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Yiddish: Language of the Jewish Soul Bookmark and Share
Yiddish: Language of the Jewish Soul
By: Khana Feygl Abraham

Yiddish is a quintessentially Jewish language. As linguists have shown time and time again, it is not merely a hastily thrown together pastiche of Germanic, Slavic and Hebraic words and phrases but a real language as old as most modern European languages, and more important for us as Jews, since it reflects not only Jewish history but the Jewish psyche and value system as well.

The cradle of Yiddish, the area in which Yiddish originated a bit before the year 1000 c.e. is known as Loter, or Ashkenaz (after the Hebrew word for Germany) -- roughly the region of the middle and upper Rhine.

Jews from the Romance speaking areas followed the Roman troops into the area and formed a small community of their own. Their cohesiveness was due to the commonality of their culture and religious beliefs. They preferred to live close to one another and their religious institutions, like the shul, the mikva (bathhouse), the shoykhet* (ritual kosher slaughterer of animals), beis din (ecclesiastical court), etc. and a small, separate area was allowed them as a privilege and not a punishment, as commonly fallacy would have it, for at this time there were no ghettos, no places where Jews had to live.

That these Jews formed a new language is interesting, but not all that unusual in the linguistic history of Jews. Jews had often felt that the language of the people in whose midst they happened to find themselves fell short of their needs. Loaz (an acronym for loshn am zar, Hebrew for "the language of the stranger" or goyish, if you will, the language of other nations) goes only so far in expressing what a Jew needs to talk about to other Jews. And so there have been about 17 other Jewish languages, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Spanish (Ladino), for example. Yiddish, however, once known as Judeo-German, is the longest lived, most widespread and most fertile of these in terms of vocabulary and literature.

The fact that the Middle High German dialect, and others spoken in Loter at the time, became such an important part of Yiddish is certainly indicative of the degree of inter-communication between the Jews and the non-Jews of the area, but it was insufficient by far in vocabulary necessary to express Jewish life and concepts.

For example, the Yiddish word for bread, is broyt. Broyt was eaten by both Jews and non-Jews and there was obviously no problem incorporating that word into the newly developing language. But for the two loaves of bread put on the Sabbath and holiday table, the bland, generic term broyt was somehow insufficient. Those two loaves represented the double portion of manna that the Jews wandering in the desert had to collect on Friday, because no manna fell the next day. On any other day, if an extra portion were gathered, it disintegrated, but that didn't happen on Fridays, on Sabbath eve. The term ultimately adopted for these two loaves was khale, after the twelve loaves that were brought as an offering on Shabes in the times of the Temple.

A meser, a knife, could come from the Germanic component, but when a certain kind of a knife was needed in the process of shekhting (ritual slaughter of a kosher animal) the term chosen was khalef. Rimen was the Germanic word for a leather strap, such as might be used on a horse's bridle, but that same leather strap, the same thickness and color when used in phylacteries was called retsue. The existing Hebrew words had to be used since shekhting and putting on phylacteries were totally foreign concepts to the non-Jews.

These few examples might lead one to believe that all words having to do with Jewish ritual were drawn from the loshn-koydesh (the holy language -- Hebrew) and that all words describing more mundane things were taken from the local dialects. That would be incorrect, because things are rarely so neatly divided, least of all matters of language, where mass usage frequently tramples logic underfoot. In fact, Yiddish has words adopted from Hebrew although they do not refer to Jewish ritual, i.e. kholem (dream), khosn-bokhr (a young man of marriageble age), levone (moon), mekhotonim (in-laws), etc.

And conversely, expressions which lack any Hebraic borrowings were used to describe experiences which related to Jewish ritual and which a speaker of German would fail to understand completely even if he understood each of the words individually. Yeder montik un donershik, for example literally translated means "every Monday and Thursday," and is used to refer to events that occur with remarkable frequency, something that will happen without fail, like the reading of the Torah in the synagogue every Monday and Thursday. As my aunt used to say of her daughter, "zi vert, nebekh krank yeder montik un donershtik," "She, poor thing, gets sick every Monday and Thursday." To a non-Yiddish speaker a statement like that is confusing since he only understands the words and not the cultural allusion.

