CHAP. II THE HEBREW ELEMENTS: GENERAL

1. Hebrew-in-Yiddish compared with Latin-in-English

Opening the Concise Oxford Dictionary (5th ed.,1964) at random, I find all of the twenty-two words on p. 245, from communiqué to company, are of Latin origin. Opening Harkavy’s Yiddish-English, English-Yiddish Dictionary (New York, 1910) equally at random, I find, on p. 324 of the Yiddish-English section, that of fifty-nine words, from shvennghern “to be pregnant” (German schwängern), to shimmen “to make a noise”, only six-and-a-half are of Hebrew origin. (Shimmen is not given in Weinreich’s Modern Yiddish-English, English-Yiddish Dictionary, New York, 1968; = German summen “to buzz”? My mother used to say: Se zhimmet me in doiren, “There’s a buzzing in my ears,” and zhimmen, I see, is given in Weinreich, thought not in Harkavy.) The half-word, by the way, is lee’ech, Hebrew luach “calendar”, in sheel-lee’ech “church calender.” [i]

This sortes Virgilianae would seem to provide prima facie evidence that the Latin element in English is very strong, whereas the Hebrew element in Yiddish is very weak – precisely the opposite of what I wanted to show – but closer examination of the word-lists involved will show that the Hebrew element in Yiddish is stronger, and the Latin element in English is weaker, than appears on the surface.

Of the twenty-two words in the C.O.D. none is “basic”, not even “communism”, in the sense that an Englishman uncontaminated by compulsory education would use it in conversation to express his everyday needs: none is the “language of the mother in the house, the man in the market place.” An illiterate Englishman would not have “companions”, he would have mates or pals.  He would never use the word “commute”, and unless, possibly, he was a railway porter, he would not know what a “commuter” was. Even a highly literate Englishman would be hard put to it, I suspect, to say what “compages” was – “framework, complex structure (lit & fig)” – “In the course of the year your directors have found it necessary to effect far-reaching changes in the Company’s compages” …?).

Two of the six words in Halevy are “basic”, however, in the sense that the most unlettered Jew or Jewess would use them in their daily speech, and they have no non-Hebrew or non-Aramaic [ii] equivalents. The Jewish housewife would be constantly referring to the shoikhit, Hebrew shochet “slaughterer”; not for her to wring with her own hands the neck of the fowl she had bought for the Sabbath table. The bird had to be taken to the shoickhit for killing in the ritually prescribed manner. Shoikhit koilets mer de gunts, literally “Slaughterer, kill me the goose (German Gans),” was frequently on my mother’s lips ironically, in the sense of “You’re not asking for much, are you?”  The picture I have is of a shoikhit up to his eyebrows in chicken feathers suddenly called on to disrupt his chicken-slaughtering routine in order to dispatch the “fine lady’s” goose (Yiddish koilen, German schlachten “to slaughter”, is from the Archaic German  keulen (German keule = “club”).

Shim, Aramaic shum, our second basic word, is indispensable in everyday speech.  It means “not any, not any at all”: Her hot ken shim mishpookhe nisht, “He has not family at all”; beshim oifen nisht, “under no circumstances.”  Incidentally, be- is the Hebrew prefix be- “with”, and oifen is Hebrew ofen “manner, mode, way”.  Oifen, too, has no non-Hebrew synonym, and is therefore “irreplaceable.”  Our “half-word”, too, is irreplaceable, and, in its integrity, indispensable. The lee’ekh “calender”, would be constantly consulted to find out when Sabbath “came in”, when it “went out”, and for the dates of festivals and yoohrtsaats. Of the Hebrew words remaining out of our six, I doubt whether my mother ever used shoikhet meaning “bribe” (Hebrew shochud – I do not see how its pronunciation in Yiddish could be distinguished from shoikhet “slaughterer”; final d is devoiced to t in Yiddish  She spoke freely about beshmeeren, German schmieren “to grease.”  When there was “standing room only” at “the pictures” a seat could always be procured by shmeerekhs. She may well have used shoitte “fool”, Hebrew shoteh, but the words I recall her using were naar and fehrt, German Narr and Pferd. Shoikhen oohfer “deceased man” (not given in Weinreich), Hebrew shochen afar “dweller of the dust”, strikes me as being too “lamdanish(infra) for her to have used, but I may be doing her memory an injustice.  The standard term she employed was dehr zeyligher, German der SeligeDehr Godzeyligher (tutte) = “Your late father.” (Yiddish Gott = “God”; in Godzeyligher the t of Gott becomes “voiced” by “regressive assimilation.”

2. I. H. Taviov’s Views on the Hebrew Elements

The Hebrew elements in Yiddish are in fact so strong that I. H. Taviov, whose Hebrew Elements in Yiddish I have laid heavily under contribution, seriously expressed the view that they afforded a bridge-head, so to speak, for the conquest of Hebrew as a living language.  In this I think he was too optimistic; moreover, to have adopted his suggestion that Hebrew words be deliberately “introduced” into “jargon” would have violated the genius of Yiddish. The great virtues of the language were its naturalness, its spontaneity.  No committee deliberated, as it did for Modern Hebrew, in order to “introduce” words into Yiddish. The Jewish woman talked about a shoikhit/shoikhet, using the classical Hebrew word, because this was the only way she could designate a functionary who fulfilled a vital role in her life. A goose, though, was a gunts, German Gans; she would not have been receptive to the “introduction” of Hebrew avaz, nor even to the use of taarneghel for heen, [iii] German Huhn, “chicken”, though her husband would have been familiar with tarnegol-et from his study of the Talmud.  And on festive occasions, if she could afford a more prestigious bird, she spoke of gebroohtene kutchke, German gebraten, Polish kaczka “roast duck”, because that was the way the Yiddish cookie crumbled for her.

