First Things First

Jean Cocteau, French poet, playwright, and general gadabout, once proclaimed that the first poet to compare the lips of his beloved to a rose was a genius; the second, he said was an idiot. In Jewish culture, being the first is also important; but being best is even better.

A whole range of Hebrew vocabulary items has grown out of (bet, khaf, resh), the Hebrew root for seniority. When Esau, Isaac's first born, sells his (bekhora), birthright, to Jacob for a "mess of pottage," he comes in for a great deal of historical scorn. And yet, although Scripture assigns a crucial role to the laws of primogeniture, Reuben, Jacob's (bekhor), first born, is overshadowed by Jacob's two activist sons, Judah and Joseph, who become the leaders of the Tribe.

It is fascinating to observe how smoothly Hebrew words move from one semantic field to another: the verb (bikker) comes to mean, not only "he recognized as first born," but also "he chose," "he preferred." God's term of endearment for His people is (beni bekhori yisrael), best translated as "my preferred son, Israel."

Our root also finds its way into the Jewish laws of agriculture. The holiday of Shavu'ot, Pentecost, is also known as (hag ha-bikkurim), the Feast of the First Fruits. The first rain of the season is called the (bakira). There is even a verb for when a female animal gives birth for the first time; it is said that she (hivkira).

In modern times, the root is found in the theater, at the university and in cans of tuna fish. The first staging of a play is called a (hatsagat bekhora), premiere, and, in a sense, so might this issue of Jewish Heritage Online Magazine. Probably the most coveted rank of a young academic in Israel is (martseh bakhir), Senior Lecturer, because with that title comes a place on the tenure track.

And then there is the case of Albacore tuna. Believe it or not, this word comes from the Arabic form of our root, al-bakrah, whose cognate in Hebrew is (bekher), a young camel. Although one would willingly concede that Albacore tuna is like a "prime" cut of meat, and therefore might indeed come from our root, only a poet, perhaps, would want to try to create a metaphor comparing a tuna fish to a camel, however young.

You go first.

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.



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