreciated within the context of the ancient Near Eastern literature. To assume that the words used then mean the same thing today is wrong, and can often lead to  major misunderstandings. Let’s take the word “heart,” which in our culture is considered to be the seat of human emotions. When we say, “I love you with all my heart,” everyone today gets the message. However, in the past, the heart was not viewed as the seat of emotions, but primarily as the seat of the intellect. In those days, they did not know much about the role of the brain. (Only, secondarily, was the word  used to refer to emotions). 

          Here are a few examples where “heart” (lev or levav in Hebrew) clearly means “mind.” When Laban accused Jacob of taking away his daughters, he said, “Why did you keep me in the dark” (vatignov et levavi, lit. ‘you stole my mind,’ Gen. 31: 26). When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, the Bible tells us, “Pharaoh and his courtiers changed their mind” (vayeafeh levav paro va-avadav, Ex. 14: 5). Note: they did not change their “heart.” Here the word lev means “mind.” In biblical Hebrew a wise person is called haham levav (“wise of mind”, Job. 9: 4).  Similarly, the book of Deuteronomy urges the Israelites to love God “with all your mind (levavha), life (nafsheha) and means (meodeha)” (6: 5). Old translations used to render this phrase as “with all your heart, with all your soul and your all your might.” I think this is wrong. levavha means “your intellect;” nafsheha means “your body”  (nefesh coming from the Akkadian napishtu meaning “throat,” symbol of body); and meodeha simply means, muchness, whatever you have. The Hebrew lev or levav corresponds to the Akkadian libbu, meaning “mind.” Thus, for example, in Babylonian language, ul libbi simply means “I do not know;” ina hub libbishu means “of his own free will.” 

          So, if the heart is primarily the seat of the mind, where do the emotions or conscience lie in the human body? In the Bible, they are located in the kidneys!!! Thus, for example, Proverbs says, “my kidneys shall rejoice” (ve-taalozna hilyotay, 23: 16), meaning, “I will be happy.” Psalms complains, “I was pierced through in my kidneys” (ve-hilyotay eshtonan, namely “my feelings were numbed,” (JPS) 73: 21), or “my conscience (namely, “my kidneys,” hilyotay) admonished me at night” (16:7). So, in biblical Hebrew, if someone wanted to say “I love you,” he would probably say, “my kidneys go for you”—not an expression we would recognize or appreciate today.

          Not knowing these subtle differences often leads us to misunderstanding of the language used in those ancient days. The Bible, great as it may be in many areas, reflects its own time and terminology. Though many of its teachings are elevating and timeless, others are primitive and even incomprehensible to us. It was left up to the Rabbis to try to understand the teachings from the perspective of their own time and place. We need to do the same now, always trying to figure out what it meant then, and what it can mean today; keeping some, and ignoring the others.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Aug. 24, 2015.

Monday, July 20, 2015


What's in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.

That is what Shakespeare said in his famous play, Romeo and Juliet. A name is an appendage; it is a way to distinguish one person or an object from another. Some people like their names, and keep them for life; others don’t, and change them for a variety of reasons, including fame or ethnicity.

A bit of a background:

Among Semitic people of the ancient Near East, a name had a meaning based on its three-letter roots. Biblical Israelites, being part of that world, followed the same custom and gave their heroes and villains names with significance appropriate to their situation in life: For example, Adam means “humanity;” Isaac is “laughter,” Joseph “increase.” Some people were named after animals: Deborah (“bee”), Jonah (“dove”), Rachel (“ewe”), or plants: Tamar (“palm tree”), Hadassah (“myrtle”).  Sometimes, circumstances determined the giving of a name: Avraham is “exalter father;” Esau means “hairy,”Abimelekh  “My father is/was a king.”(I remember the case of an Arab who called his 10th daughter “Tamam,” meaning, “Enough”!!!). 

In the biblical period, a name was considered to be part of the essence of a being. As the Bible states, “like his name, so is he” (I Sam. 25:25). If something did not have a name, it simply did not exist. The Bible states that “whatever the [primordial] man (ha-Adam, in Hebrew) called each living creature, that would be its name” (Gen. 2: 19). Also, altering a name implied changes in social status. Thus, leaders and kings often assumed new names when their social condition changed. For, example, the patriarch Jacob was named Israel after he struggled with a mysterious person at the River Jabbok (Gen. 32:28); Eliakim, the son of King Josiah, became Jehoiakim when he became king of Judah (II K 23: 34); similarly, Mattaniah’s name was changed to Zedekiah when he was appointed king (II K 24: 17).