Taviov (1858-1921) was not an academic philologist.  I suspect he did not know the difference between a high back slack rounded and a mid front tense unrounded vowel, but he more than compensated for this deficiency by his thorough knowledge of Hebrew, both biblical and post-biblical; of the Aramaic of the Gemara; of German, Russian, Polish and – Yiddish. [iv] He analysed the Hebrew components of Yiddish in a systematic way which I cannot do better than follow in broad outline, though in a number of cases the “anatomy” of the Hebrew elements is my own.

Taviov points out that the Jews in Germany always regarded German as a banausic language (leshon hediot). Their holy, national tongue was Hebrew. Hence any concept which could be associated even remotely with holiness or religious practice or Jewish history would be expressed in the language of the Bible or Talmud. Thus the “garden of Eden” was gun eydem (the second n in the Hebrew gan eden is “progressively dissimilated” from the first in the Yiddish form of the phrase), though “garden” in the ordinary sense was goohrten, German Garten. A “house” was hohss, German Haus, but the “house of law”, the law court, was bezzen, from Hebrew beyss din (beit din).  (For the syncope or contraction compare the pronunciation of English colonel.) Similarly Yiddish adopted kulle, khoohssen for “bride”, “bridegroom”, Hebrew kallah, chatan, because bride/groomsmanship is very much a religious matter, but for “daughter-in-law” and “son-in-law”, which in Hebrew are also kallah and chatan respectively, Yiddish used shneer and eydem, Archaic German Schnur and Eidam. Hebrew luach “tablet” was adopted for “calender” lee’ekh), because “The Jew’s catechism is his calendar”, but an ordinary board or tablet was brettel, German Brett. Hebrew ma’alah meaning “ascent, degree, step” was used in Yiddish only to denote “virtue, good quality”: “Her hot u sukh maalles en u sukh khesroinnes”, “He has many virtues and many faults” (Hebrew sach “total”; chesronont “faults”) – for “steps, stairs” Yiddish used trepp(en), German Treppe.

The Yiddish for “sea” is yum, Hebrew yam.  Not yom as the word is pronounced in Ashkenazic Hebrew in its “absolute” form, but “yum” in the “construct”, because the Jewish reflex to “sea” is “Red Sea”, yum (construct) soof, the “sea of reeds” (yam suf) the parting of which is recalled in the daily morning service. [v] Another word occurring as frequently, even more frequently, in one form or another, than yam in the liturgy is mitsvah “commandment”, the meaning of which was enlarged to “good deed”. And the opposite of a mitsve is a neveyrre, from Hebrew averah “transgression.”  This word, too, has developed semantically: Siz u neveyrre, voalss de kennst nisht kimmen, “It’s a pity you can’t come”. (For the initial n, compare English nickname, from Middle English an eke-nameU neveyre from un eveyrre.

Even words which had no particular aura of sanctity or which had no historical associations were naturally integrated into Yiddish if they occurred with any degree of frequency in Bible or Talmud or Rabbinical Hebrew. The basis of the Talmud is the Mishnah, the Oral Law committed to writing about 200 C.E. Mishnaic and Rabbinical (post-Talmudic) Hebrew supplemented Biblical Hebrew by, inter alia, a number of participles which were absorbed into Yiddish, where they are “irreplaceable”, this is to say, they have no non-Hebrew equivalents. They include uffille/efille, Hebrew afilu “even”; efsher, Hebrew efshar “perhaps”; uvvodde “of course, certainly” (Yiddish indefinite article u plus Hebrew vaddai “certain”); uklul’, Hebrew haklal (= the rule) “to cut a long story short, somme toute“; tommer, Hebrew tomar “thou wilt say”, “perhaps” (anticipating an objection: “Tommer vill nisht”, “Perhaps he doesn’t want to”); shebbe, Hebrew sheh-be “which is among”; mistumme, minnestum, Aramaic mistama, min hastam “presumably”; meylle, bemeylle, Aramaic meila, on which v. infra.

These expressions merit further consideration. Few Jews are not familiar with afilu as it occurs in the Passover Haggadah passages which read: Em matbilim afilu pa’am achat, “We do not dip even once”, and Va’afilu kulanu nevonim, kulanu chachamin, “And even if we are all of us understanding, all of us wise”, though the word would doubtless have been adopted in Yiddish in any case because of its frequent occurrence in the Mishnah.[vi] As a matter of fact, in the frequency study cited, uffille is “top” of the top hundred most frequently occurring Hebrew words in Yiddish.

I have transcribed uvvodde as my mother pronounced it. I am aware that the “educated” pronunciation of Yiddish speakers who have a knowledge of Hebrew is uvvudde, but I am not convinced that the o in ovodde does not represent a normal sound shift (compare muttse/mottse, etc.) or that it is “incorrect”.  The same point about “uneducated” pronunciation applies to my mother’s non-aspiration of the initial syllable in uklul’, if indeed the expression is not made up of the Yiddish indefinite article u plus Hebrew klal (and not the Hebrew definite article ha plus klal).

Meylle is one of those richly expressive particles difficult to render adequately.  It indicates resignation: Villst nisht kimmen, meylle, “You don’t want to come – all right, I’m not going to make a fuss about it.”  Bemeylle is “in any case, anyway”. Ekh miz bemeylle betsoohlen, “I’ve got to pay, anyway”. Efsher and tommer are largely synonymous, thought efsher, unlike tommer, can be used in affirmative constructions: Efsher kennste mer hellfen, “Perhaps you can help me”.

