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Hebrew Word of the Week: sliHah

A major concept of the High Holy Days is forgiveness. What do we do when we forgive? The English word “forgive” (German vergeben) meant “give wholeheartedly, grant, allow; remit (a debt completely), pardon (an offense); give up (with no grudge)” and “give in marriage (graciously).” 

The Hebrew salaH “forgive, be indulgent toward” is perhaps related to Semitic root s-l-y “toss aside, shake off, make light, forget about (a grudge, sin)”* and perhaps s-l-l “lift up, pave, cover smoothly,” which is semantically similar to kipper “cover; atone” and nasa’ “lift up, remove (sin).” 

Other derived words: God is known as sallaH “ready to forgive” (Psalms 86:5) and eloah sliHot “God of forgivings” (Nehemiah 9:17 and High Holy Days prayer book); salHan/solHan “forgiver”; salHani “forgiving”; saliaH “forgivable; fit for pardoning”; and sliHot “penitential prayers.”  

*Compare the tashlich ritual to “cast away (sins)”; Judeo-Arabic of Baghdad: ishlikhu binTilah, “cast it away, forget it (at the ritual hand-washing).”


Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

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