need some suggestions for not!Hebrew and not!Judaism

So one of the things I’m doing with the new series is basing the dominant ~European religion on Judaism, instead of going with the usual default of pseudo-Christianity. Which leads, of course, to me having to make lots of decisions about random worldbuilding details. I’ll talk about those more later, probably — I’m having an interesting time extrapolating both a nineteenth-century form of Temple-based worship, and a widespread state-religion form of rabbinic Judaism — but one of the most obvious flags on the reader’s end is the names of things.

See, in light of the aforementioned extrapolations, I don’t want to make the reader think this is supposed to be straight-up Judaism, as it was practiced in the real-world nineteenth century. Because of this, and because the main character comes from a British-equivalent country, I’m mostly using English-language variants on the Hebrew names for things; for example, they have a holiday that corresponds to Purim, but I’m calling it “the Casting of Lots” instead. (Insert lots of thoughts here about how English terms and concepts from Christianity are often unmarked and can therefore be read as “generic,” but terms and concepts from other religions are marked and therefore assumed to be referring specifically to the real-world version.)

This method currently falls down in two particular places: the name for the ~Hebrew language, and the name for the religion itself. My current placeholder for the former is “Ivrit,” which is, yes, the name of Hebrew in Hebrew. (Presuming Wikipedia hasn’t lied to me.) I cannot keep this, unless I want it to be an in-joke for the Hebrew readers in my audience. The current placeholder for the latter is “[Judaism],” because the one time I referred to the religion as a whole I was tired and just wanted to get the night’s writing done instead of bogging down on naming. I cannot keep this, period.

Suggestions for either one? I can’t read the Hebrew alphabet well enough to do my usual thing, which is to look up semi-random words and then fiddle with them until I get something I like. The language could be based on the real Hebrew word for “speech” or something in that vein, following the common tendency in some parts of the world for a tribe’s name to simply mean “the People.” The religion . . . I dunno. A currently-unsold book idea of mine has already laid claim to the word “Messianism,” which I kind of feel works better for ~Christianity anyway, given the different attitude toward the whole Messiah thing. I need something that can be used to refer to both the Temple-based form of the religion and the rabbinic offshoot (which in this setting occupies the role of the Protestant Reformation, in terms of dividing up ~Europe along religious lines.) Not sure what would work for that.

Any ideas?

0 Responses to “need some suggestions for not!Hebrew and not!Judaism”

  1. abigail_n

    The Hebrew word for language is Safah, and words are Milim. There are two major verbs that deal with speech, DBR and AMR. Speech can be Dibur or Amirah, both of which can be either nouns or verbs. Speech as in the spoken words can also be Dvarim (which is also the Hebrew name for Deuteronomy). The verb for writing, incidentally, is KTB, and written language is Ktav, Ktavim, or Ktubim.

    It might also be worth noting that Hebrew is a cousin of Aramaic and borrows many words from it, and that the Hebrew name for Aramaic is Aramit.

    Terms surrounding religion are a bit trickier because a lot of them are well-known even to non-Hebrew speaking Jews, such as Emunah, Torah, Halacha (the Jewish code of law). The Hebrew word for religion, by the way, is Dat. Depending on whether your version of Judaism is based around temple worship and sacrifice, you might consider Miskhan (the temple), Kurban (sacrifice), Regalim (the three times of the year in which Jews would make a pilgrimage to the temple to offer sacrifices). If your Judaism is the post-destruction, scholarship and prayer variety, there’s Tfila (prayer), Limud (study), Psikah (religious ruling), or Dayanim (religious judges).

    • Marie Brennan

      Hmm, good point — for naming the language, I can play around with one of the triliteral roots until I get a word I like. (And then double-check it doesn’t mean something already.)

      As for the religion, I need a word that will cover both the Temple-based and diasporic versions. It will probably never come up openly in the story, but the history here is that the Temple was never destroyed; over time, the religion developed a streak of evangelism that led to it being exported to surrounding lands (a la the growth of Christianity after its adoption by the Roman Empire), and then later on a new theological movement caused a rejection of the Temple-centric focus in favor of a model based more on teaching and scholarship (i.e. a rabbinic model). So just as “Christianity” covers both Catholicism and Protestantism, I need something that can be read as referring to both forms of this religion. Maybe something based on the word “mitzvah”? Not sure how to turn that into a proper name, though, whether I use the Hebrew word or the English “commandment.”

      • abigail_n

        Mitzvah, like Torah and the others, is a word that a lot of Jews will know (which may or may not be a problem, I’m just saying). Rather than a single term that encompasses both temple-based and diaspora Judaism, It seems to me that you’re looking for a blanket name for the religion and then names for the two streams (as Catholics and Protestants are both Christians).