My mother would spike my guns if I said something or other perhaps ought not to be done, tommer “in case”, with an Efsher uzzoi en tommer uzzoi, “Perhaps this and in case that”, or with a crushing: Tommer iz geveyn u yeedinne, “Tamar was a Jewess”. Mistumme, minnestum correspond to German vermutlich: Mistume veyst er, voohss er zookt, Vermutlich weiss er, wovon er spricht, “I suppose he knows what he’s talking about”. Shebbe is used to form superlatives: Siz treyf shebbe treyf, “You can’t have anything treyf-er” (less kosher). Rotten shebbe rotten, my mother would say, of some (English) book I had recommended which was not to her taste.

An Aramaic expression frequently used by my mother was ekhteyssim/mukhteyssim, her pronunciation, with paragogic m, of meheicha teitei, “from whence it came, granted”. It was more or less synonymous with meylle: Villst es koifen, mekhteyssim, “If you want to buy it, go ahead as far as I’m concerned.”  She also frequently used the Mishnaic kedai “worth while”: Siz kedai’ oohn’tsekikken, “It’s worth looking at.”

Among a dozen Hebrew words and phrases noted by Taviov as having passed into Yiddish because of their frequent occurrence in the Bible there are only two that I can recall my mother using: kheleelle, Hebrew chalilah “God forbid”, and ud hu’yoim, [vii]  Hebrew ad hayom “to this very day.”  It seems to me, though, that both these expressions are of an elemental kind that would have lodged themselves in Yiddish even had they occurred less frequently that they do in Hebrew scripture. The same applies to the Hebrew mi yodea “Who knows?” which my mother used aphetically and apocopatedly: Mee dey voohss iz gesheyn? “Who knows what has happened?” (if a letter she was expecting from her sister in Israel was a day or so late). None of these expressions is “irreplaceable”; Gott soll oop’heeten (the voiced z of Yiddish zoll becomes a voiceless s by “progressive assimilation” to the preceding voiceless t), biz tsem haant’ighen took, vehr veyss (t), German Gott soll abhütten (Modern German: Behüte Gott), bis zum heutigen Tag, wer weiss? could be substituted respectively, but the Hebrew forms occur at least as frequently as the German, kheleelle more so, the latter often with the Rabbinical Hebrew be’im “if”, prefixed: “Bim kheleelle…”, “If, God forbid…”

There are a number of Hebrew calques in Yiddish, a calque being a more or less literal translation in language B of an expression in language A.  Thus German Wolkenkratzer, French gratte-ciel are calques of skyscraper, and the now undislodgeable hopefully = “it is to be hoped” is a calque of German hoffentlich. Lemunneshem and koidem kol, (stress on last syllable) Hebrew lema’an hashem and kodem kol “for God’s sake” and “above all”, respectively, are calques of German um Gottes willen and vor allemIm yirtseh hashem, a calque of German  So Gott will “If God will”, I always heard pronounced by my mother as mehrtchem. [viii] Neo-Orthodox speakers, I notice these days, are at pains to enunciate im yirtseh hashem with impeccable “correctitude”, which is rather like always saying “God be with you”, instead of “Good-bye.” .(My mother would usually reinforce the Yiddish-Hebrew apotropaic formula with English and Yiddish-German equivalents: Mehrtchem please God me vett dehrleyben (= German man wird (es) erleben, “(if) one will live (to see it happen)”.

3. The Contribution of the Merchant Class

The Jewish merchant class, in particular, were responsible for the introduction of many Biblical and Post-biblical Hebrew expressions into Yiddish.  The merchants, in contradistinction to the bulmelookhes “workmen”, (Yiddish plural of Hebrew baal melachah “workman”), were invariably lamdanim, learned in Bible and Talmud, and naturally used “lamdanish” expressions. They would frequently have recourse to the bezzen, Hebrew beit din, rabbinical court. The merchant would bring his “pleas” taaniss, Hebrew ta’anot, before the court, and the rabbis would pusken, Mishnaic Hebrew pasak “to give a ruling”, using the Hebrew and Aramaic formulae of the Talmud.These formulae would be well known to the litigants and would occur in their written contracts, which were nearly always couched entirely in Hebrew-Aramaic, as have continued to be the marriage contract, ksibbe, Hebrew ketubbah, literally “writing”, and the betrothal contract, tenooh’im, Aramaic tenaim, literally “stipulations.”

In course of time these expressions would form part and parcel of the speech of the common people, including women, and would become irreplaceable. Examples are nish (German nicht) koohshe, Hebrew kasheh “hard, difficult”, meaning “not of bad quality.” Koohshe occurs only in the negative, and forms a Germanised adjective, koohshedik: u nish koohshedik beekh “not a bad book.” Khoif is “debt”, Hebrew chov; bulkhoif, Hebrew ba’al chov, “master or owner of a debt”, is a debtor. In Mishnaic Hebrew ba’al chov meant a creditor – depends how you look at it. A merchant, soikher, plural sokhrim, Hebrew socher, incurred expenses, hoitsooh’es, Hebrew hotsaot, literally “things brought out”, and might or might not sell his wares, skhoirre, Hebrew sechorah for mezimmen, Hebrew mezumman “ready (cash)”. Yerit “market, fair”, Aramaic yarid and yerid I associate chiefly, I confess, with the forceful imagery of Mit eyn tookhes kon me hisht zaan ef tsvey yeridden, literally “With one podex you can’t be in two market-places”; the English “You can’t be in two places at once” doesn’t have quite the same impact. We may note in passing that tookhes, Hebrew tachat, is an example of Hebrew semantic development in Yiddish; in Biblical and Post-biblical Hebrew tachat has its purely prepositional and adverbial meanings: “under, beneath, instead of “. I cannot forbear mentioning, as a curiosum, that tookhes nowhere sullies the chaste pages of Weinreich’s dictionary. Harkavy is terse: “Tookhes, arse.”

