A Perplexing Guide

How to begin such an analysis?[i] As stated in The Sound of Music, “Start at the very beginning / a very good place to start.”[ii] The beginning of the “Writing Guide” is as follows: “Articles submitted to Kol Hamevaser may be written on topics related or unrelated to the official topic of the issue.”[iii] The Guide continues to explain that articles will only be accepted assuming “they stay within traditional/Orthodox models of Jewish theology, broadly speaking.”[iv] Now this instruction is perplexing since it assumes that Orthodox theology is broad, and that there are a wide range of opinions which may be considered “Orthodox” or “Traditional”. However, we know this cannot be true, since as Marc Shapiro has already explained in his classic book, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, Orthodox thought is essentially narrow and limited.

The Guide then moves to the essential work of perplexing the writer about how to transliterate Hebrew words into English script. First of all, hasn’t[v] the Gemara already forbidden the translation of Holy works into foreign languages[vi]? Secondly, the transliteration guide is inherently discriminatory and misogynistic. The guide includes rules for transliterating a “Hirik male”, as well as a “Holam male”, but does not include even one guideline for transliterating a female vowel. This latest barrage in the War on Women should not be tolerated, and Kol Hamevaser plans to boycott the Guide until female and male vowels have equal representation in the world of non-consonantal speech. But most puzzlingly of all, the so-called “Kol Hamevaser” magazine has somehow managed to avoid its own transliteration Guide. And so, in deference to the Guide, the official Jewish thought journal of the Yeshiva University student body will henceforth be known by its Guide-compliant name “Kol ha-Mevaser”. And to make it up to the Guide for ignoring its dictations all these years, the title will indeed go beyond the Guide’s requirements and take on a gratuitous apostrophe in its name, and be known to the world as “Kol ha-Mevaser.[vii]

As the[viii] Rambam explains in his Guide to the Perplexed, often times, what looks like a contradiction within a source is actually nothing of the sort.[ix] This is an important principle to keep in mind when reading through the Guide. For example, when explaining how to transliterate the sound “eye” into English letters, the Guide commands the writer to use the dipthong “ai” as in the name of the hero of Megillat Esther, “Mordekhai.” However, only five lines later[x], the Guide proposes that proper names of well-known individuals may be written according to their conventional spelling, as in “Mordechai.” How to resolve this bewildering contradiction, this double standard for writing Mordeckhai’s name? However, taking to heart the words of the Rambam, we realize there is no difficulty here at all. The Guide purposely included this contradiction to teach us that in fact neither spelling of Mordeckhai’s name is correct. Instead, both spellings should be combined, and an apostrophe should be added, leading us to the appropriate spelling of “M’ordeckhai”.

The Guide also has important rules about the proper uses of italics. Yet, some of these rules are also perplexing. One such example is that if a Hebrew word is common enough, it does not need to be italicized. Unfortunately, the Guide neglects to tell the prospective writer how to tell if a word is considered common enough. Ha-yitakhen (does it make sense)[xi] that the editors expect us to count all of the uses of the word ever, and if it is higher than a specific number to stop italicizing?![xii] It is a relief to us, therefore, that another one of the italicization rules can be made much more clearcut: the rule that “those words which have become part of the English language need not be italicized.” While the Guide is not explicit regarding how it is possible to ascertain if a word has met this criteria or not, one method of making such a determination can be learned from the Scripps National Spelling Bee.[xiii]  In 2011, one of the words used in the final rounds was “karpas,” and in 2013, the winning word was “knaidel.”[xiv] From these examples it is possible to see that in the absence of a dictionary, a good rule of thumb is that if a word is the name of something which is commonly eaten on Pesah, it is considered an English word and need not be italicized.

Now, the Guide indeed covers many perplexing areas of which we have not even touched. The fearless writers of Kol ha-Mevaser must be able to distinguish their sheva from their sheva merahef. They must know when a Vav is “consonantal” versus “part of a vowel”, and understand when to note and when to ignore the all-important dagesh hazak. New writers may worry how they will ever reach this standard, and indeed, many aged former members of Kol ha-Mevaser can still be found in a corner of the library, muttering to themselves, wondering “is it u-bikkashtem or u-bbikkashtem?” If you see these woebegone writers, please be kind and do not stare too much. However, if you plan to write for Kol ha-Mevaser[xv], there is a little known loophole to the pernicious pickiness of the Guide. In fact, most of the rules for the Guide can be suspended if your article includes at least 30 footnotes[xvi].

The Guide ends with the sublime acknowledgment of its own perplexitude, “We know this guide is complicated and hard to follow. If you have any questions about transliterations and translations, though, please DO NOT ask us, AS WE DO NOT KNOW EITHER and we HAVE A HEADACHE will NOT be glad to help you.”[xvii]

Eliezer Shkolnik is an esteemed Philologist and recipient of the Israel Prize. He has never written for Kol ha-Mevaser, but if he did, he would follow the Guide to the letter.


[i] Well, I already have begun. I have a “centered title on top and a by-line beneath the title (BY: Peloni Almoni)”  (“Writing Guide”). Except that my name is not Peloni Almoni. It is Eliezer Shkolnik.

[ii] The Sound of Music, directed by Robert Wise (1965; Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox).

[iii] What this means, of course, is that since Kol Hamevaser is so desperate for articles, they will take anything.

[iv] Partnership Minyanim?

[v] A lazy editor failed to catch this contraction, forbidden, of course, by the Guide

[vi] As the editor is enjoying their his/her hamentaschen, she/he did not ask for a source for this claim, nor did she/he fact check it

[vii] We offer our deepest apologies to the Guide, and hope it is satisfied

[viii] See, The Guide, “Proper Names”, section III

[ix] Introduction, The Guide to the Perplexed

[x] Yes, I counted. Precisely.

[xi] As required by the Guide: translation mine. And you can’t have it. So there.

[xii] Actually, I would not put it past them.

[xiii] If that’s not a good determination to decide what’s English, what is? It’s practically the same as looking something up in the dictionary. And that’s what my mother always told me to do when I couldn’t decide if something was a word or not.

[xiv] Joseph Berger, “Some Say Spelling of a Winning Word Wasn’t Kosher,” New York Times, 31 May, 2013, available at: www.nytimes.com. The article notes that according to YIVO, the proper Yiddish spelling of this word is “kneydl.” Neither spelling matches the one recommended by the Guide of “keneidel”, which is of course the correct one. The Guide would be quite disappointed.

[xv] You silly you. You don’t know what you are getting yourself into, do you?

[xvi] To be precise, endnotes. In fact, Kol ha-Mevaser does not use any footnotes.

[xvii] This version of the end of the Guide with the words written in all-caps is not found in current editions, however after extensive research I have found that it is present in ancient manuscripts containing the Guide. I will not explain to you how to find ancient manuscripts of internet pages, for fear that some of you will steal my research and publish it ahead of me.