 In our time, the custom of changing a name is preserved in the Catholic Church when the cardinals appoint a new pope. Thus, Joseph A. Ratzinger became Benedict XVI (2005-2013), and, the present pope, Jorge M. Bergoglio became Francis (2013-). Often kings or queens assume a regal name when they ascend the throne: Queen Victoria (1837-1901) had been christened Alexandrina Victoria, but took the throne under the name of Victoria. Similarly, when her son, Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, became king, he took the name of Edward VII. Also, women traditionally take their husband’s last name when they get married. (I often wondered, why so? Now, some men are taking their wife’s family names. Maybe each should keep his/her own for the rest of his/her life). Many women change their name after a divorce. Some artists assume a new name for purposes of publicity, fame or simple vanity. Thus, for instance, Eric. M. Bishop became Jamie Foxx; Carlos I. Esteves became Charlie Sheen, and Stefani J. A. Germanolla became Lady Gaga.

What happens today?

The naming process is different in our time. We give our children names we like, without knowing their significance; at times, we bestow upon them names in honor or memory of a family member. However, this is a name we personally choose for them. Have you asked yourself: what if they don’t like it when they grow older? Why should one get tied up to a name that is imposed on him/her, even if it is done with the best of intensions.  Giving a name is not like getting a new piece of clothing that you can discard easily. You are either thrilled with it or stuck with it the rest of your life. 

The Jewish custom is to name children after their father .They become: A the son (ben)/daughter (bat) of B. For males, this takes place during their circumcision. Jewish girls are often named during a new ceremony called simhat bat (“Celebration of a girl”) either at home or in the synagogue. Presently, children are named after both father and mother. My Hebrew name is Refael ben Avraham. I added my mother’s name when I became an adult, so I am fully Refael ben Avraham ve-Havvah. When I was born, my parents in Turkey did not want to call me Refael; that was my grandfather’s first name, but it sounded too Jewish! So, they changed it to Rifat (pronounced as Ree-faht), a good Turkish name. 

The name “Rifat” comes from the Arabic, meaning “elevation, superiority.” It can be given to a man, a woman, even used as a last name. It served me well when I was in Law School and when I served in the Turkish army. But, when I came to the States in 1961, it started to give me problems. Few people knew how to pronounce it, and even fewer how to spell it. Even now, after more than 50 years in the US, when I make a reservation in a restaurant by phone, I tell them, this is “Robert.” At least, almost everyone knows how to pronounce it and spell it.

Maybe we ought to change the system. Why burden a child with a name that we like, but they may come to dislike, or find it inappropriate? Perhaps, we need to give our children a temporary name until the age of 18, and after that let them choose their own personal name, one they like. In this I am following the ancient Rabbis’ advice who taught, “Every person has three names: the one given by his father and mother, the one that others call him, and the one he acquires for himself” (Eccl. Rabbah 7: 1).

What do you think?

Rifat Sonsino
July, 2015

Monday, July 6, 2015


Many traditional Jews, and even some Christians, prefer to spell the name of God by writing “G-D” or “L—D.” I think this is unnecessary and based on wrong assumptions. 

In support of the spelling of the word as “G-D,” many say that this is because it is prohibited by the Decalogue. This, however, is not so clear. The 3rd commandment is worded ambiguously. We do not exactly know what it means “to swear falsely by/take in vain the name of the Lord (YHVH).” Does the commandment prohibit “misuse (in court?)” or “identifying YHVH with a false god”? (See my book, And God Spoke These Words; The 10 Commandments and Contemporary Ethics, 64). 

In 1963, Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, a prominent Reform Jewish legal scholar, dealt with this issue in a responsum, and argued that “the primary prohibition against erasure ..of the name of God [on which this custom is based] applies to the sacred names in the properly written text of the Torah, and even in the Torah itself those names of God are not sacred unless the scribe sanctifies them with a specifically uttered formula” (Recent Reform Responsa, 53).  

Furthermore, as we all know, Biblical and Rabbinic texts contain various names for God, but the only one that can be considered as God’s personal name in the Hebrew Bible is not “God,” an English word, but YHVH (from the verbal root hvh, an older form of hyh, meaning “to be”), which can be translated as “[YHVH] is” or, “[YHVH] is present” or even “[YHVH] causes to be.” It is found in the Bible in many places, and was uttered by the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem only during certain occasions. In time, its pronunciation was lost and the Rabbis substituted for it the name Adonai (meaning, “My Master”). So, Adonai is NOT God’s personal name; only YHVH is, and we do not even know how to pronounce it.  

