Hidden Hebrew Idioms

Various Hebrew idioms have found their way into the everyday talk of millions of people.  Take for example, these Biblical expressions in the story about a man unwilling to "go the second mile", yet he still hoped to "kill the fatted calf."  This man thought it was all right to "eat the forbidden fruit."  Obviously he did not believe in following the "straight and narrow."  This miserable person could not see the "handwriting on the wall."  He thought he was a "law unto himself" and would probably end up "inheriting the wind."  He expected "manna to fall from heaven," probably because he was the kind who thought he could "walk on water."  Maybe his trouble began when his parents "spared the rod and spoiled the child."  In any case, he seems never to have learned that the "love of money is the root of all evil," and he must have believed the lazy, not the "meek would inherit the earth". 

Someone may have told him that man does "not live by bread alone," but it was "casting pearls before swine," because, like the leopard, "he could not change his spots."  Undoubtedly, he will go on trying to be "all things to all men" because he remembers from the Bible something to the effect that one should "eat, drink, and be merry".  Oh well, let him go, are we "our brother's keeper"?

See, most of the Scriptures were originally written in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. For hundreds of years, Hebrew idioms have been literally translated into English.  An ancient manuscript, written to a Jewish culture has been deciphered and changed, to fit a modern society.  When we read the scriptures, we read the work of translators and scholars.  These workers have transformed an ancient document, by substituting English words for the original Hebrew words.  The problem is, many times, the words are translated correctly, but the original Hebrew thought is lost.  The words are there, but the meaning is missing.  Talk about being lost in the translation!  To understand this, just imagine writing that someone "kicked the bucket" and imagine your reader actually thinking a bucket was physically kicked. 

When idioms are hidden behind literal reading, confusion sets in. This disorder portrays Biblical concepts in incorrect manners and presents ideas that are not representative to the original Hebrew thought.  The fact is, that most people don't recognize the hidden Hebrew idioms that they have adopted into their belief systems.  The only thing worse than being wrong, is to be wrong and to not know it. 

While reading the Scriptures, we come across many Hebrew idioms.  We read statements that seem to be mixed up.  We skim over passages that seem to contradict themselves.  As innocent and unsuspecting Bible readers, we just skip over the hard parts, to understand the familiar verses.  We ignore the weird word pictures, as if they weren't there.  We know that it is human nature to ignore big words and difficult concepts when reading.  This is just the way the Western brain works.  This 'skip reading' is coupled with a church that many times teaches people to have "more faith and believe" what doesn't seem to make sense.  Very seldom are people encouraged to study and search for the deeper and true meaning of the Scriptures.  However, as believers, our minds are to be different than that of the world.  Our approach to the Bible should be different than our approach to other reading. 

"Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" -- Romans 12: 1, 2. 

Our minds must be made new, to understand the difficult passages of scripture and the hidden Hebrew idioms.  This renewal is aided by investigation, analysis, and carefully examination of the Bible, instead of just reading it.


Why are a wise man and a wise guy opposites? 

Why is the man who invests money called broker?

When cheese gets its picture taken, what does it say?

If an oriental person spins around several times, does he become disoriented? 

Or, if a pig loses its voice, is it disgruntled? 

This plain just doesn't make sense sometimes!  To just read the Bible is to take every word at face value, to gloss over the difficult passages and weird suggestions. When we read the Scriptures we don't experience the full potential of the written word to change us. We are commanded though to study, to dig for the deeper hidden meanings and to apply what we learn to our lives.

From Genesis to Revelation, there are hundreds of commandments and ordinances from the Almighty.  Yet, believers are never told to read the Bible.  Out of all the mitzvot, this one is just not there.  We are told though, to "study to show yourself approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed, who correctly handles the word of truth," -- 2 Timothy 2:15.  This admonishment to study is a call to go deeper than just casual reading.  It's an appeal to discuss, to explore, and to delve into the context of what is being communicated.  It is the path to gaining insight into the original meaning of what was written.  No longer will Hebrew idioms and bad translations cloud our understanding. Thousands of years of humanism & theology are washed away as we really study the Torah.  Clarity comes through word studies and research with books like Hebrew dictionaries and lexicons.  Recognizing Hebrew idioms and learning the differences between modern translations and the ancient Hebrew language, is just the start to really studying the scriptures.  We also need to learn the Hebrew culture.

