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Thought for the Day: Chanukah 2020

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Seven Jewish words for presents describe seven levels of Jewish giving.



At this time of the year, presents are on many people’s minds. Anticipating the pleasure of both giving and receiving has also become a much-loved aspect of the celebrations of Chanukah, which begin this evening. 

The number of words that exists to describe a phenomenon is an indication of its significance. For example, the indigenous people of the Arctic region have numerous words to describe snow.

It’s for a similar reason that in Hebrew there are seven different words for a gift, because giving of one sort or another permeates every aspect of Jewish life.

The most basic word we use is ‘beracha’, which means ‘blessing’. This is the gift of a good wish, which costs nothing, but means a great deal.

One level above that is the word ‘matana’, which simply describes the act of appreciative ‘giving’. Here, of significance is not what is given, but the fact that one is doing the right thing.  A ‘matanah’ will invariably be perishable. The English word ‘p.r.e.s.e.n.t.’ says it all:  it’s a present which you present and it serves the needs of the present time.

A ‘shai’ is a far more thoughtful gift, given on special occasions. Here, the giver goes to a great deal of effort to give something that will be cherished and used well.  That’s why we have ‘gift wrap’, but not ‘present wrap’, ‘gift shops’ and not ‘present shops’.

The fourth term, ‘terumah’, is a contribution we make to a worthy cause in response to an appeal. The word literally means ‘elevated’, indicating that this reactive act of kindness ennobles and uplifts the giver. 

The fifth term, ‘nedavah’, is one better. This is an unsolicited contribution. It applies when one is moved to proactively contribute and, where appropriate, mobilize the generosity of others as partners.

A rare and timeless gift is known as ‘Doron’, from a word meaning ‘generation’. Likely to have great sentimental value, this gift will be treasured for many years.

The final and most significant gift, called ‘mincha’, facilitates bonding. Here the giver invests time, effort, talent or deep consideration into a thoughtful gift.  The result is that it draws people together in the most profound way, often having a transformative impact upon their lives.

This year, I believe that the world has been given such a gift in the form of a Vaccine. Has any gift ever had such potential to bring so much joy to so many lives?