        It might be worth remembering that the word Judaism doesn’t refer to a tenet of the faith either but to Judea, the region where the first Israelite kingdom was founded, and that there are several streams of Jewish orthodoxy that are identified by the regions they emerged from, such as the Lithuanian Hasids.

        • wolfheart17

          Some more words.

          Another word for language in Hebrew is Lashon, which literally means “tongue”, and Hebrew is referred to as the Lashon Kodesh, or Holy Tongue. The root K.D.Sh, meaning holy (derived from words meaning separated or designated) could be a good starting point.

          Halacha, mentioned earlier, comes from the root H.L.Kh. which means “to walk” or “to go”, and can therefore be transalted as something like “the way”. A similar word is Derech, which means a road or a path, and you will occasionally see phrases like “Derekh Torah”, which can mean something like “The Path of the Teaching”.

          “Hebrew”, besides being the name of the language, was a name referring to the people, especially before the Babylonian Exile. It comes from a root meaning “to cross (over)”. The people were also commonly referred to as B’nei Yisroel ( Children of Israel ) or Shivtei Yisroel ( Tribes of Israel ) or Am Yisroel ( People of Israel), Israel being the other name for the Patriarch Jacob, and the name Jacob being the origin of the English name James.

          One other term that is used to refer to the people is “Yeshurun”, though it is rare ( 4 times in the bible, a smattering elsewhere ). It comes from a root meaning “upright” ( Y.Sh.R. )

          • Marie Brennan

            Mmm, I kind of like “Lashon” for the language. It falls into the category of being a nice little Easter egg (heh) for Hebrew-speakers, while being easily-pronounceable for everybody else.

        • Marie Brennan

          I actually do want it to be a word that is potentially recognizable for those familiar with the subject. (If I didn’t, I could just make something up out of whole cloth.) And yes, what I mean is that I’m looking for a blanket name; I already have names for the two streams.

          Right now I’m leaning toward “Halachism” as (the ~Anglicized form of) that blanket name.

  2. la_marquise_de_

    British novelist Jessica Rydill does a good job of something in this line in her Children of the Shaman, which I recommend. (It’s o-o-p, but easy to find 2nd hand, and was published in the US as well as here.) She’s on lj as , and might well be up for discussing it — tell her I sent you: she’s lovely.

  3. dsmoen

    If you need a secondary religion, then Latvian paganism went underground, but essentially had an unbroken lineage back to the pre-Christian era. Many neopagan ideas come from Baltic paganism. I heard a presentation on this at Pantheacon last year, it was really fascinating.

  4. xiphias

    To help spark your imagination: “Ivrit/Hebrew” means “Crossing” — the tribal name “Hebrews” means something like “The guys that crossed the river”, i.e., “The folks from over there.”

    “Judaism” comes from the tribe of “Judah”, and dates from the Babylonian exile, when the Hebrews, instead of just accepting that the Babylonian gods were more powerful than the Hebrew god, as demonstrated by the fact that the Babylonians won, decided to continue to worship the God of Judah even during their exile, and were called “Judeans”, or “Jews”. During that exile was the start of what became Rabbinic Judaism.

    If your history doesn’t have a Babylonian exile analogue, it doesn’t need either Rabbinic Judaism or a word analogous to “Judaism” (and Temple-based Judaism was a state religion, so it would work fine as one). But if it DOES have the destruction of the First Temple, but NOT the destruction of the Second Temple, then you WOULD have Rabbinic Judaism, as well as Temple Judaism — Judaism existed in two parallel streams during the Second Temple period.

    The other term used for the Jewish people before the word “Judaism” was “B’nai Yisrael”, the Children of Israel, “Israel” being the other name of Jacob. The word “Yaakov” means something like “heel-sneak”, and “Yisrael” something like “Fighter of God.”

    Anyway, those are a couple of things to see if they spark your imagination.

    Also, I’d go one step further with the name of Purim, and call the holiday “Lottery”, rather than “Casting of Lots”. It keeps the meaning, but modernizes the phrasing, making it less obvious.

    • Marie Brennan

      “Lottery,” I think, would have too many distracting connotations for modern readers.

    • Anonymous

      More than 2 streams, and not strictly parallel

      Actually, Judaism existed in many streams in the ~250 years up to the destruction of the Second Temple (~70CE)—dozens, with a range of doctrines on theology, eschatology, authority &c. possibly as wide as modern evangelical Christianity. And they weren’t just parallel, but fed into and from each other in wonderfully dynamic ways.

      The thing is, almost the only point on which all streams agreed was the centrality of Temple worship. (Not even the content of the Tanakh was set as a canon.) So once the Temple was gone, only two streams were able to adapt to the new world: Pharisaism (precursor to Rabbinic Judaism) and nascent Christianity. For super-exciting discussion of this I STRONGLY recommend Surpassing Wonder by Donald H Akenson. This book is one of my all time favorite nonfiction works, because Akenson’s presentation is as excited as it is exciting: “I don’t care what you believe about divine inspiration, but isn’t the Bible COOL!” (I paraphrase, of course.)

