The importance of Hebrew to the Christian faith is self-evident: out of the 73 books in the Catholic Bible, 46 belong to the Old Testament, which was almost entirely written in Hebrew.
It’s a safe bet that few Catholics, even scholars, have ever even read Hebrew, and understandably so. The alphabet is entirely foreign, even more so than the ancient Greek of the New Testament, and the script is, contrary to every instinct of the Western mind, read from right to left rather than the reverse. But there are some Hebrew words that every Christian should nonetheless strive to learn because they are the source of many of the central words in our daily vocabulary of faith.
Here are ten must-know Hebrew words:
1. Beyth Lechem: This is the Hebrew word for the small city, Bethlehem, where Christ was born. Understanding the Hebrew opens up the rich significance of this fact. In Hebrew, Beyth Lechem means “house of bread.” In the Arabic version, as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, it reads as bêt lahm, meaning “house of meat.” Do not both meanings strongly suggest the Eucharist? Even some Protestants, who don’t believe in the Real Presence, still see a symbolic significance to the name. “Ought not Jesus Christ to be born in ‘the house of bread’? He is the Bread to His people! As our fathers ate manna in the wilderness, so do we live on Jesus here below!” wrote popular theological writer Charles Spurgeon in The Incarnation and Birth of Christ. But what exactly is a house of bread? In Hebrew beyth, or house, was the term for the synagogue, where Jews worshipped. Again, it is entirely fitting that Christ, the Son of God, our High Priest, was born in such a ‘house.’ (A note on spelling: For those who are curious, there are several different ways of transliterating Hebrew. This article generally follows the system used by Strong’s Concordance. Unless otherwise stated, definitions are taken from Strong’s.)
2. mashiyach: This is where we get the word messiah, which is almost a direct transliteration. In ancient Israel, messiah comes from mashach, the verb for smearing, spreading, or anointing with a liquid, according to Strong’s Concordance. It referred to kings, priests, and prophets who were anointed to serve God. Certainly Jesus was all these things—king, priest, and prophet. In the centuries leading up to Christ, the Messiah was expected to restore the Kingdom of David and rebuild the temple, along with Jerusalem—again these are all things that Jesus did, albeit in ways unimaginable to the average Jew at the time. The Greek word used to translate messiah is another familiar one to us: christos.
3. Yehowshuwa: In the Nicene Creed, we profess faith in “one Lord Jesus Christ.” As with Christ, Jesus is a name that also has a loaded meaning. It comes from the Hebrew Yĕhowshuwa, meaning, Jehovah is salvation according to Strong’s Concordance. The related Hebrew word for salvation itself is yĕshuw`ah.
4. satan: Satan, the familiar synonym for the devil, is an entirely Hebrew word which had an original meaning of adversary or one who withstands, according to Strong’s Concordance. In the Old Testament, this word was not always used of the devil. For example, in 1 Kings 11:14, it says that an adversary, named Adad the Edomite, was raised up against Solomon. But the text literally identifies this enemy as a satan. The word, as it appears in Psalm 109:6, is often translated as accuser. To the modern mind, it may seem quaint to believe in a devil. But the Church’s teaching about the reality of Satan highlights the intensely interpersonal nature of the sin and salvation: this is a battle for souls, one ultimately between Satan and Jesus. And in this battle, Satan is not some impersonal fate, or malicious fury, but our direct adversary.
5. sh’owl: More commonly spelled as sheol, this is the general term for the underworld in the Old Testament. Sometimes it’s translated as pit, hell, or grave, but often translations will simply leave it as is. Sheol generally refers to some place underground, like a cave, hence its Hebrew root, which means to be sunk in or to be hollow, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Sheol originally was the catch-all term for any place over the underworld, but it gradually was understood by the Church to specifically refer to the limbo of the Fathers, according to theologian Alyssa Pitstick.
6. gehinnom: This word is the combination of two others: gay, meaning steep valley or gorge and hinnom, meaning lamentation. In ancient Israel, Hinnom as a proper name referred to a rocky ravine to the southwest of Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, this is where unbelieving Israelites and others once sacrificed children by throwing them in a fiery oven in the belly of an idol to the false Caananite god Moloch. In Isaiah, it’s described as the place where the city dumped and burned its trash. It is this place that Jesus uses eleven times as a most harrowing name for hell proper, where unrepentant sinners will suffer eternal punishment.
7. pecach: Chances are, around Eastertime you’ve heard the phrase “paschal lamb” which refers to Christ, the Lamb of God. This is a word that comes straight from the Hebrew, pecach, meaning the sacrifice of Passover, the animal victim of Passover, or the festival of Passover. The Eucharist is all of these things—a sacrifice, a re-presentation of the victim, and also a feast.
8. `Eden: This is the place we all recognize as the garden, where Adam and Even enjoyed an intimate communion with God and a life of grace, natural gifts, and innocence we can only imagine. The name Eden has a meaning that suggests such a state of bliss and joy. Eden is Hebrew for luxury, dainty, delight, and finery. In this sense it appears in a wide variety of contexts: the relations between husband and wife (Genesis 18:12), luxurious scarlet clothing (2 Samuel 1:24), and delicacies (Jeremiah 51:34). In Psalm 36 our experience of God in heaven is described as drinking from a “torrent of thy pleasure.” Eden, in turn, is derived from the root word, `adan, meaning to luxuriate, delight oneself. In this sense it is used just once, in Nehemiah 9:25 to describe how the Israelites had “abounded with delight [`adan] in thy great goodness.”
9. hallelouia: Alleluia is one of the most familiar praise words to us. But what does this word actually mean and where does it come from? Lexical sources point to its origins in ancient Israel. In its Hebraic form hallelouia is comprised of halal and Yahh. That last word is a shortened form of Yahweh, one of the Hebrew names for God. But what of the first word? It has an intriguing range of meanings: to shine, to flash forth light, to praise, to boast, and to act madly. The Catholic Encyclopedia interprets it as hail: “So, preserving its radical sense and sound, and even the mystical suggestiveness of its construction, it may be literally rendered, ‘All hail to Him Who is!’”
10. ‘amen: This word, one of the most common words used in prayer, is lifted right out of the Hebrew. In the Hebrew it means: verily, truly, amen, so be it. Amen, in turn, comes from ‘aman a verb meaning to support, confirm, be faithful, nourish; to be established, be faithful, be carried, make firm; verified, confirmed; and to stand firm, to trust, to be certain, to believe in. How fitting it is that we end so many of our prayers to the God Who Is with an affirmation that that it is true, that we have faith in it, and that God Himself will establish and carry us in our journey of faith! Amen indeed.