We come to the word בית [Bayit]. This is usually translated as ‘house’ or ‘home’. But the word בית has a much larger range of meanings than this. Although talk about homes and houses is very much part of our everyday speech, the reason that the word בית is so frequent in our vocabulary is the many meanings that it has. The root meaning of בית is ‘receptacle’ or ‘a defined space’. Indeed, the word בית קיבול means a ‘receptacle’. Even parts of the body can use the word ‘bayit’- such as the term בית השחי which means an ‘armpit’.
The word בית can also be used to describe a room or a part of a building. For instance, the word בית הכסא means the ‘bathroom’ or ‘toilet’. This probably dates to the time when the toilet was an out-building and not part of the main house.
The main use of the word בית is a building, and it is frequently used to describe different kinds of buildings. A בית משפט [House of Judgment] is a ‘courthouse’ and a בית מדרש is a ‘house of study’ or an academy. A בית חולים [House for the sick] is a hospital. You can create the name of almost any building by adding the word בית before the way that the building is being used. The בית המקדש [house of Holiness] was the name given to the holy temple in Jerusalem. This was such a central building in the life of the Jewish people that it is frequently referred to simply as הבית – ‘the house’.
The use of the word בית is even broader than this. A whole country can be referred to as a בית – for instance the State of Israel – which is known as the בית לאומי – the national home of the Jewish people.
Finally, the word בית does not even need to refer to a concrete space. It is sometimes used to describe an abstract concept. For instance, the term בית ישראל means the House of Israel – and refers to the Jewish people as a whole. With so many different uses, it is not surprising that the word בית is one of the most frequently used words in the Hebrew language.
There is something special about a home. It is a safe protected space and something that we all yearn for. Indeed we say אין כמו בבית – there is no place like home. But, as the way the word בית is used in the Hebrew language shows, that’s not entirely true. The huge range of meanings of the word בית shows that lots of places can be home; indeed almost anywhere can be home. A home isn’t about space; a home is a state of mind. And with the right attitude, almost anywhere can be our בית.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
My Hebrew Word thanks the World Zionist Organisation and Masorti Olami for their support of this Project.