You’ve probably heard this Jewish toast before, and you probably have no idea what it means. It can be heard said at Jewish celebrations where drinks are served, such as weddings and birthdays. I had no clue what meant either, even though I have been learning the Hebrew language for more than a year. There are two parts to the one-word toast: the prefix l– meaning “to” and the word chayyim, which translates to “life” (literally “lives”). I was aware of the meanings of both of these components, but it was not until Dr. Stephen Bennett, my Hebrew professor, pointed out the connection. It is small but significant realizations like these that make learning the Hebrew language a fun and exciting endeavor.
In my first semester of Hebrew it was interesting to find out how much Hebrew I already knew. Words as common to Christians as amen and hallelujah come from the language of the Old Testament. Hebrew is written from right to left, and in Hebrew script, amen looks like אָמֵן and hallelujah is written הַֽלְלוּ־יָהּ. Amen is a word of affirmation, meaning “truly” or “so be it.” Hallelujah is composed of two words” hallel and Yahweh, translating to “praise” and “the Lord” respectively.
It is also intriguing to note the meaning behind many of the names that originate in the Old Testament. For example, the meanings of names that involve El or Jah usually have something to do with God (El and Jah are derived from names for God). Notice the El in Eli and in Emmanuel. Eli means “my God” and Emmanuel means “God with us.” Notice the Jah in Adonijah and Jahleel. Adonijah means “the Lord is my master” and Jahleel means “waiting on God.” Elijah combines both, meaning “the Lord is my God.”
The most meaningful thing that I am learning from studying the Hebrew language is the thought behind the Old Testament Scriptures. As is true with any culture, a lot of the Hebrew thought process is revealed in its linguistic tendencies. Certain English words have no direct Hebrew translation and vice versa. For example, the Hebrews believed that God held rain and snow in the sky using a solid barrier, called a raqiya in Hebrew. The King James translates this as “firmament,” but this does not convey the full meaning of the Hebrew understanding since English speakers do not usually think of precipitation being held back by a solid structure.
Several connections between the language that modern Christians use and the ancient Hebrew language can be made. There is theological significance to many of the Old Testament names that are still used today. Understanding Hebrew contributes to my understanding of the Old Testament. I look forward to continuing to learn more about the Hebrew language and gaining a better understanding of the Old Testament.