Prof Shlomo Karni / The adjective נוֹרָא in יָמִים נוֹרָאִים (root י-ר-א, ‘fear’) has as its original meaning ‘awe-full’, ’fearful’, and, by extension ‘commanding respect or reverential fear’. It is found in the Bible as well as in our liturgy. The expression אָיֹם וְנוֹרָא in Habakkuk 1:7 serves in modern Hebrew as an idiomatic exclamation of dismay, shock, or fear. The moving prayer וּנְתַנֶּה תֹּקֶף in the Musaf service uses the reverse form נוֹרָא וְאָיֹם to rhyme with קְדוּשַת הַיּוֹם.

The Awe-Ful Days

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Guest post by Prof. Shlomo Karni

Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).

The adjective נוֹרָא in יָמִים נוֹרָאִים (root י-ר-א, ‘fear’) has as its original meaning ‘awe-full’, ’fearful’, and, by extension ‘commanding respect or reverential fear’. It is found in the Bible as well as in our liturgy. The expression אָיֹם וְנוֹרָא in Habakkuk 1:7 serves in modern Hebrew as an idiomatic exclamation of dismay, shock, or fear. The moving prayer וּנְתַנֶּה תֹּקֶף in the Musaf service uses the reverse form נוֹרָא וְאָיֹם to rhyme with קְדוּשַת הַיּוֹם.

It is interesting to compare the parallel meanings of this word in colloquial English and Hebrew: In both cases, it means ‘very’, or ‘very much’, as, e.g., אֲנִי נוֹרָא מִצְטָעֵר ‘I am awfully (dreadfully, terribly, frightfully) sorry’; or , הִיא נוֹרָא שְׂמֵחָה , ‘she is awfully (dreadfully, etc.) happy’. Notice that this use is applicable in both languages to both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ verbs and adjectives. In “tot speak”, you often hear it as נוּרָא . Additionally, the ‘sabras’ have expanded this word to form the adjective נוֹרָאִי, נוֹרָאִית, …. The word נוֹרָא, on the other hand, is an adjective or an adverb colloquially.

In the case of Hebrew (and this is not a scientifically proven observation) this usage is replaced by the proper מְאֹד ‘very’, sometime in the late teen years. Historically, ‘sabras’ were using such expressions back in the 30’s, more than three decades prior to the invasion of the Hebrew language and culture by the American pop.

About Shlomo Karni

10 comments

  1. THis is why the Yomim Noraim are generally translated as the Days of Awe, not the Awful Days.

    Same linguistic shift in the word terrible — from “inspiring terror” to “really bad.”

  2. Except “awful” can have a positive connotation.

  3. Nachum: That’s an awfully nice thing to point out

  4. I wish to submit that ירא, to be in awe of, is a derivitive of ראה, to see. In effect, one who sees G-d before him at all times and is always aware of His awesomeness has יראת השם. Similarly, one who has יראת חטא “sees” the ultimate negative consequenquences of his sinful actions and withdraws from the evil act.

  5. Except “awful” can have a positive connotation.

    My impression that this is only the case in British English, not American English.

  6. It has a positive connotation in American English when used as an intensifying adjective to a pleasant noun. “Awfully kind,” for example.

  7. No, I mean in the classical sense, you can say to Hashem, “Oh, God, You are so awful!” meaning “full of awe,” and that’s positive. You can certainly say “You are so terrible,” meaning “full of terror,” which God certainly can be if He wants, but it is hardly a good thing.

  8. Generally people are afraid of bad things. It’s not at all obvious why you would ever be fearful of a good thing, i.e. God. So this linguistic question conceals a deep theological one as well.

  9. To Reuven Brauer: A nice דְרָש
    but, etymologically, the two roots are very different. י-ר-א (in Ugaritic: yr’) is doubly ‘weak’, פ”י and ל”א, whereas ר-א-ה is just
    ל”ה

  10. Ye’yasher kochakha, R. Karni (and respondents). It seems to me that the linguistic problem can be solved by translating the Hebrew word “nora” as the English word “awesome”. Thus, Deuteronomy 10:17 should be translated (in my opinion) to declare that Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu, Yishtabach Shemo, is “Awesome”, a description which is entirely positive in connotation.

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