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From cherub to jubilee: Hebrew’s influence on today’s English

If you’ve ever noshed on a bagel with your schnoz stuck in a schmaltzy novel, or schlepped to a party to schmooze with the mavens and machers, you know all about the influence of Yiddish on modern English. But what about Hebrew? Thanks to English translations of the Bible, Hebrew-derived words have been playing their part in English since long before Yiddish got a look in, and even some of the Yiddish favourites have their roots in Hebrew. To celebrate the beginning of the festival of Purim tonight, sit your tuches down, and let’s have a look at some Hebrew terms that you didn’t know you knew, as well as some that you never knew you needed.

The whole megillah

Two Jews, three opinions. That’s the saying, but trust me when I tell you that three is a severe underestimate. Purim is the perfect time to see this in action, involving as it does the celebratory and exuberant consumption of much alcohol. This invariably leads to discussion and debate, with each side accusing the other of talking meshugas (“madness”) and pilpul (originally a kind of subtle theological argumentation, but now also used to refer to quibbling and hair-splitting). Falling on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, Purim celebrates the defeat of a plot by Haman, the vizier of the Persian king, to destroy the Jewish people. The tale is told in the biblical book of Esther: it is Queen Esther, along with her cousin Mordecai, who foils Haman’s evil schemes. The book of Esther is referred to as the Megillah (literally “scroll”), and the whole book is read in the synagogue at Purim. This gives the slang use of megillah to refer to any kind of long or complicated tale, a perfect example being the kind of story my grandmother used to tell about going into town, which would begin with meeting an old friend, and go on to enumerate that friend’s genealogy, work history, ailments, husband’s ailments, dog’s ailments, and vital statistics. My grandmother, good Chapel-goer that she was, would not have understood the term “megillah”, but she nonetheless managed to embody its spirit.

Purim is probably the most fun service of the Jewish calendar. Worshippers go to the synagogue in fancy dress, and during the reading, they whoop and holler and wave football rattles every time Haman is mentioned in order to blot out the memory of his name. Haman must have caused a real broyges between Queen Esther and her husband. Broyges, a Yiddish word which comes from Hebrew meaning “in agitation, anxiety, anger”, encompasses a wide range of annoyance, upset, and umbrage, and might be caused by anything from diplomatic incidents between countries to inadvertently insulting your mother-in-law’s hat. It’s difficult to translate into English: when I asked a friend for her definition, the response was “Oh, that’s easy: broyges is tsores”.

Things that go bump in the night

To go along with Haman, the original pantomime villain, Hebrew has some proper monsters to offer the English language. From the Bible, we find the beastly leviathan and behemoth, both of whose names are now used in English for something oversized and, usually, a bit horrifying. Goliath, another giant of the Hebrew Bible, has developed a similar meaning, having become a byword for anything gigantic and aggressive, including a type of industrial crane (you may not think of cranes as aggressive, but I was terrified of them as a child, and I still distrust their silent looming). And no list of Biblical villains would be complete without Satan (from Hebrew “adversary”, “plotter”), whose many names in popular tradition include Beelzebub (“lord of the flies”) and Belial (“worthless”).

Jewish legend also gives us the golem (from the Hebrew word for a shapeless mass). The golem, like Adam, is a human form created from mud, with a word inscribed upon its head to animate it. In the best-known version of the legend, the golem is created to protect the Jewish community of Prague, and does so ruthlessly and violently; like Frankenstein’s monster, some versions of the tale see the golem finally turn on its creators. The golem has featured as a monster on The X-Files and in various Marvel comics. My favourite bedtime horrors are dybbuks, malevolent souls of the dead which possess living people. The name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to cling”, which always conjures up for me an image of the facehuggers from Alien.

Scared yet? Don’t worry; help is at hand. Just find yourself a friendly cherub, or if a more impressive defender is required, how about the Talmudic angel Metatron (ably, if iconoclastically, played by Alan Rickman in the film Dogma)? The ultimate in good guys must be the Messiah, from a Hebrew word meaning “anointed”. “Messiah” is now often used metaphorically to refer to a divine saviour, but theologically this is a Christian development, based on the figure of Jesus. The Jewish Messiah, on the other hand, is a human king, whose coming will herald an age of peace and piety. The Hebrew for “peace”, shalom, is used universally as a greeting by Jewish people.

Pride and joy

An Israeli friend once told me that my name was an obvious sign that I’ll be an excellent wife one day. Beth in Hebrew (pronounced something like “bait” or “base”) means “house”, hence Bethel (“House of God”, an appropriately common name for churches in the UK), Beth Din (“house of judgment”, the name for a Jewish religious court), and the Beth Midrash (“house of study”, a place of study for Jewish scholars). Tov is the Hebrew for “good”, found in mazel tov, literally “good fortune”, which is used as a congratulatory greeting by both Jews and non-Jews. Mine is therefore an auspicious name, though if “good house” is a description of my domestic skills, it must be meant ironically.

Mazel tov is only one of many Hebrew greetings and exclamations which enrich Jewish English. One you’ll hear often on Purim is l’chaim, “to life”, a toast which is equivalent to English cheers. Drinking, although not to excess, on Purim is a mitzvah (Hebrew “commandment”), which is to say that it fulfils a precept of Jewish law: just as fasting and repentance are mitzvahs during the High Holy Days, celebration is a mitzvah at Purim. The term mitzvah encompasses all kinds of religious and social duties, such as the ceremonial lighting of the Sabbath candles, or visiting the sick. Bar Mitzvah (“son of commandment”) refers to the coming of age ceremony that is held for Jewish boys, when the first public recitation from the Torah is rewarded with innumerable kisses from aunties and a superb collection of fountain pens. More importantly, though, it refers to a status: being a son of commandment means that a boy is now bound by the religious laws, and this status belongs to all Jewish boys when they reach the age of thirteen; the ceremony marks this transition, but does not create it, so a thirteen-year-old boy is Bar Mitzvah even without the party (gifts of fountain pens may be a legal requirement, though.)

Talking of parties, the sixtieth anniversary of the Queen of England’s coronation this year will ensure that at least one Hebrew word is in the news. Jubilee is derived, via Latin and Greek, from the Hebrew for the ram’s horn which was blown to mark the beginning of the Jubilee year. And although the concept of naches, a sense of pleasure or pride (from a Hebrew word meaning “contentment”), particularly applies to the achievements of one’s offspring, Bar Mitzvah boys being an excellent source, no doubt many of the people of England will also be shepping naches from (i.e. taking pride in) the achievements of their monarch during her long reign. Those who live in London, however, may secretly be dreading the meshugas that both the Jubilee and the Olympics will bring to the capital in 2012, and there’ll probably be a few hallelujahs when it’s all over.

But is it kosher?

Kosher, describing food and drink which adheres to religious laws about what may be consumed by Jews, has gained a general currency to refer to anything that is legitimate or good. The word’s root is in the Hebrew for “right”, so this extended use makes perfect sense. (Gefilte fish is a good example of something that is kosher in the first sense but not, in my opinion at least, the second: it is a kind of pressed fish concoction that tastes as though it should come in a tin with a picture of a smug-looking cat.) Luckily, Jewish festival food is generally very good, and whether it’s filling up on challah on Shabbat, honey cake on Rosh Hashanah, or hamantaschen at Purim, making sure your guests are well-fed is very definitely a mitzvah. I think we can all say amen to that!