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Friday, January 18, 2019

A Rose by Any Other Name...

                                                                   January, 2019

Dear Family and Friends:

I imagine that most of you have heard of this group in Israel called “Women of the Wall.”  They are fighting the noble fight for religious equality at one of the holiest sites in Jerusalem, The Western Wall (the last remnant of biblical King Solomon’s Temple).  In opposition to the ultra-orthodox who run the show there, the Women of the Wall want to be able to pray freely, wear religious garments (Kippot, religious head coverings, and Tallitot, prayer shawls), and read from our holy scroll, The Torah.  I am with them all the way.

But one of the things I do not understand is the name they have adapted in Hebrew.  They call themselves “Nashot HaKotel.”  In Hebrew, as in most languages other than English, words are identified by gender as well as number.  The word for man is ‘Ish’.  The word for woman is ‘Isha’.  The plural of Isha is Nashim not Nashot.  I understand that in Hebrew most IM ending words are masculine and most OT ending words are feminine.  So Nashim sounds like a masculine word even though it is not.  I guess the Women of the Wall wanted to feminize the name, therefore OT instead of IM.    My father used to say that you can call yourself anything you want.  You can spell your name Brown and call yourself Smith.  The Women of the Wall have the right to call themselves whatever they want, even by creating a new word.  We create new words all the time.  For example, if I would have told you to google something in 1970, you would have sent me off the funny farm.  Not so today (if you don’t know what a funny farm is, Google it).

 But I don’t understand the logic.

Yes, words in Hebrew have gender.  But that doesn’t mean that the things they represent have that gender.  The word for book in Hebrew (Sefer) is masculine.  But the book itself has no gender, only the word.  The word for hand in Hebrew (Yad) is feminine and even though the plural has the masculine sounding ending IM, it is feminine.  But hands are not masculine or feminine…they are just hands.  The word has the gender. To take this thinking to its illogical conclusion one could say that we should take the ‘man’ out of the word woman and the ‘men’ out of the word women.  And I guess we could take the ‘male’ out of female.  We would need to create some new words in order to make everyone happy.
So, here’s another question (or three).  Why does this even bother me?  And, what does it matter?  Also, how come you are still reading this?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.  Nashot HaKotel is OK with me.  But I imagine Mr. Ben Yehudah, creator of the modern Hebrew dictionary, might just be rolling over in his Kever (grave), which by the way is masculine.  Go figure.



  1. I agree with you that “Nashot HaKotel” is just plain wrong ... so can you please help me understand why you don’t say it should be “N’shei HaKotel”? I’d been taught that the construct-state (smikhut) of “nashim” is “n’shei” — was I taught wrong?

  2. The weird thing is that, just yesterday, I sent Nashott HaKotel a tweet asking if their name’s grammatically correct; they answered “Yes” ... and Googling ״נשות״ turns up literally millions of occurrences of ״נשות״-meaning-women in modern Israeli Hebrew. Is Hebrew grammar Israel generally diverging (in this way and otherwise) from the Hebrew we study n the USA?