Meen, Hebrew min, is “sort, kind”; sukh, Hebrew sach is “a lot, many.” Both words are irreplaceable. Sukhukkel, with recessive accent on the Hebrew definite article ha, for sach hakol “sum of all” is “total, aggregate”. Shittef, shitfes, Hebrew Shutaf, shutafut, is “partnership”, also irreplaceable.

Long before the emergence of Israel’s “secret weapon” (Hebrew ein bererah, “there’s no choice”), the word breyrre was used in Yiddish. It has no synonym. Because a merchant had no breyrre he might have to “give away” his merchandise, sell it bekhoohtsee khinnem, Hebrew bachatsi chimnam, literally “for half of free.” In that case, the buyer or customer, koinne, Hebrew koneh, had a metsee’e, a bargain, Hebrew metsiah, literally “finding”, cf. French trouvaille.  But if the merchant persisted in this course of action he would soon find himself mekhille, bankrupt, Hebrew mechullah “finished, exterminated”. [ix] A more picturesque Yiddish expression, but which I have never actually heard, for “bankrupt”, is pleytte, Hebrew pletah, literally “remnant.”  In the form pleite machen this has entered German slang as have also, inter alia, mies “ugly”, and gannef  “thief” (Hebrew mi’uscontempt”, and gannav, Yiddish gunnif/gunnef).

4. The Euphemistic Role of Hebrew

Many Hebrew words entered Yiddish for what may be termed euphemistic reasons. Euphemism operated in two opposite directions: unpleasant or ugly ideas were considered less offensive, less reprehensible if expressed in the holy tongue, while pleasant or beautiful ideas were a fortiori given the seal of holiness by being expressed in Hebrew even if, as Taviov points out, there was no element of sanctity attaching to them.

Incidentally, “ugly” itself is meess, syncopated from Hebrew mi’us “contempt”, but “beautiful” is always sheyn, German schon. Meess took root probably because it was so much ‘handier’ a word than German hässlich, while Hebrew yafeh “beautiful” would have been awkward to use in a Yiddish context. Yiddish was ‘German’ enough not to take to a disyllabic attributive adjective ending in a vowel. The difficulty could have been overcome by adding the suffix -dik (formed from the Middle High German suffix -ic, (Chapter lll) yooffedik, compare Yiddish moirredik “fearful”, from Hebrew mora “fear”, but sheyn was easy on the tongue, and other things being equal a monosyllable was preferable to a trisyllable. The survival of the fittest is an important linguistic principle.

Among meliorative Hebrew words are kloohlle, Hebrew kelalah “curse”, irreplaceable, though “to curse” is shellten, German schelten. To curse intensively, so to speak, is mit toiten kloohlles shellten, literally “to curse with dead curses”, as to wish someone a meesse meshinne, Hebrew mitah meshunnah, a ‘changed’ or unnatural death. Lurid though these and similar imprecations were, it is only right to point out that they were provoked by the bitter struggle for existence which was the lot of the great majority of Jews in the ghetto, or if directed to the persecutors and murderers of the Jewish people, were understandable, at least, and had ample biblical precedent, e.g. Psalms cxxxvii, 9. Khaarppe, Hebrew cherpah “reproach”, is intensified when conjoined with German Schande “disgrace” – u khaarpeneshunn’de (sic!) “a scandal”.

The less noble animals were designated by their Hebrew names in Yiddish: khummer, Hebrew chamor “donkey”; khuzzer, Hebrew chazir “pig”. A khummerkop (German Kopf “head”), is a blockhead; a beheymme, Hebrew behemah “beast” (cattle), is a boor while a villde, German wild “wild” khu’yye, Hebrew chayyah “animal” is a barbarian, savage. Fehrt “horse” is from “Middle High German” phert, German Pferd, but in Yiddish the animal has not the reputation for “horse-sense” that it has in English; quite the contrary: “Ehrz u fehrt” means “He’s a fool”.

Taviov lists about a dozen anatomical, physiological and sexual Hebrew terms used in Yiddish, but I cannot recall having heard any of them used by my mother or her circle of “unlearned” Jews and Jewesses. At the risk of boring the reader, I must repeat that this does not mean that these expressions are not an integral part of normal Yiddish, simply that in demonstrating the importance of the Hebrew components of Yiddish I do not want to rely on any expression I cannot remember having actually heard spoken by ordinary non-lamdanish Jews. It would present as false a picture if I based my claim for the importance of Hebrew-in-Yiddish on what, after all, might be a vocabulary restricted to lamdanim, Jews learned in the Talmud, as if I based the importance of the Latin element in English on the speech of clergymen, lawyers and doctors. To take only two out of Taviov’s dozen: nefeekhe, Hebrew nefichah “fart” – in common or garden Yiddish this is faarts, Middle High German varz, Modern Gernan Furz. For “prostitute” Taviov gives zoinne and nuffke, Hebrew zonah, nafkah – my mother always referred to these ladies as koohrves, Polish kurve.