Khop nisht di lokshn far di fish, "Don't grab the noodles before the fish," is a statement that can be understood both superficially and on a deeper level, and it is the latter that taps into Jewish culture. Superficially the reprimand can be understood as long as the first two words are understood -- khap nisht, "Don't grab..."" Don't be hasty. If in addition the word far "before" is understood then we get the idea of it being inappropriate to put something before something else, as in the English, "Don't put the cart before the horse." But it is only when the concept of the progress of a shabes meal is understood that we can comprehend the broader allusion of the statement, that a Jew's life is regulated by orderliness, by everything having its proper place in the continuum. In the course of the shabes meal, the kiddush comes before the washing for bread. The fish course comes before the lokshn (noodle) soup, which comes before the meat. If the order is tampered with, tradition is tampered with, and for Jews who have lived centuries governed by the dictates of tradition, there would be no accounting for the results. Therefore -- khop nisht di lokshn far di fish; maintain the proper Jewish sequence of events. This is the meaning beyond the words.

As a matter of fact, there have been occasions when language itself has created the tradition. Mern (carrots) are now traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashona because their name in Yiddish is the same as the word which means to increase, mern, and so by means of a culinary pun we hope that the New Year will bring us an increase of all good. Similarly a khasidic rabbi long ago suggested that his Chasidim eat farfl in the hopes that, in G-d's eyes, they not be farfaln (abandoned).

These words and expressions we have mentioned are from the Germanic component, and we see that the Jews were able to employ the Germanic words as well in expression of their Jewish way of thinking.

The Chasidic Rebbes found that the best philosophical expression of their ideas, the sweetest renderings of their parables and tales were in Yiddish, the language that most readily reached the hearts of the common people. They could even take a word from the Germanic source and couple it with a Hebrew word to make a phrase like klots-kashe, from the Germanic klots -- a wooden block and the Hebraic kashe a philosophical question. The phrase itself means a foolish question or a purposely difficult question intended to block, like a log, further discussion. Droshegeshank is another such expression that combines two languages. Droshe (sermon) in Hebrew is linked with the Germanic word for gift, geshank to mean a wedding present. It is a phrase still used today by those who know it even though many a groom no longer feels it incumbent upon himself to deliver a droshe.

This same linking of determinant languages can even be done in one word, as in the case of nishkoshe, meaning "so-so," "not bad" referring to your health, the state of your business, or your wife's kugl (noodle pudding), The first part of the word comes from the Germanic nisht, the second from the Hebraic kashe meaning difficult.* Yolked together in one word these two disparate elements can go beyond "so-so" to mean "I can't complain," or if accompanied by a deep sigh "Would it do me any good to complain?" a typically Jewish attitude, since all things are in G-d's hands.

The Jews also spiced their newly emerging language with words picked up from the Romance languages of the countries in which they had previously lived -- Old Italian, Old Spanish and Old French -- languages which derive from the Latin. These words are particularly interesting since I think their derivation is the least obvious. Shul (synagogue) is a Greek word which was adopted by Latin and comes to Yiddish via the Jews of Rome. Leyenen "to read" is traced back to the Latin, legere. The root is Loaz with a Germanic suffix. Tsibele, "onion" is derived from the old Italian as well (cipolla). Tratoir, "sidewalk" is identical to the still extant French word. The words for tomato, pomadore, and orange, pomerants, can be recognized as stemming in metaphoric progression from the French pomme (apple) and pomme de terre (potato). Akusherke, one of the Yiddish words for "midwife" comes from the French coucher, "to lie down," since she attended women in their "lying-in" period. Cholent the hearty stew of meat, potatoes and beans, which is traditionally served shabes afternoon after having been kept warm overnight, is rooted in the French chauler, "to warm."

* * *

From the 11th century on, conditions of the Jews in Loter, began to worsen. Decrees limiting the purchase of property, restricting trade, imposing residence requirements are enacted.

The Crusades had caused many of the Jews to leave the region altogether and with them their language Yiddish settled in new areas -- what is now Bavaria, Austria and Czechoslovakia. It didn't take too long before Yiddish speaking communities sprang up in Poland, Lithuania and in Ukraine.