In our time, the word “God” stands for something very important for many of us. For some it represents “the ground of existence,” for others “the fountain of ultimate meaning,” and for me, “the energy of the universe.”  (You can add here your own concept of God). God should be invoked simply as “existence,” without a personal name. We do not exert power over God by using God’s proper name. 

The word God is a symbol. In English prayers, using a generic term such as “God” (fully spelled) is enough. Let people apply to it their own meaning. The divinity does not need or require a personal name.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
July, 2015

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


This week my wife Ines and I decided to clear our basement where we stored boxes of old pictures, going back 40 or 50 years. We were younger then, and surrounded by parents, grandparents, uncles and cousins who infused meaning into our lives. Alas, those days are gone forever, and we are only left with colorful images.

The biblical poet urges us to “Remember the days of old” (Deut. 32:7), and that is good.  In the same spirit, an anonymous author stated that pictures capture the moments in our lives for many tomorrows. “Many”-- in our lives, yes; “forever”-No! Some of these treasured memories are meaningful to us who lived the moment, and may have some significance for our children, but what about our grandchildren and their own kids? I doubt it. They may take a curious look at them, and that’s it. Unless one is extremely well-known beyond one’s immediate circle, most pictures are meant for the close family members of one or two generations, at most. These are “our” pictures, “our” recollections. By looking at them, we briefly relive the moment. Others will have their own images that will sustain them in their lives.

Among the treasures we found were pictures of our respective parents’ early years as well as those taken during major celebrations and notable life-cycle events, such as Ines’ “quinceaƱera” (when she turned 15), other weddings and Bar/t Mitzvas. I retrieved one of my parents’ engagement; one taken during my high school days, a great one of me wearing a Turkish army uniform; pictures of our kids’ birth; early travels. I even found one showing my long dark hair and no facial hair. When my grandchildren look at them, they will not stop laughing: “You look so different” they will say; “You were so young,” or even “Is that you?”

What is the message? I like what Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish author,  once said: “Life is short, and we should respect every moment of it.” I personally do not believe in the hereafter, and consider our life on earth precious and worthy of living, hopefully in relative good health, but fully, cheerfully and creatively, leaving a good name behind.  

My wife and I did not keep all the pictures; in fact, we discarded most of them, but saved a few that will still bring a smile to our faces, and perhaps a chuckle among our grandchildren. 

C’est la vie!

Rifat Sonsino

June 17, 2015

Friday, June 12, 2015


In early June (2015), my wife and I visited the famous Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, and were fascinated by it.

Located in the old Jewish section of Pest, the so-called Tabakgasse synagogue (“dohany” means “tobacco” in Hungarian, from the Ottoman Turkish and Arabic “duhan”) is the largest house of worship in Europe and one of the biggest temples in the Jewish world (Temple Emanuel in NY is larger). It can accommodate close to 3000 worshipers, and looks very much like the Central Synagogue of NYC.  It costs about $13 to get in as a tourist. 

Originally built in the Moorish style in 1859, the synagogue is a part of a complex that also houses the Hungarian Jewish Museum. Behind the impressive Ark (see picture above), there is a huge organ that was played by famous musicians like Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saens. It also has a mixed choir. Worshippers, both men and women, can sit on the ground floor but women are segregated to the sides.

The synagogue was bombed by the Hungarian pro-Nazis in Feb.1939, and used as a base for the German Radio and stable by the nazis during the WW2.  Thanks to the generosity of many American Jews, like Estee Lauder and Toni Curtis, the temple was restored between 1991-98.

The congregation practices what they call “Neolog” Judaism that is based on the teachings of Rabbi Zecharias Frankel (1801-1875, died in Breslau) of the Positive-Historical Judaism, and is somewhere between Reform and Conservative Judaism in the States. However, they are not formally affiliated with either movement in America.

Before arriving in Budapest I wrote a note to the Rabbi of the temple. When we got there, I tried to see him personally but he was not available, so I left him a message.

It is not clear how many Jews live in Hungary today. The estimated range is from 120,000 to as low a 35,000.

When you have a chance, do visit this magnificent structure. You will be very impressed by it.

Rifat Sonsino
June 12, 2015