Following on logically from the preceding paragraph we may consider some other features of the seamier side of life which, however, are expressed in Hebrew terminology even by the Yiddish commonality: tinnef, tinnoifes, Hebrew tinnuf, tenofet “rubbish, refuse”; mukke, Hebrew makah ” a wound”; khuloohshiss, Hebrew chaloshet “nausea”; and meshighe, Hebrew meshugga “mad”, the latter forming an attributive adjective and a nomen agentis on the German pattern: u meshigh’ene vellt (German Welt) “a mad world”; Ehrz u meshigh’ener “He’s a madman”; as well as an abstract noun, not present in Hebrew itself, meshighaass’ “madness” (Modern Hebrew shigaon) – Uzzaa’ meshighaass’ = “how daft can you get?” (Hebrew was used, too, to express the opposite: me’yishef “sane”, Hebrew meyushav, literally “settled”, and sekhel “common sense”, Hebrew sechel “discernment”.) “Drunk, drunkard” was shikker, Hebrew shikkor, plural shikeerim. The feminine was formed by adding the weakened Aramaic suffix -ta: shikk’erte, in spite of the fact that the Hebrew feminine shikkorah occurs in the Haftarah of the first day of Rosh Hashanah (I Samuel i, l – ii,10).

Taviov lists a number of medical terms which, he says, may have been introduced into Yiddish not only for euphemistic reasons, but because the Jewish doctors, who were lamdanim, would have used them. Kudookhes, Hebrew kadachat “fever”, is the only one I can remember my mother using, but she would refer to shtoon “urine”, when my brother or myself  were ill: Dehr shtoon gefelt (German gefält “pleases”) mer nisht would express her concern over “unhealthy” urine. [x] (The non-medical term is pishekhs from German Piss plus (the usually) pejorative suffix -ekhs, [xi] often used to describe an unsatisfactory beverage, e.g. tea that was too weak or cold, or water that, in summer, was not cold enough. Hence, by aphesis, shukhs, any soft drink. The “hard stuff” (whisky) is mushke, Hebrew mashke “drink”, a word I do not recollect my mother using, but which can be heard at any shool kiddush today.

The affluence enjoyed by present-day Western Jewry tends to obscure the very real poverty which was the lot of the majority of Eastern European Jews. Hence it is not surprising that the Yiddish for “poverty” is dulliss, Hebrew dalut, though the adjective “poor” is oohrem, German arm. A pauper is kuptsen, Hebrew kabtsan, from lekabets “to gather”. The kuptsen “gathered” alms. The word comes from the same root as kibbuts and is an example of Hebrew lexical innovation in Yiddish, since it does not occur in Biblical or Post-biblical Hebrew. It is, incidentally, irreplaceable – en oohrem mun, German ein armer Mann “a poor man” is less pejorative.

“Man” in Yiddish is mun, and “woman” froh, German Frau. Taviov states that ishe, Hebrew ishah “woman” had “acquired civic rights” in Yiddish to enable the use of the “offensive” word vapp, German Weib to be avoided, but although my mother frequently referred to nekeyves, Hebrew nekevot “females”, in a pejorative sense, I never heard her use ishe. Nor was she inhibited from using froh, although Taviov says froh was not used in Yiddish “perhaps because of its (namely Frau‘s) reference to the Madonna. For “woman” my mother used a diminutive of vaap: vaabel, as well as froh: ziz u sheyn vaabel, “she’s a pretty woman”, and u mun iz undersh (German anders) en u froh iz undersh, “A man is different and a woman is different”, a statement the dark undertones of which belied its surface banality. Men were different from women – so it was believed a few decades ago, by both sexes – in that they possessed a yeytser horre, Hebrew yetser hara “evil inclination”, from which women were immune. If a woman had a yeytser horre it would have been only – again, so it was believed – for furs and jewellery, the female status symbols.

Although “beautiful”, as we have seen, was always sheyn, German schon, beautiful or fine ideas were expressed by Hebrew words. Thus the Yiddish for “son” is zeen, German Sohn, and for “daughter” tokhter, German Tochter, but an only son was a benn yookhit, Hebrew ben yachid, and an only daughter was a buss yekheedde, Hebrew bat yechidah, mipnei chibbah yetrah, as Taviov finely observes, “because of extra love”. And although “father” in Yiddish is foohter, German Vater, the “merit of the fathers” finds expression in inzer ooviss oovesey’nee, Hebrew avot avoteinu, “our fathers’ fathers”. The passionate concern of prophet and psalmist for the “widow and fatherless child” is reflected in Yiddish ulmoohnne, Hebrew almanah “widow”, and yoohssem, Hebrew yatom “orphan”. (Ulmen, Hebrew alman “widower”.)

Glory and strength, Hebrew kavod and koach, are irreplaceable in Yiddish koovit, koiekh. The fact that these words occur in Psalm 29, that resonant doxology which occupies a central position in the Sabbath service, would have helped them to take root in Yiddish (“The God of glory thundereth, the voice of the Lord is in power…e-l hakavod hirim…kol adoshem bakoach..“). And because to the ghetto Jew money was strength, the rich man of the community was the geveer, Hebrew gevir “master, Lord” (Genesis xxvii, 29), from the root gvr “to be strong”. Another word from the same root, geeboir, Hebrew gibbor “warrior”, was often used ironically: Geeboir maanss (German meines “mine”), “Tough guy, aren’t you?” U shvaarts’ene geveerre, German schwarz, Hebrew gevurah, literally “a black strength”, conveyed grudging admiration: doohss (German das, neutral definitive article) ot (German hat) u shvaarts’ene geveerre, “You’ve got to hand it to him/her” (to the girl at the grocer’s for example, who in the days before adding machines and price-labelled goods could tot up all your items and always get the sum right).

Glory, strength, greatness – but the last-named, gedille, Hebrew gedullah, has undergone semasiological development: Ehrz/Ziz (German er ist/sie ist) u gedille, or Oi u gedille! any grandfather/mother shepping naches from his/her infant grandchild – He’s/She’s a poppet. Voohss (German was “what”) iz de gedille = “What is there to be so pleased about?”

