What's in a Word?

For the week ending 17 September 2016 / 14 Elul 5776

Ten Expressions of Praise

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

Jewish-German linguist and anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) claimed that the Eskimos of Arctic North America have more than 25 words that refer to ice. The commonly given explanation for this phenomenon is that because ice is so important to Eskimo culture, they pick up on all the nuances of different types of ice and their uses, labeling each one with its own name. Similarly, the Hebrew language contains a multitude of words to express the concept of praise, precisely because offering praise to G-d is such an important part of Judaism.

In the Jewish liturgy there are nine expressions of praise, all of which seem to be somewhat synonymous — thanking, praising, lauding, glorifying, extolling, beautifying, blessing, exulting, and exalting (leHodot, leHallel, leShabe’ach, leFa’er, leRomem, leHader, leVarech, leAleh, and leKales). The Sefard rite, which follows the teachings of Arizal (1534-1572), adds a tenth expression “eternalizing” (leNatze’ach) after “beautifying”; while Nusach Ashkenaz, following the opinion of the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609), omits “eternalizing” from this list. (Interestingly, Abudraham recognizes only seven of these forms of praises, because he also omits “blessing” and “exalting”.) These ten expressions are enumerated at the end of the Pesukei deZimrah (Verses of Hymns) services on Shabbat and Yom Tov morning, in the Passover Haggadah, and at the concluding benediction of Hallel. In order to better understand the meanings of these ten expressions we must highlight the nuanced differences between them.

The concept of “thanking” someone refers to an admission that said someone did something good for him and deserves a show of gratitude. The act of “praising” someone refers to the act of relaying that someone’s virtue(s) to a third party. The act of “lauding” another is when one focuses on conveying another’s positive traits or characteristics, regardless of one’s own personal interactions with the other. Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) notes that, in general, “thanking” G-d is always mentioned before “lauding” Him, because one’s personal responsibility to show gratitude by praising G-d precedes one’s general obligation to praise Him.

Rabbi Shimshon Pincus (1944-2001) explains the difference between leFa’er (to glorify) and leHader (to beautify), as well as the difference between leRomem (to extol)and leAleh (to exult). To “glorify” someone means to focus on one specific praiseworthy aspect of that person, while to “beautify” him stresses his symmetrical and all-encompassing praiseworthiness in all aspects. In praising G-d, both leRomem and leAleh refer to raising His status, but they do so in different ways: leRomem indicates the admission that G-d is above us, while leAleh means that G-d is above everything.

The concept of “blessing” (leVarech) G-d is somewhat of a misnomer. A mere mortal cannot “bless” the Creator of the world in the way that He blesses them. Instead, the accepted understanding of “blessing” G-d means that one acknowledges G-d as the source of all blessing. So, in this context, “blessing” actually means “attributing to Him all blessings”. Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner (1749-1821) elaborates on this deep idea in his magnum opus, Nefesh haChaim (Sha’ar 2).

LeKales, the last of the ten forms of praise, is somewhat controversial. Some authorities recommend omitting this form of “praise” because the verb leKales in Biblical Hebrew means “to disparage”, despite the fact that in Rabbinic Hebrew, it means “to exalt”. Nonetheless, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau — whose work is frequently cited by the more famous Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) — reconciles this apparent contradiction by explaining that the type of praise meant by “exalting” has a somewhat negative connotation attached to it. He offers three ways of understanding this phenomenon: Firstly, when one “exalts” another, he means to offer undeserving, embellished praise simply as a means of inspiring the other to continue a slightly positive behavior. An example of this may be a parent who praises his child’s poor handwriting in order to motivate the child to continue practicing his writing. Secondly, when one “exalts” another, he verbally insults him, but his intention is to do the opposite. For example, one might call a handsome child “ugly” so that he will not become arrogant and haughty on account of his excessive beauty. Thirdly, when one “exalts” another, one actually means to denigrate him by exaggerating his merits in order to illustrate the depravity of something wrong that he did. For example, one might say, “Joe Doe — who is so honorable and esteemed — did such-and-such disgusting act”.

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