Why isn’t life fair?

October 19, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi…

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Is there any reason why someone called “Cohen” is in fact a Levite, and someone called “Levy” is a Kohen?

A. Jewish surnames are fascinating.

Some indicate place of origin, e.g. Slonim (Poland), Moskowitz (Russia), Berlin (Germany), or Brodie (Rumania).

In England, I had a congregant called London, whose ancestors may have migrated to London from Eastern Europe and then went back home.

Some names are occupational, such as Schneider (tailor), Stoller (carpenter), Kremer (shopkeeper), or Lehrer (teacher), or the more obvious surnames such as Schochet, Dayan, Chazan, Shamash, Rabbinowitz, etc.

Some are patronymics, such as Abramson, Isaacson, Jacobson, Aronson, and Yankelewitz.

In some cases, the adoption of a name in the Austro-Hungarian empire depended on the whim of government officials (and whether one could afford a bribe); hence there were nice names such as Gold and Silver, and unpleasant names such as Spielvogel (playbird, gambler), Dreyer (swindler), Ganz (goose), and Bock (big ox).

Some names indicate status, especially Cohen and Levi and their variants. Acrostic names of Kohanim include Katz (= “Kohen Tzedek”, “righteous priest”), Cashdan (= “Kahanei Sh’luchei D’rachamana Ninhu”, “priests are representatives of the Almighty”: Yoma 19a), and Azoulai (= “Ishah Zonah Vachalulah Lo Yikachu”, “They shall not marry a harlot or a woman profaned”: Lev. 21:7).

Kaplan or its variants also usually denotes a Kohen, but the reason is uncertain since in some European languages the name indicates a church dignitary! It may be that when a Kohen told the Austro-Hungarian officials who he was, they equated Kohen with Kaplan.

But not every Cohen is a Kohen. When a non-Kohanic Jew came to an English-speaking country, and neither he nor the officials could spell his Polish name, the officials may have thought that every Jew is called Cohen and thus a new confusing surname entered the family.

A similar process may have gained people the name Levy.


Q. Why does this Hebrew month have two names?

A. The full name is “Mar-Cheshvan”; the abbreviated version is “Cheshvan”.

My professor of Semitic Studies was of the view that “Mar-Cheshvan” is linguistically a mixed-up version of an original Babylonian name which means “the eighth month” in Hebrew, “yerach sh’mini”.

If you count the months from Nisan it works out that Tishri is the seventh month, which is how the Torah describes it, and Mar-Cheshvan must logically be the eighth.

There is a tradition however that because the month has no festivals or even fasts it was “mar” – bitter. This is said to explain why the name became literally “Bitter Cheshvan”.

Another view recognises that this is when the winter rains begin, and there is a phrase “mar mid’li” – “a drop in the bucket” (Isaiah 40:15) – which may have contributed to the name of the month.

The original Biblical Hebrew name for the eighth month was “Bul” (I Kings 6:38). The zodiac sign for Mar-Cheshvan is the scorpion.


Q. Why isn’t life fair?

A. If anyone had found the definitive answer, many philosophers would be out of work.

There is a Sholem Aleichem story about a boy whose mother told him to grate the horseradish but warned, “If I catch you crying I will smack you!”

He started grating and thought to himself, “It isn’t fair!” Then he began thinking of children he knew who couldn’t run and jump because they were disabled and it wasn’t fair, and he began crying. In came his mother and smacked him. It wasn’t fair!

The Bible constantly addresses the problem, especially in Psalms, Job and Kohelet. In Kohelet there seem to be four approaches: life is unjust, life is absurd, life is a mystery, life is a challenge (“Even if you can’t explain life, live it to the full!”).

Note that Kohelet does not take the easy approach by rejecting God and becoming an atheist. We might put it this way: just because human beings cannot understand the ways of God, is that a reason to abandon Him?

A Jewish version is the conversation. “You don’t understand God? So stop laying tefillin!” “Stop laying tefillin? Just because I have problems with God, why should the tefillin suffer?”

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