Shkoiekh, an aphetic form of the Hebrew yishar koach (kochecha) “May (your) strength be straight”, is “bravo!” There is something very heartening about the full-throated, though empty-stomached shkoiekh that greets the chazan at the end of his recital of the neilah kaddish on Yom Kippur. The shkoiekh evoked by the Sabbath sermon, however, is more variable, and by its volume and tone can convey, as between congregants, appraisals ranging from “At least it was short”, through: You voted for him, you’ve got him”, to “The Chief Rabbi couldn’t do better”.

“Truth” is emmess, Hebrew emet, irreplaceable. “A lie” is shekker, Hebrew sheker, though I can only recall my mother using lighen, from Middle High German (Chapter IV, 1) lügen, German lüge. My mother frequently used immissten = in emmess-ten in the sense of “on purpose”, “to make sure”. Ehr ot es geteen’ immissten, “He did it on purpose”; Gib immissten u kik, “Have a look to make sure”, but I cannot find any confirmation of this particular usage in the dictionaries. “Desire, wish, enthusiasm” is kheyshik, Hebrew cheshek. Khob nisht ken kheyshik detsee’ (German dazu) = “I don’t fancy it, I’m not keen on it”.

The Hebrew word kol “voice” occurs no fewer than seven times in Psalm 29; small wonder then that it is irreplaceable in Yiddish. [xii] In the plural koiliss, Hebrew kolot, it denotes “tumult and shouting”. It forms a  caritative diminutive kell’ekhel: Zot (German sie hat) u sheyn kell’ekhel,  “She has a lovely little voice”. As indeed the doting grandparent might say of his little darling, his gedill’ekhel.

Other “euphemistic” Hebrew words in Yiddish are muttoohnne “gift”, Hebrew mattanah; nedoovve “donation, almsgiving”, Hebrew nedavah; bekoohshe “request”, Hebrew bakkashah (as in Modern Hebrew bevakkashah “please”, literally “with a request”). Incidentally, there is no Yiddish word corresponding to imperative “please” (originally “may it please you”); Eekh beyt dekh/aakh, “I pray you”, in full, is used.

In view of what has been said about the “psychology” of Hebrew-in Yiddish it will occasion no astonishment that the Hebrew words for “war” and “peace”, milchamah and shalom should be part of the Yiddish lexis. Neither is completely irreplaceable, it is true, krig, German Kreig, being used for milkhoomme “war” and freeden, German Frieden, for shoohlem “peace”. But nothing is more “Yiddish” than shoohlem eleykhem, Hebrew shalom aleichem “Peace unto you” and its response eleykhem shoohlem.

What is surprising perhaps is that “synagogue”, than which there can be few more Jewish concepts, should be designated in Yiddish simply as sheel, originally from Greek schole, Latin schola [xiii],  but influenced as regards pronunciation by Middle High German schuol “school”, Modern German Schule, itself a loan-word from the Latin. It is true that “learning” (of the Talmud) was always carried on in the synagogue; hence bessmeddresh, Hebrew beit “house of”, midrash, from the root drsh “to expound, explain”, was used to denote “synagogue”, in certain contexts, but the normal, everyday word was sheel.

The divine name, too, was not used in either of its two Hebrew forms, for fear of transgressing the third commandment. Gott, German Gott was the normal word for the Deity, the frequent addition of the diminutive suffix -inyooh: Gottinyooh bringing the God of Sinai into the kitchen, as it were (-inyooh from Polish vocative ending -uniu, as in tatuniu, mamuniu “daddy”, “mummy”, Yiddish tutt’inyooh mumm’inyooh. Ribboinne shel oilem, Hebrew ribbono shel olam “sovereign of the universe”, was used in invocations: Ribboine shel oilem, voohs vill doohss kinnt ooben fin meer? “What does that child want of me?” = “That child will be the death of me”.

Dehr Eybershte is “The Supreme One”, German Der Oberste, which is not used in this sense, however. The initial vowel was deliberately changed from Oibershte by the Chassidim, the followers of Israel Baal Shem in the eighteenth century, in order to guard against even a remote possibility, again, of infringing the third commandment (“building a fence round the Torah”.)

I am tempted to suggest that the use of zaan leeber noomen, German sein leiber Namen, frequently on my mother’s lips, with stress on the zaan, ” His beloved name”, indicated an appreciation, unconscious perhaps, of the emotive power of the German liebe, that hertzlich fein wort of Luther’s which he doubted could be rendered adequately in Latin or other languages, das also dringe und klinge ins hertz, durch alle sinne, wie es thut in unser Sprache, “so that it penetrates and re-echoes in the heart, through all our senses, as it does in our language”. For “to love” Yiddish has only leeben, German lieben, in spite of the “And thou shalt love”, “ve-ahavta” occurring in the twice daily repetition of the Shema.

Taviov notes two Hebrew words which are conspicuous by their absence in Yiddish: shamayim “heaven” – it is difficult, as he points out, to think of any holier idea – and or “light” – again, one would have thought, an obvious candidate for the Yiddish treasury. “Darkness”, though, is khoishekh, Hebrew choshech – more frequently used than finnsternish ,German Finsternis – and in the form khoishekh mitsru’yim “pitch black”, literally “darkness of Egypt”, irreplaceable.

It may also seem surprising that the Hebrew words for “bread” and “water” (lechem, mayim), both elemental, indeed sacramental in the Jewish sense of the word, concepts occurring frequently in Pentateuch and prayer-book, did not become integrated into Yiddish; broit and vusser, German Brot, Wasser, are used. The Hebrew for “day”, yom, occurs often enough in scripture and liturgy, and is “viable” enough, one would have thought, for it not to have been displaced by took/toog, German Tag, but it was. It occurs only in compounds: yonntef, Hebrew yom tov, literally “a good day”, and yoomim noirooh’im, Hebrew yamim noraim,  literally “dread days”, i.e. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.) A period of twenty-four hours, Modern Hebrew yemamah, is messless, from Mishnaic Hebrew me’et le’et, literally “from (one) time to (another) time”.

