Yom Hanesiim — Presidents Day
Leshon Ima – Mother Tongue with Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
In 1968, when Congress created a uniform system of federal holidays, it declared Presidents Day as an official holiday, to be celebrated on the third Monday in February.
Although it became the law of the land in 1971, Presidents Day is based on a long history of celebrations of both Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays on the 22nd and 12th of February respectively. Not all states agreed to the change made by Congress, nor did all adhere to the new name given to the day.
Nevertheless, Presidents Day was popularized in several states as a marketing phenomenon, capitalizing on a three-day weekend for sales and shopping sprees.
This month, let’s discuss two Hebrew terms pertaining to the occasion: The first is nasi meaning president (nesiim in the plural) and the second is yom huledet, meaning birthday.
The Hebrew word nasi is mentioned in the Bible 129 times and it means chief, prince and ruler. In post biblical Hebrew, we find nasi used to indicate the head of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish legislative authority (B’rakhot 13); and in Modern Hebrew, nasi evolved further to mean president, the head of state, and a CEO of an organization.
The noun is derived from the verb nasa, which means lifted up, exalted or, as some say, speaker, for a president usually “lifts up the words” to advocate the people’s cause.
Either way, in ancient times, the nasi was the head of a tribe (Num. 7:24), the head of a group (Josh. 22:14), a king (Ezek. 37:25) as well as a representative of a whole nation (Gen. 23:6).
It is not surprising that nasi has made an easy transformation to the modern political parlance to mean a president of a country. Unlike in the United States, where the nasi is a political figure, in Israel the nasi is a figurehead with no political power.
As for yom huledet, this compound word, constructed of two nouns, was mentioned three times in the Bible. In Hebrew, like other semitic languages, yom means day, time and year and appears in the Text almost 2,300 times.
And huledet, which means birth, is derived from the verb yalad meaning bear, bring forth, and beget.
Not many phrases can be found using the words nasi or huledet. However there are many phrases where yom is at the center. For example, yom tov means holiday and yom yom means daily. Bin yom means quick and beyom min hayamim means someday or as we say in jest, one fine day.
Now that we are about to celebrate the yom huledet of both Washington and Lincoln, a time declared in America as yom tov, let us not forget the contribution each nasi had in shaping America’s history and helping it become a unique nation among nations.
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida.
To read the complete February 2016 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.