Bad Linguistics

This was originally posted to a private lodge Facebook group for Fort Worth Lodge № 148.

Recently, I tried to translate “Mind and Conscience” into both Latin and Hebrew. The Latin translation was very easy: mens et conscientia. Hey, you can see how similar it is, right? When it came to Hebrew, I didn’t get to “conscience” for a long time because of the rabbit hole that “mind” lead down. The Hebrew word for “conscience,” by the way, is מַצְפּוּן or matspon, which means “conscience” or “scruple,” and anciently meant “hidden treasure.” That’s a discussion for another time, I think.

Well, that’s not a simple question with a simple answer. Both in contemporary Hebrew and the Hebrew of the Tanakh / Old Testament, there are many words which are translated to English and the Romance languages as “mind,” but do not actually have the meaning of “mind.” You see, the word “mind,” as we understand it in English, is uniquely colored by the fact that it is a Romance language word.

In Spanish (and Portuguese & Italian) we say “mente,” in Romanian, it’s “minte,” and so forth. However, this isn’t shared into other language families, or regions, or even into other Romance languages! In French (Romance language family), for example, the word is “espirit” from the Latin “spiritus” (“breath,” “breeze,” or “ghost”). In German (different language family, same region) it’s “Geist” which means “spirit” first, then “ghost,” then “mind.”

Then we get to the Semitic language family. Whole different ballgame, folks. As far as I can tell, there is no one word in Hebrew that, strictly speaking, actually means “mind” as we understand it, only words that can be acceptably substituted. I have compiled a small list of them, and what I’ve learned about them. Some of these words were used anciently in the Tanakh / Old Testament, and some of these are more contemporary. I hope I have written this respectfully in an academic context.

Heart – לבב

The word לב or leb (also לבב or lebab) refers to the literal organ of the heart, with secondary, figurative meaning as the seat of emotions and appetites, specifically that of Courage. It can also mean “inner person” or “[the] will.”

Spirit – רוח

Another possible translation is רוח or ruach. It primarily means “wind,” but it can also mean “breath.” It has a tertiary meaning of “spirit” (but still not “mind”).

It also has a prophetic form, רוח הקודש (ruach hakodesh), which is the name of the Holy Spirit in the Tanakh. There are other forms & words of which ruach is a component. רוח אלוהים (ruach Elohim) and רוח-אל (ruach-El) also refer to the Spirit of God. רוח יהוה (ruach Adonai) means “The Spirit of the Lord” and רוח אדני יהוה (ruach Adonai Adonai) means “The Spirit of the Lord God,” which are both commonly and improperly translated as “The Sprit of Jehovah” and “The Spirit of the Lord Jehovah,” respectively. The YHWH discussion is a whole different rabbit-hole.

Soul – נפש

The spirit of a person or an animal is נפש or nepesh, which is directly translated as “soul.” It can also mean “life,” refer to a person / human being, or will/intent. It also has an antiquated meaning of “breath,” which reminds us of רוח / ruach. It can be used to define life and consciousness as we understand it in humans and animals of higher intelligence, which is a very close approximation (but not exact) of “mind.”

Marrow – מֹחַ

More commonly spelled מוֹחַ, but anciently מֹחַ or moach, this word is biblically used to refer to bone marrow (and still is in some contexts), and more recently, primarily in reference to the brain. It closely relates to ruach, “spirit.”

Consciousness – תודעה

A closer word still is תודעה or toda’a, which can refer to an awareness or a consciousness. This is one of the most commonly used words to substitute for mind, but still isn’t a catch-all. The “mind-body problem,” for example, is the “guf-nepesh problem,” while something like “a state of mind” is translated as “a state of toda’a.

Reason – תבונה

The word תבונה or tevunah primarily stands for “reason.” It can also stand for a wisdom, or intelligence. The word for “understanding” is derived from tevunah. The words for prudence, discreetness, knowledge, etc, are also derivations of this word. In Mishlei/Proverbs 3:19-20, we read:

Hashem / God laid the earth’s foundations with wisdom (chochmah), by understanding (tevunah) he set the heavens in place; through His knowledge (daat) the depths were cleaved, and the clouds let drop the dew.”

In this case, Rabbeinu Yonah explains that chochmah is the lowest form of learning – the information that is conveyed to you from someone else. Tevunah is the information or understanding that one arrives to after meditating upon the chochmah one has been taught.

Intelligence – שכל

Shared in Hebrew and Yiddish with slightly different meanings, שכל or sechel means intelligence, brains, wisdom, or in wisdom. Recently, it has also come to refer to common sense and “smarts.” However, it doesn’t just quite translate to any of those, just like “mind” doesn’t translate to it or the other previously-discussed words. In older Hebrew usage, the word had very serious moral and ethical connotations that it does not really have today. In contemporary Yiddish, the word denotes a very respected quality regarding one’s pursuit of knowledge and ability to leave the world a better place.

As you can see, there’s no one word that means exactly what we conceive of as “mind.” This is not uncommon, as many languages have words that don’t quite translate well, like the Portuguese “saudade,” the Spanish “sobremesa,” the German “Weltschmerz,” etc. The closest word, in my opinion, appears to be תודעה (toda’a), which is most commonly used in contemporary Hebrew. Other words I found to be close in the semitic language family are שכל (sechel, Yiddish for “understanding,” shared with Hebrew but with a slightly different meaning), and عقل (*eaql&, Arabic for “reason”).

Online Resources


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.