The fact is, although general tendencies, such as those we have described, can be discerned in the incidence of Hebrew words in Yiddish, the Hebrew element cannot be forced into any theoretical strait jacket. Though the Jew made a daily blessing over bread: hu’moitsee lekhem min hooh-ooretts, “Who brings forth bread from the earth”; though he declared every Sabbath, in the Psalm we have referred to previously, that the voice of the Lord was upon the waters, the great waters, ul hu’moo’yim, al mu’yim rubbim, nevertheless, if he wanted a slice of bread he would ask for a shtikkel (Southern German diminutive Stückl “little piece”) broit, and if he was thirsty he would as often as not be perforce content with a trink vusser, a drink of water.

Similarly, although the words for “life”, “bringing to life”, were familiar to the Jew from his daily prayers mechayyeh metim, “Who bringest the dead to life”, is said thrice daily only in certain stereotyped phrases were the Hebrew words chayyim “life”, and mecchayyeh “bringing to life”, used in Yiddish: in lekhu’yim, a drinking toast, “to life, cheers, prost, etc”., and khai shooh “carpe diem”, Hebrew chayyei sha’ah, literally “life of (a passing) hour”. On mekhuyye see Chapter lll. Otherwise leyben, German Leben, is “life”, and leybbedik, German lebendig is “lively”. “Dead” is toit, German tot; mess, Hebrew met “dead”, is a corpse. “Cemetery” is besoilem, Hebrew beit olam, “the house of eternity”. Meesse “death”, occurs only in meesse meshinne, on which see above. Finally, while the Yiddish for “moon” is levoohnne, Hebrew levanah, “sun” is zin, German Sonne.

The Yiddish-speaking Jew who knew Hochdeutsch would have been able to say in all honesty: Ich spreche, wie mir der Schnabel gewachsen ist, literally “I speak the way my beak grows”, i.e. naturally – and therein lay the genius of Yiddish.

5. The Hebrew Elements in Yiddish Verbs

Hebrew verbs were “Yiddished” in two ways: one, by employing the present participle of the Hebrew verb in conjunction with a German verb, usually the auxiliary sein “to be”, Yiddish zaan, but also haben  “to have”, Yiddish (h)oobben, and machen “to do, make”, Yiddish mukhen.

Thus khoishit, mekunne, moidde, moikhel, muskim zaan, “to suspect, envy, admit, forgive, agree” are from the Hebrew present participles choshed, mekanneh, modeh, mochel, maskim, respectively. The Hebrew root dn “to judge”, gives dun zaan, with the Hebrew present participle pronounced, not as in Ashkenazic, don, but in Sephardic fashion (as English done). A favourite saying of my mother’s was: Me miz toomit (Hebrew tamid “always”) dun zaan lekhuf zkhiss (Hebrew lechaf zechut “towards the balance of merit”), “One should always give the benefit of the doubt” (Ethics of the Fathers, I,6). “To regret” (a decision) is kheroohte oobben from Hebrew cheratah, and “to be afraid” is moirre oobben, from mora “fear, dread”. Khoizik mukhen (Hebrew chozek  “strength”) is “to make fun of”, khoizik apparently having been the name of a “Simple Simon” who once lived in Poland. [xiv] “To make a mistake” is zekh toi’e zaan, from Hebrew ta’ah “to be mistaken”. The Yiddish reflexive construction is by analogy with German sich irren.

This periphrastic method of adapting the Hebrew verb to Yiddish was the one favoured by Taviov, as retaining more of the Hebrew. The other method, which consisted in forming a Yiddish infinitive by bludgeoning a Hebrew ground-form into a German mould, did not meet with his approval. However verbs like daarshen/ daarshenen, gunven/gunvenen, haarghen/haarghenen, ferkhussmen ” to preach, steal, kill, seal”, from the Hebrew roots drsh, gnv, hrg, chtm, became firmly entrenched in Yiddish, and are conjugated just as any “German” verb; they combine, moreover, with German prefixes to become “separable” or “inseparable” verbs. Ehr ot git gedaarshent, “He preached well”; Mot zey gehaarghet (ohss’gehaarghet, German aus), “They were killed (massacred)”. Ohssmekken “to erase, cross out”, is from German aus plus Hebrew mchk  “to blot out”, with syncope of the Hebrew medial consonant. Mussren “to inform against”, has retained this Mishnaic Hebrew meaning of the root msr. Khuzzren “to repeat”, from the Hebrew root chzr, combines with ibber, German uber: Ehr ots hin’dertmoohl (German hundertmal) ibb’ergekhuzzert, “He repeated it a hundred times”. Taanan “to argue, dispute”,Hebrew ta’an, also has a reflexive form ohss’taanen zekh: Ehr ot sekh mit meer ohss’getaant, “He had it out with me”. (The z of zekh is devoiced by progressive assimilation to the preceding t of ot.) Poilen “to achieve, manage, bring about”, from the Hebrew pa’al, is “weak”, like the preceding “Yiddished” verbs, but shekhten “to slaughter”, is “strong”, forming a past participle geshokhten by analogy with German past participles gebrochen, gestochen, from brechen, stechen “to break”, “to pierce”. The Hebrew root ptr gives Yiddish puttern and poohter vehren “to get, be rid of”. (The haftarah, from the same Hebrew root, “gets rid of”, if one may so put it, the weekly sidra.) Poohter veloi’klim (Hebrew velo kelum “and not anything”) = “That’s got shot of that”.

