And you thought Hamlet had a problem. In Israel, youths preparing to join a kibbutz ultimately have to ask themselves: ? (le-hagshim o lo le-hagshim?), literally, "To concretize or not to concretize?" In other words, "Shall I indeed put the ideology I imbibed in the youth movement into practice and make a commitment to become a kibbutz member or not?"

These youngsters are using the meaning of the Hebrew root (gimel, shin, mem) that has to do with substance, matter, the concrete. Materialism, (gashmi'ut), may be the polar opposite of spirituality,(ruhni'ut), but, in some circumstances, it represents a higher value. Just ask the members of Young Judea, the American Zionist Youth Movement, whose senior group, destined for aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, is called (ha-magshimim), the implementers.
There is another meaning to the root (gimel, shin, mem) or is it another root entirely? that gives us the word (geshem), rain. While some scholars are dubious about a linguistic connection between the two meanings of (geshem), others believe that a convincing case might nevertheless be made. First of all, in the Prayer for Rain, (tefillat ha-geshem), which we recite every year during the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, we say (mashiv ha-ru'ah u-morid ha-gashem), "Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall." Is it possible that wind is the opposite of rain in the same way that spirituality is the opposite of physicality?

Curiously, in the "historical" stanzas of the Prayer for Rain, which allude to the role of water in the lives of the forefathers, (geshem) does not appear even once. There are many words for rain in Hebrew, including (yoreh), early rain, (malkosh), late rain, and plain old (matar), rain, from which we get the modern Hebrew word for umbrella, (mitriyah). It is a matter of no small consequence, perhaps, that when (geshem) appears in Scripture, it is usually associated with a heavy rain. The word (geshem) materializes twice in the story of Noah's flood. In addition, we have (geshem nedavot), "bounteous rain," in Psalms, (geshem gadol), "a big rain," and (hamon ha-geshem), "abundant rain," in the Book of Kings, and (geshem shotef), "torrential rain," three times in the Book of Ezekiel.

The word is also tied to literary heroes, both classical and modern. The Talmud tells a charming tale of Honi the Circle Maker, whose prayer for rain is on a deeper level a demand that God do justice for his people. In more modern times, when the Education Department of the World Zionist Organization inaugurated its Gesher series of books in "easy Hebrew," the very first title it chose to publish was Aharon Megged's short story, (geshem nedavot), "Bounteous Rain." In that story, Bubbeleh, an ideological materialist, is transformed by a dangerous rainstorm into an idealistic hero of the Jewish people.

Perhaps the most convincing argument for a linguistic affiliation between rain and concreteness comes from an Arabic word for "solid substance," jism. Curiously, in several dictionaries of American slang, the word "jism" is reported as a synonym for sperm, that is, a thick liquid. Are we not to conjecture that rain is called (geshem), a Hebrew cognate of Arabic jism, when it, too, appears to be thick, substantial?

There are some who will contend that this piece has not hewn to a Hamlet-like train of thought but, to stay with Shakespeare, has been Much Ado About Nothing. They will nevertheless have to contend with the expression in the Book of Proverbs for "much ado about nothing," (nesi'im ve-ruah ve-geshem ayin), "clouds and wind but no rain." This idiom argues that only when we have rain do we have something of substance.


Dr. Joseph Lowin is Executive Director of the National Center for the Hebrew Language (NY). He has written extensively (in both popular and scholarly formats) on Jewish narrative, modern Jewish literature, and Hebrew language. His most recent book is Hebrewspeak: An Insider's Guide to the Way Jews Think (Jason Aronson, 1995). You can visit his site at:

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