Imagine hearing the French phrase, "petit dejeuner" and literally translating it as "little lunch."  If you don't know much about life in France, then "petit dejeuner" doesn't make a lot of sense.  Do people eat a little lunch early in the morning?  Well, this French expression really means "breakfast."  If you know the French culture, then you probably already knew this.  Being aware of culture brings clarity to context.  The more we know, the more we live the Hebrew culture, the more of Yahshua's words we understand.  The more we accept the Yisraelite lifestyle, the more Hebrew idioms and tough parts of the Torah will make sense.

A few examples:

If the English idiom is true, that "you are what you eat," then let's chew on a few hidden Hebrew idioms.  The following might upset some of your dearly-held beliefs, just proving that sacred cows do make the very best burgers!

Remember that an idiom is an expression from a local culture.  One such statement, understood by those in the Hebrew culture, was used by Rabbi Yahshua.  Matthew 5:17-18 says, "Think not that I am come to destroy the Law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily, I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, not one jot or one tittle shall pass from the Law, till all be fulfilled."

For the modern-day Christians the previous verse means that the Torah and the others books of the "Old Testament" have been fulfilled, or done away with.  They say that, "all was fulfilled" when Yahshua said, "it is finished" and the Law is no longer relevant.  Such a belief about the Torah could not be farther from the truth.  Just consider the Master's own words.  Has heaven and earth passed away?  Of course not!  Then, the Torah and the prophets remain necessary and essential to living the Almighty's will.

Yahshua quoted a Hebrew idiom when He said He came not to destroy the Law or the prophets.  He was using a familiar phrase easily understood during Biblical times.  Yahshua had been accused of misinterpreting the Torah, yet He said that He was actually rightly and correctly teaching it.  Traditional Jewish writings support this idiom, "Should all the nations of the world unite to uproot one word of the Law, they would be unable to do it," Leviticus Rabbah 19:2.  To understand the meaning of this verse, everything hinges on the meaning of the words "destroy" and "fulfill" in verse 17. What does Yahshua mean by "destroy the Law" and "fulfill the Law"? "Destroy" and "fulfill" are technical terms used in rabbinic argumentation. When a sage felt that a colleague had misinterpreted a passage of Scripture, he would say, "You are destroying the Law!" Needless to say, in most cases, his colleagues strongly disagreed. What was "destroying the Law" for one sage was "fulfilling the Law" (correctly interpreting Scripture) for another," wrote Bivin and Blizzard in their book Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus (Yahshua).

In plain English, Yahshua is saying, "Never imagine for a moment that I intend to abrogate the Law by misinterpreting it. My intent is not to weaken or negate the Law, but by properly interpreting Yahweh's written Word, I aim to establish it, that is, make it even more lasting. I would never invalidate the Law by effectively removing something from it through misinterpretation. Heaven and earth would sooner disappear than something from the Law. Not the smallest letter in the alphabet, the jot or yod, nor even its decorative spur, the tittle, will ever disappear from the Law," wrote Bivin and Blizzard on page 155.

If looks could kill

When people look at others with a cold stare or squinting eyes, more is being communicated than just a nasty glance.  Envy and jealousy can easily be seen through the windows of the eyes.  This is just the issue our Rabbi Yahshua dealt with on many occasions throughout the Gospels.

Unfortunately, for many years translators and teachers have struggled with the Hebraic concept of the "evil eye."  This idiom has created many problems, and has been misunderstood, because the Hebrew culture has been misunderstood.  "The light of the body is the eye; If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.  But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness," Matthew 6:22-23a, KJV.

The people who heard Yahshua speak these very words immediately recognized what Yahshua meant when he talked of the evil eye.

This idea was and is common in the Hebraic culture.  Yet, just pick up any different Bible translation and in it will be a quagmire of different words used to express this hidden Hebrew idiom.  Each translation seems to deal with the issue differently.  A few examples include, eye be whole, eye be simple, eye be sound, eye be plain, eye be healthy, sincere, clear, honest, or eye be good.  This is very confusing!  What did Yahshua really mean?  Hebraically, what is an evil eye?

To answer these questions and bring clarity to this idiom, let's look at the context of Yahshua's words and consult two pillars of the Hebrew culture, the Tanakh and the Talmud.