Some Yiddish verbs were formed from Hebrew nouns and adjectives: fersummen “to poison”, from German prefix ver plus Hebrew sam “poison”. “To apostasise” is shmudden zekh from Hebrew shemad, with a basic meaning of “destruction”; the etymology speaks volumes. Peyghern is “to peg out” (French crever, German krepieren), from Hebrew peger “carcase”; khulleshen is “to faint”, from Hebrew chalash “weak”, and khiddeshen zekh is “to be surprised”, from Hebrew chiddush “innovation”; the reflexive by analogy with German sich wundern. (The Yiddish verb is also used impersonally, again by analogy with German: Se khiddesht mekh, “I’m surprised”, = German “Es wundert mich”. Similarly Yiddish Sotsech (= German es hat sich) mer gekhoohlemt, “I dreamt”, from Hebrew chlm “to dream”; German Mir träumte es.


[i] Sic. Christian terms, such as Kirche “church”, were deliberately Judaised.  Sheel = “synagogue”. See article on Yiddish in Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 16, p. 806.

[ii] It will be convenient if “Hebrew elements” is understood, unless otherwise stated, to include Aramaic vocables. Aramaic, the language in which the Gemara of the Talmud was redacted, c. 500 C.E, is closely related to Hebrew – somewhat as Dutch to German – and employs the same alphabet.

[iii] Taviov in fact includes tarnegol and tarnegolet in his list of Hebrew words used in Yiddish.

[iv] He also translated from English into Hebrew works by Mark Twain,Oscar Wilde and Dickens.

[v] Hence Yudel Mark’s statement, in the report on Hebrew frequencies previously referred to that yam “sea”, and a number of other words, including ponim “face”, and afile “even” are “devoid of emotional and historical function”, and should be taught “only because of their high frequency”, is nothing less than baffling. Hebrew panim “face”, in the form of panez “His face”, occurs in the priestly blessing which is recited daily – except on Sabbath – and on Festivals with great solemnity by the Cohanim (“The Lord make His face (panav) shine upon thee … The Lord lift up His countenance (panav) upon thee.”  (Numbers vi, 25, 26.) In Exodus xxxiii, ll we have “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face (panim el panim).”  Devoid of emotional and historical function!

[vi] It occurs 340 times in the Mishnah and about 640 times in the Tosefta. Y. Peretz, Ivrit Kahalachah,TelAviv 1966, p. 237.

[vii] Stress in Yiddish on the hu, in contrast to Hebrew, where the definite article is never normally stressed. In Yiddish, recessive accent of the Hebrew definite article occurs before a monosyllable.

[viii] S. Birnbaum, in Das Hebräische und Aramäische Element in der Jiddischen Sprache Leipzig 1922, p. 44, gives the pronunciation mehrtseshem, and Weinreich in his dictionary mirtchem.

[ix] Strangely enough, mekhille is glossed in Weinreich’s dictionary only by “spoiled”; Harkavy gives 1) “spoiled”, 2) “bankrupt”, the latter being the only sense in which I have heard mekhille used. Bunrott, German Bankrott, given by Weinreich, is the literary term.  Kul’ye “spoiled” is from Polish kaleka “cripple” – though I have the impression my mother said kulle rather than kulye; the former word could be from Hebrew kalleh “to finish, exterminate.”  Mekhilleh is more likely to be the pual of kalleh – thus given in Harkavy – than the pual of challeh “to make ill”, which is stated to be the source in Wolf, Wörterbuch des Rotwelschen Bibliographisches Institut Mannheim, 1956.

[x] Shtoon is listed neither in the body of Taviov’s monograph nor in the glossary he appends to it. He says the words he noted were those of his native Lithuania. Perhaps Polish Jews, in this instance at any rate, were more lamdanish than their Lithuanian confrères? (Harkavy gives no form of Hebrew shtn for “urine”, but Weinreich gives hashtune (his transcription), Hebrew hashtanah “micturation”.)

[xi] Not always pejorative, e.g. interfeerekhs, from German unterfuhren “to lead under”, the accompanying of the bride by her parents to and under the wedding canopy. Yiddish interfeerer has positively no connection, one hopes, with English interferer. Reverting to the -ekhs suffix, this would seem to be based on the Polish -ek diminutive, as in Polish pomidor-ek “small tomato.” The -ek would seem also to have supplied the plural of Yiddish words ending in -el (Upper German diminutive -el,-l), e.g. meydel, meydlekh “girl, girls” (German Mädel/Mädels); shtikkel,  shtiklekh “bit(s), snippet(s) (German Stückl, Stückl). Tseraassen ef shtik- shtiklekh = “to tear (German zerreissen) to shreds”.

[xii] Taviov points out that the Yiddish-speaking “intelligentsia” of his day had begun using shtimme, shtim, German Stimme, but the “common people” always said kol.

[xiii] See Max Weinreich, Geshikhte Fun Der Yiddishisher Shprakh, Vol. I, pp. 98,111; Vol. II, p.52.

[xiv] Landmann,Salcia; Jiddisch: Das Abenteur einer Sprache Olten & Freiburg im Breisgau, 1962, p.157, and Birnbaum, p.50. But Max Weinreich, Geshikhte, Vol. III, p.322, derives khoizik from the extinct Old High German hosc, Middle High German hosche “mockery”. He quotes another interesting etymology, given by A. Landau, which derives the word from the answer bechozek (yad) “with a strong hand, etc”) given to the “simple one” of the four sons in the Haggadah.

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