Friday, April 25, 2008

Masechet Cyperspace 3: Communicating in Shorthand

What is the language that we use to communicate online?

See This article on Online Etiquette as a good source for the basics, covering e-mail and other online do’s and don’ts and giving basic terminology (like what constitutes “flaming”). It begins by telling us:

Learning how to behave on the Internet may seem like second nature—just point, click, and download. But with millions more surfers crowding into cyberspace each day, it's critical to know and practice Web etiquette (commonly referred to as 'Netiquette) to keep the data flowing smoothly. Adhering to a few Internet "dos" and "don'ts" can help ensure a frustration-free experience for yourself and others.

Many novices to the Internet have no idea what some of the acronyms are. They seem alien and indicative of a culture where people are in too much of a hurry to spell out what they really mean in good-old, plain English . That may be true, but it is still good to know the lingo. For a complete, head-spinning list, head on over to THE CANONICAL ABBREVIATION/ACRONYM LIST at

What do Jewish sources say about such shorthand? Well, anyone who has ever sat in on a Talmud class knows that rabbinic literature is overflowing with acronyms and technical jargon that only insiders would be able to decipher. In Hebrew they are called “Roshei Teivot.” Some interesting background, including a reprint of an article from the 18th century can be found at The best collection of Hebrew acronyms that I’ve found on the web is at

It’s not only about complex expressions that become abbreviated. People do too! Every rabbi worth his salt, in fact, becomes an acronym, from Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki, a French scholar born in 1040) to the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, one of the first codifiers of Jewish law, born in Spain in 1135, lived most of his life in Egypt, and died there in 1185). As of yet, alas, no one has immortalized my initials in such a manner.

Modern Jewish communal life is also filled with its own “Alphabet Soup,” and many outsiders feel alienated in conversations that go from the JCC to the USCJ to the URJ to the UJA to the UJC to the UJ…whatever! The Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI)’s blog correctly points out that “it is always important that as insiders we define our codes and languages for those who are on the outside. Simply speaking and writing the full names of places encourages inclusiveness and reduces frustration. This is Big Tent Judaism’s Principle #6: “Identify and lower the barriers to participation.” Translating acronyms is an easy way to promote inclusiveness and welcome everyone into the broader Jewish community.”

The aptly titled blog "On the Fringe" put it best:

“By failing to explain, you prevent the less learned from learning, and hence, you violate the rabbinic interpretation… of the statement from Torah she-bi-chtav (the Written Law/Five Books of Moses/first five books of the Bible), "lifnei iver lo titen michshol, in front of a blind [rabbinic interpretation: ignorant] person, do not put a stumbling block" (Parshat Kedoshim, Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 11).”

By throwing all this secret jargon at people, we turn them off and turn them away, and thereby place a “stumbling block” before them, screaming out, “You are an idiot! You are not wanted.”

The Internet, like the Torah, belongs to everyone. Each is a grand experiment in embracing the Other, in opening eternal gates and dissolving boundaries. No need to build exclusivist, artificial ones as we journey along that path.

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