First, let's look at the context.  The very next verse after the evil eye quotation, explains exactly what the evil eye squints at.  "But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!  No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both Elohim and Money," Matthew 6:23,24 NIV.  When he spoke of the bad eye, Yahshua wasn't talking about bad eye sight or the need for lasik surgery!  From the context it is easy to grasp that Yahshua was using a Hebrew expression to comment on people's greed.  Each time Yahshua spoke of the eye being good or evil, or "plucking out the eye," he was speaking of the issue of greed.  An evil eye is a greedy eye.  A person with an evil eye is controlled by the desire to receive for self.

The writings and the words of the Rabbis explain this issue further. "he that has a good eye shall be blessed; for he gives of his bread to the poor," Proverbs 22:9.  Again, if your eye is good or 'tov' then you are not greedy.  The opposite is also true.  If your eye is evil then you shall not be blessed because you withhold from the poor.  Traditional Judaism agrees with this.  "A good eye gave fortieth, the house of Shammai say, the thirtieth part; a middling one, the fiftieth; and an evil one, the sixtieth part," Mishnah Trumopt, 4:3.  Upon these words, the Jewish commentators say, a 'good eye' means one that is liberal, and an 'evil eye' the contrary.  The Talmud reads of 'trading, dedicating' and 'giving with a good' or an evil eye.  "A good eye and a humble spirit and a lowly soul, those who have these are disciples of Abraham our father," Mishnah Aboth 5:19.

From a Hebraic viewpoint it is now easy to grasp the difficult words of Yahshua.  "And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire," Matthew 18:9.  Yahshua was not literally suggesting his followers mutilate themselves.  Such a literal suggestion and teaching would be a direct contradiction and violation to Torah.  "You are the children of YHWH your Elohim. Do not cut yourselves," Devarim 14:1.  Yahshua in the previous verse was suggesting that we run away from greed and idolatry.  We should take precautions to guard and protect ourselves from the evil eye of want, to get rid of the evil eye of desire.

Eye of a needle?

Speaking of eyes, another often-misunderstood passage in the Messianic writings deals with the eye of a needle.  "Then Yahshua said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Elohim."

This odd phrase of the Messiah has for many years been explained away by Sunday school teachers and preachers.

We've been told that in Yisra'el there was a small area in Jerusalem for animals to pass through called the 'needle gate'.  The camel could not enter Jerusalem unless it first stooped down and had all of its baggage removed.  The story goes that after dark, when the main gates in Jerusalem were shut, travellers or merchants would have to use this smaller gate, through which the camel could only enter unencumbered and crawling on its knees! This is a "great sermon material, with the parallels of coming to YHWH on our knees without all our baggage. A lovely story and an excellent parable for preaching but unfortunately unfounded! From at least the 15th century, and possibly as early as the 9th but not earlier, this story has been put forth; however, there is no evidence for such a gate, nor record of reprimand of the architect who may have forgotten to make a gate big enough for the camel and rider to pass through unhindered," says one web site.  The often-quoted explanation of this idiom is unfounded. 

Unfortunately, the issue with the camel and the eye of the needle is not an idiom but a bad translation.  This 'opens up a whole new can of worms,' as a separate issue of mistranslating the texts and the need to search for the truth.  What did Yahshua really mean?  To find this answer let's consider the teaching of Rabbi Moshe Konichowsky and his study Bible.  

The Restoration Scriptures True Name Edition is correct as translating the Master.  "It is easier for a large rope to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the malchut of YHWH," Mark 10:25.  Within the RSTNE, the study notes clarify this "gemala" can mean rope, or camel and here in context it means rope."  Again, with idioms and phrases that look like idioms, we must "study to show yourself approved."

As you can see from the idioms we have studied together and one bad translation, we should not just settle for what we have always been taught.  Idiomatic expressions and the changes that occur when the Writings are taken out of the Hebrew language can really mix up the truth.  We should not gloss over the confusing "contradictions" in the Scriptures.  Nor should we mix up the modern and the ancient.  We need to learn, learn to study and learn to live the Hebrew culture.  As we do these actions, as we use a few more idioms, the Torah will go from being as clear as mud to being as clear as day!

For more teachings from this author go to www.emetministries.com.