Idioms: Then and Now

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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.

About Shlomo Karni


  1. Heard in a professional workshop: יוצא חינם אין כסף referring to an easily obtained result.

  2. Thank you, Shlomo. There are many many more such idioms – but space is limited.

  3. From next week’s parsha you have בְּרָחֵל בִּתְּךָ הַקְּטַנָּה
    which is commonly used to mean stated with great specificity.

  4. Great article. It’s always interesting to see how Biblical Hebrew (or what to me is even more interesting, Talmudic Hebrew/Aramaic) is used in modern Hebrew.

  5. I was told that the JPS Tanach translation is not based on Jewish sources. Was it translated by Orthodox Rabbis?

    When a Tanach translation is needed, I recommend:
    THE LIVING TORAH by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan or the
    Linear Chumash/Rashi by Rabbi Avrohom Davis.

  6. Reuven Brauner

    אזל may be a derivative of זול (to cheapen, diminish, reduce)and would have the sense that something has completely diminished, been exhausted, sold out (אזל מן השוק) or used up.

    Similarly related is זלזול (to disregard, show contempt or scorn).

    Non-religious Israelis are more wont to use the ridiculing phrase חזרה בשאלה.

  7. To Tal Benschar: See my earlier posting “A Midrash…”, dated June 29, 2011

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