  5. aishabintjamil

    Not a specific answer, but if you’re looking for a good general reference, you might check out this book: (An Encyclopedia of Jewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin). There seems to be a newer edition as well, but this is the one I’ve read (parts of anyway – I haven’t made it through the whole thing). It has proved very helpful for background bits for a modern fantasy thriller set in Israel that I’ve been working on.

    Another thing you might want to look at is the work of Rabbi Gershon Winkler, who is a proponent of reclaiming shamanic and tribal ideas underlying Judaism. I’m not Jewish, and thus not really sure how his ideas are thought of by mainstream Jewish thought, but as inspiration for fiction it might be useful.

    Another possible angle to explore on this would be Kabbalah. It was appropriated by the Victorian era occultists, and many of the popular books today are from that perspective, but if you drill back into the older, Jewish form, there are some fascinating concepts there which might fit well in your setting. If you want to chat at more length about resources and so forth my email is the same as my LJ ID, at

  6. mindstalk

    I have no advice and you already answered my question of “how did something like Judaism manage to take over Europe?” but here’s some world fuel:

  7. Anonymous

    So your ~Judaism, in order to resemble RL Judaism at all, has to have at least ~Abraham and ~Moses. Why not base the name of the religion on one of those? You may already have names for these characters, but if not you can probably come up with something evocative but not too obvious like (off the top of my head) Avramu and Mushah. So then the religion is Mushahism, the followers are Mushahites, etc. Those are kind of terrible, but you get the idea.

  8. dungeonwriter

    First, I have a degree in Judaic studies, so please consider me a resource for any Hebrew reading or Judaic studies. I’d be happy to translate if you need.

    For the Speech….Lashon is speech as well. Safah was mentioned. Nikudot is vowels. Dikduk is grammar.

    Messianism is a vital part of Rabbinic Judaism as well, but you can use Anointed, Keter (crowned), Mikdash and Mishkan can both be used for temples, Hahamim for wise men, smicha for wise men.

    And Judaism did have evangelism for a while. “Hyrcanus…subdued all the Idumeans; and permitted them to stay in that country, if they would circumcise their genitals, and make use of the laws of the Jews; and they were so desirous of living in the country of their forefathers, that they submitted to the use of circumcision, (25) and of the rest of the Jewish ways of living; at which time therefore this befell them, that they were hereafter no other than Jews.”

  9. starlady38

    Well, and there’s also the fact that what we now think of as “Christianity” was very much a splinter movement led by Paul away from the interpretation of the movement led by Peter, which was explicitly a movement to reform Judaism from within.

    (Which Temple was never destroyed?)

    My only other suggestion would be to investigate what the koine Greek or high imperial Latin words for the religion & the people were, and consider adapting them. (The standard in koine is “Ioudaios,” but there’s an adjective “sabbatikos” meaning “of/for a Jew,” for example, which might be promising. Latin’s mostly the same, actually.)

  10. Anonymous

    It seems to me to make more sense to borrow from other Semitic cultures and languages than “just” Hebrew (and remember that Aramaic and protoclassical Arabic, not to mention pre-Persian, were also common in the region around Jerusalem 2000-2500 years ago). The unifying aspect as those languages have descended/died in use — particularly, but not only, in Islamic variants — has been to refer to !DominantReligion as “the Faith” (including all proper-noun markers).

    And the thought of Hebrew fulfilling the sarcastic, but all-too-accurate, assimilative role of English is rather amusing (“English doesn’t borrow. English assaults other languages into dark alleys and goes through their pockets for loose vocabulary.”).

    • dr_whom

      (Nitpick: (pre-)Persian isn’t a Semitic culture/language; it’s Indo-European.)

      • Anonymous

        My bad for being unclear; I should have made the distinction between “Semitic” and “region around Jerusalem” clearer. There has long been a Persian/quasiPersian community in the region between modern Amman (modern Jordan, to be clear; there are several other cities with similar English-language spellings) and Damascus.

  11. dr_whom

    So what I would want to do is use a Greek or Latin translation of some appropriate Hebrew word for the name of the religion, in the same way that “Christ” is a Greek translation of “Messiah”. (Thus I definitely agree that “Messianism” works way better for ~Christianity than for ~Judaism.)

    I think a good Hebrew base would be “Torah”, since I feel like that has a good chance of being the word ancient Jews would have used to refer to ‘our religious practices’ rather than ‘our nation’ or ‘our country’. Torah is usually translated as “Law”, but as notes, it etymologically means ‘teaching’. The Greek word for that is “didache”, so perhaps something along the lines of “Didachism”.

