Hebrew In Israel | Happy? – Learn Torah

Hebrew In Israel | Happy? – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi No Comments

How do we explain the first word in the book of psalms?

אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים

Most translations say “happy” but what does it mean?  It is clear that the word is declarative, but does “happy” really mean the same thing as אשרי?

The word אשרי is from the root א.ש.ר and is usually equated with the word אושר—happiness.  It is true that in our case the word expresses happiness, but it does not refer to the person or subject being happy, but a proclamation that the subject is being praised for who they are and what they do.  In other words, it is a call of joy to celebrate happiness over one who should be praised.

We find this word in Genesis 30:13

וַתֹּאמֶר לֵאָה בְּאָשְׁרִי כִּי אִשְּׁרוּנִי בָּנוֹת וַתִּקְרָא אֶתשְׁמוֹ אָשֵׁר

“And Leah said: ‘Happy am I! For the daughters will call me happy.’  And she called his name Asher

This translation is also faulty and should say “in my happiness, for they will praise me “.  Leah is saying that she is made happy by the praise given to her by others.  We find in this verse an important point about Hebrew:  Words can be used in different ways, and context will be the tool to understand the meaning.  This specific verse plays with two meanings at the same time, using a word play on the root אשר.

Also note that this is a description explaining the origins of the name Asher by connecting the name to being happy but also with the cries of joyful praise.  Hence, the function of the vocative אשרי is a call of joy and praise in the mouth of others due to someone deserving such praise. 

It is also worth noting that Greenberg had recognised that in BH poetry there is a higher tendency to see words as having a much more flexible meaning.  In his monograph on Psalms, Greenberg has presented an alternative meaning to words such as ברוך to mean “praise”, especially in the cases where God is being praised.  Hence we have grounds for a different interpretation for the word אשרי as belonging to the same group of vocatives of praise.

Greenberg Moshe, Biblical Poetry Prayer As a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel, Eugene 2008

Originally Published:  February 12, 2015

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