Idioms: Then and Now
Guest post by Prof. Shlomo Karni
Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).
Biblical and rabbinical literatures are rich in idioms, פְּנִינֵי לָשוֹן, which resonate uniquely in the language. Throughout the ages, some have preserved their original meaning; others got modified; yet others gave rise to new , often unexpected meanings, illustrating (again) the liveliness of our language. Let us consider a few:
The ancient ruling “שוֹפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּפֵךְ” “Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6) with its elemental meaning and homophonic rhythm, established a principle of criminal justice, to this day.
The edict against cutting down trees around a city under siege, “כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה…?” “…Are the trees of the field human (to withdraw before you)?” (Deut. 20:19) takes on a different meaning when the Israeli street Hebrew poses it in the negative-affirmative, כִּי הָאָדָם הוּא לֹא מֵעֵץ, a realistic view of man’s weakness.
In Deut. 32:36, we read “…כִּי יִרְאֶה כִּי אָזְלַת יָד…” “…When He sees that their might is gone…”, where אָזְלַת is the verb אָזְלָה = ‘is gone’. Since the Enlightenment period, literary Hebrew has modified this expression to a construct form of two nouns: אָזְלַת-יָד , meaning ‘inability’, or ‘powerlessness’. Then came … soccer: A very popular sport in Israel, it gave birth to the term אָזְלַת-רֶגֶל to describe a bad move by a player.
The same fate befell the related idiom אֵין לְאֵל יָדוֹ = ‘he was helpless’, after Deut. 28:32. There is the literary expression יֵש לְאֵל יָדוֹ = ‘he is able to…’, as well as the soccer terms אֵין/יֵש לְאֵל רַגְלוֹ
to describe an inept/successful player.
In distress, fearing the encounter with Esau, Jacob pleads with G-d: “…בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה…”
“…with my staff alone, I crossed this Jordan…” (Gen. 32:11) This expression can, I think, be turned into praise of someone who has worked his way to success from humble beginnings: … בְמַקְלוֹ עָבַר אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן…
In Mishnah Sukkah (2, 7b) we read “שֶהָיָה רֹאשוֹ וְרֻבּוֹ בַּסֻּכָּה…” literally as, “all his head and most of his body in the Sukkah.” Modern literary Hebrew coined the idiom רֹאשוֹ וְרֻבּוֹ to mean ‘totally dedicated
to…’, ‘completely into…’.
Finally, we have the venerable חָזַר בִּתְשוּבָה (returned in repentance, became observant). Israeli street Hebrew struck a diametrically opposite coin with יָצָא בִּשְאֵלָה (departed with a question, became non-observant). There is much more here than the slight irreverence: ‘He departed
(or: exited) with a question’ paints a grim picture of one who leaves (a good, fulfilling life), beset by troubling questions.
Note: Biblical text translations are from the JPS edition.
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