    For the language name, I’d take something that could have been a Hebrew word for ‘speech’ or ‘language’ or ‘tongue’, again as it would have been rendered after being borrowed into Greek or Latin. I like the sound of “Lasonic” a great deal, personally (Hebrew “lashon” ‘tongue’, as points out also).

    • Marie Brennan

      In this case I’m connecting Latin specifically with the rabbinic side of things (because it helps me work back around to a position where I can use Latin in a scientific context, which is a key part of the nineteenth-century-scientist feel), so I’m currently using “Magisterial” as the term for the “reformation” side of the religion, which is, of course, “teacher.” (At present there’s no ~Greek in the setting, mostly because there wasn’t room for ~Greece on the map. <g>) I tried to go with something based off dominus instead, since rabbi means “master,” but none of the forms I tried sounded good to me; I figure calling the rabbi-types magisters works well enough for their actual role.

      But it does mean I want a ~Hebrew-based term for the religion as a whole. Right now I’m leaning toward something along the lines of “Halachism,” since the code of religious law is a pretty central concept both branches would share, even if they disagree on how exactly that law should be interpreted. 🙂

      • thespisgeoff

        The only issue that I see with using “Halachism” is that halacha is a pretty rabbinic concept – at least to this Jew’s ears/eyes. When I/most Jews I grew up with use the term, it’s generally not about the specific mitzvot (commandments), but all of the rules created around those mitzot by the rabbis to keep us from possibly transgressing (they call it a “fence” around the Torah. So if you were setting up a “priestly” vs. “rabbinic” Not!Judaism, using halacha as the name-basis for both would feel slightly off.

      • dungeonwriter

        Instead of Rabbi, use Mar? It means master as in Severus Snape, potions master.

        And Halachism is a bit…modern.

        Din is judgement and Dinnism sounds less….knowing.

      • dr_whom

        First of all, “Magisterial” is perfect. “Rabbi” doesn’t mean ‘master’; it’s a word for ‘teacher’ that comes from a root meaning ‘great’. “Magister” is also a word for ‘teacher’ that comes from a root meaning ‘great’ (compare “magnus”). So, props on that.

        I’m not feeling “Halachism”, I’m afraid; as a few other people have noted, in Jewish tradition Halachah is a fairly magisterial—I’m sorry, rabbinic—concept.

        I think not having ~Greece doesn’t mean you can’t use Greek—unless your 19th-century scientists are using, say, “calimeticles” instead of thermometers, you’re going to have to be using Greek words of some type anyway. And I think if you’re dealing with a equivalent of Judaism that went evangelistic and spread to Europe instead of Christianity doing so, the ~Europeans wouldn’t continue using the ~Hebrew words for religious things any more than the actual Europeans continued using the Hebrew or Aramaic words for Christian topics like “Messiah”. So, yeah, I still recommend using a Greek equivalent instead of using actual Hebrew. (For a similar reason, “Lasonic” seems better than “Lashon” to me, by way of being something ~Europeans might actually say. We don’t say “Ivrit” in English, after all; we say “Hebrew”.)

        But failing that, “Torah” is a much more on-target Hebrew word than “Halachah”.

        • dr_whom

          To elaborate on this a bit: as you note in the original post, English terms like “Casting of Lots” are unmarked, and therefore have the effect on the reader of sounding ordinary, whereas Hebrew terms sound exotic and foreign. The thing is, something like “Halachism”, as a Hebrew term, has that foreign-sounding effect, the same as “Purim” and “Talmud”, and I feel like the name of the religion itself is the thing you least want to exoticize. So I think making the name of the religion something that Europeans would have actually wanted to call it is important, and following the model of Christianity, they wouldn’t do that by just borrowing the Hebrew words.

        • Marie Brennan

          . . . okay, if I have time, I may totally go to the effort of scrubbing Greek-derived words from the text (at least in scientific matters), and indeed having the characters use calimeticles instead of thermometers. ^_^

  12. namle84


    This is awesome — not the sort of thing I expected to find when I stumbled across your Wheel of Time reviews.

    A lot of what I have to say has already been said, but here’s what I would add: for the language, I like Lashon as a base. Why not play around with cognates in other Semitic languages, like Lisaan in Arabic, which means the same thing? Also, the suffix -nu means “our” in Hebrew (Leshoneinu means our tongue / language), and I kind of like the idea of using it. Maybe something like Lasanu?

    For the religion, I agree with the people above who dislike Halachism. It sounds very rabbinic and legalistic, which is exactly what you don’t want in a word that covers both streams of the religion. I like the idea of using monotheism as the uniting factor. Maybe base it on the Hebrew word Echad (with the ch pronounced as in Halacha), which means “one.” Maybe Echadism?

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