Since a living language is a constantly mutable thing influenced by time, place and necessity, elements of the languages of these countries also soon found their way into Yiddish. Some of the most common Slavic words in Yiddish are zeyde, "grandfather"; bobe, "grandmother"; blondzhen, "to get lost"; podloge, "floor"; nebekh, "unfortunate": khotsh, "although."

In the 18th century, practically all the Jews in Europe except the Sephardim spoke Yiddish. With the rise of Khasidism at this time, Yiddish was given even more prestige. The Khasidic rebbes exalted the virtues of mome-loshn "mother tongue" as Yiddish came to be known. These rebbes, religious leades, magidim, "itinerant preachers," found that the best philosophical expression of their ideas, the sweetest renderings of their parables and tales were in Yiddish, the language that most readily reached the hearts of the common people. They even encouraged Jews to pray in Yiddish if they couldn't pray in Hebrew, something that the women had been doing for along time from tkhinas, special Yiddish prayers for women.

After the terrible pogroms of 1880, Jews migrated from Eastern Europe to almost every country of the world. Of course, Yiddish went with them. A friend of mine returning recently from Australia told me that she was both surprised and delighted to hear Yiddish spoken on the streets of Melbourne. This she insisted is proof of the fact that Yiddish is still the only real international Jewish language, connecting Jews from Eastern Europe to North and South America to South Africa and Australia -- certainly more so than the artificial so-called international language of Esperanto. Nowadays, Yiddish is the international Jewish language for the older generation, but what about our youth? There is definitely a rebirth of interest in Yiddish among young people today. They are trying to reconnect with their roots. Consider the following examples: Hobn tsu zingn un tsu zogn, "to have no end of trouble" literally means to sing and to say, and dates back to the middle ages when wandering troubadors sang and said in the manner of the heroic epic. Another expression: Me zol im afile brenen un brotn which means "even if he should be burnt and roasted," alludes to the practices of the inquisition during the middle ages and describes a very strong will that resists even this heinous torture. Opton emetsn af terkish means to play a dirty trick on someone, but literally to "treat someone in a Turkish manner." The unfortunate experience of the Jews under Ottoman rule is reflected here.

But Yiddish does more than reflect the history of the Jewish people, it is also a window into their soul which is Yiddishkeit, and the traditional Jewish way of life is reflected in Yiddish similes and metaphors.

Indeed, Yiddish has consistently helped to perpetuate Judaism's high moral precepts by elevating and enobling simple Germanic adjectives. A guter yid, is not only a good Jew, but perhaps a rebbe to whom one went for a blessing. An erlikher yid, an honest Jew but also an observant Jew, that is a Torah-honest Jew. A sheyner yid, a beautiful Jew but also a Jew respected in the community, a model of conduct.

The idea that Yiddish is a reflection of the Jewish soul is beautifully brought home by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik's words, originally written in Yiddish and translated into English for Jewish life:**

"I am not a Yiddishist who believes that the language has absolute value... The Halacha has formulated two magnitudes of Kedusha (holiness): 1) entities which are in essence Kedusha; 2) entities which are instruments of Kedusha. The Halacha rules that one must rescue from a fire on Shabbos, not only a Sefer Torah, but the mantle in which it is wrapped; not just Tefilin, but the sack which contains them as well. Therefore Yiddish as a language -- notwithstanding that it is not inherently holy -- surely stands with those ancillary entities which are also holy and must be saved at all costs.

Is there a more beautiful mantle which has clothed the most sacred Sifrei Torah -- and continues to cloak them -- than Yiddish? It was in this language that the... Gedolai Yisrael learned Torah with their students. It was in simple Mame-Loshon that the Jewish masses expressed their simple faith, their love, their loyalty. Such a mantle is surely holy, not withstanding that its holiness is not absolute, but an acquired holiness, akin to that acquired by artifacts used to contain holy objects. Great merit lies in upholding that mantle."

  1. The Yiddish words in this article comply with the Yivo spelling.
  2. A homonym to the word mentioned above meaning "philosophical question."
  3. In Yiddish this paragraph in Der Tog, 2/24/61 and in English in Jewish Life, Winter 1981/1982.