A Prayer For Our Friends and Family
One of the fiercest quarrels in the history of Jewish linguistics was between medieval Hebrew lexicographers who favored a three-letter root for Hebrew words and those who preferred the two-letter version. This quarrel stems from biblical expressions like שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן (sheker ha-hen), “beauty is deceitful,” from Proverbs, said in the Friday night hymn “Eishet Chayil,” which describes the woman of valor. Our three-letter medieval grammarians, who largely won the debate, doubled the final letter in the two-letter חֵן (hen), beauty, grace, charm, to create the root ח-נ-נ (het-nun-nun), “to bestow favor” and “to pray for compassion.” Ultimately, those two little letters expand into a vast world of vocabulary words, from תַּחֲנּוּן (tahanun), confession of one’s sins, to חֲנִינָה (haninah), pardon for one’s crimes.
In the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, the root is used as a blessing, as Joseph greets his youngest brother Benjamin with אֱלֺקִים יָחְנְךָ (elokim yahnekha), “May God be gracious to you.”
The biblical story of Jacob and Esau is fraught with all sorts of emotions. Feeling guilt and fear at a tension-filled encounter with his brother, whose birthright he stole, Jacob explains the wealth he has accumulated during his lifetime by declaring חַנַּנִי אֱלֺקִים (hanani elokim), “God has favored me,” allowing him to offer a fabulous gift in an effort to expiate his original identity theft.
From the devotional תְּחִינָה (tehinah), personal prayer for their families’ welfare, recited by women as they light Friday evening candles, we go to the root’s theological implications. Found in the Amidah prayer אַתָּה חוֹנֵן לְאָדָם דַּעַת (atah honen le-adam da’at), “You grant mankind understanding,” our root has caused much rabbinic ink to flow. The rabbis ask whether one must pray to God for discernment, or whether this quality is given to man freely, without the “payment” of a prayer. Their answer comes from a Hebrew adverb derived from our root: It is חִנָּם (hinnam), gratis.
To yesterday’s Zionist pioneers we say חֵן חֵן (hen hen), thanks. Hebrew
poet laureate Hayyim Nahman Bialik goes one better, using our root lyrically in a poem to bless אָחֵינוּ הַמְּחוֹנְנִים (aheinu ha-mehonenim), “our gifted brothers,” responsible for building the foundations of the Land of Israel—where fierce quarrels about seemingly small things are still the order of the day.
Joseph Lowin’s columns for Hadassah Magazine are collected in the books HebrewSpeak and HebrewTalk.