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7 Jewish Expressions to Start Using Today

September 7, 2020 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

These Hebrew phrases convey timeless Jewish principles.

The way we speak says much about our values and way of looking at the world. These seven Jewish expressions convey Jewish principles and subtly insert Jewish thoughts and nuances to our speech. Consider incorporating some of these into your conversation.

Baruch Hashem – Blessed is God

Baruch Hashem is one of the most common Jewish expressions, and it reminds us that everything in our lives – both the good and the seemingly bad – comes from the Divine.

The first person on record to say Baruch Hashem is Noah. After the flood he said, "Blessed is the Lord God of Shem." The second person was Eliezer. He came to Mesopotamia searching for a wife for Isaac. Once he found Rivkah he said "Baruch Hashem Elokei Adoni Avraham – Blessed is the Lord God of my master Avraham." The third person to say Baruch Hashem in the Torah was Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law. When the two were reunited after the exodus from Egypt, Yitro declared ‘Baruch Hashem who has saved you from the hand of Egypt."

All three were non-Jews who recognized the good God had done. King Solomon advised us to always acknowledge God in our lives: “In all your ways know Him” (Proverbs 3:6). The expression Baruch Hashem, which Jews use from thanking God for their health to finding the brand of corn flakes in the store, helps us remember that everything ultimately comes from the Divine.

Gam Zu L’Tovah – This, too, is for the good.

The saying was coined by Rabbi Nachum, a rabbi who lived in northern Israel in the First Century of the Common Era, and is mentioned in the Talmud as a teacher of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Nachum was determined to see the hand of God in everything that befell him; even seemingly bad or challenging obstacles could be used for spiritual growth. He used to say Gam zu l’tovah, this too is for the good, so often that he was known as “Nachum Ish Gamzu”.

Rabbi Nachum was once entrusted with an important mission to bring a valuable gift of gold and diamonds to the Roman Caesar in Rome, to persuade him to treat the Jews better in the Holy Land. On his way, Rabbi Nachum stopped at an inn for the night. Unbeknownst to him, the innkeeper stole Rabbi Nachman's treasure and filled his box with soil and rocks instead. The next morning, Rabbi Nachum continued on his way. When he finally reached Rome, he presented the treasure chest he carried to the ruler and when Caesar opened it, he was outraged and had Rabbi Nachum thrown into prison. Recognizing that everything God sends us is for a higher purpose, Rabbi Nachum said Gam zu l’tovah this too is for the good.

At Rabbi Nachum's trial, the Prophet Elijah appeared disguised as one of Caesar's advisors. Elijah told the Caesar that since Nachum had brought this gift from the Jews in the Holy Land, perhaps there was something powerful about it, even though it appeared to be ordinary soil and rocks. The Jewish patriarch Abraham was said to have defeated his enemy King Chedorlaomer by throwing sand and rocks at him (Genesis 14). Perhaps the earth and stones in Rabbi Nachum's treasure chest contained similar magical powers?

Caesar decided to give it a try and had his soldiers hurl the soil at their enemies in battle. After doing so, they were able to conquer a province they'd never been able to capture before. Caesar freed Rabbi Nachum and granted the Jews' request that they receive more lenient treatment from Rome. Rabbi Nachum's gift might not have been quite what he planned originally, but he realized it truly had been for the good (Talmud Taanit 21a).

B’Ezrat Hashem – with the help of God

B’Ezrat Hashem is a common Jewish expression that reminds us of God’s presence in the world. It is often said when exercising our free will, directing our abilities and talents towards specific goals, reminding us that while the effort is in our hands, the ultimate outcome is in God's.

Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet – Blessed is the True Judge

Baruch Dayan He’Emet is the timeless Jewish response to hearing of someone's death. It comes from the blessing that’s traditionally recited by Jewish mourners at the funeral of a loved one: Blessed are You, the Lord, our God, King of the universe, the True Judge.

At times of tragedy, this Jewish saying reminds us that while our comprehension of the world is limited, we trust that there is a larger Divine plan. The Sages of the Talmud taught that just as a Jew praises God for events that befall him that seem fortunate and good, so too should we acknowledge God’s loving presence in our lives even when terrible events befall us (Berachot 60b). As the “True Judge,” only God can fully understand the trajectory of our lives and the true meaning of the tragedies that we face.

B’Hatzlacha – with success!

In Hebrew, B'Hatzlacha is a common way of wishing people luck. Is your friend on her way to a job interview? Wish her B'Hatzlacha! Your son is facing a tough test in school today? B’Hatzlacha!

This phrase teaches us a lot about Jewish values. The Torah warns “you shall not believe in lucky times” (Leviticus 19:26). Instead of being ruled by capricious luck, Judaism teaches that our lives have a purpose and that each of us is charged with a unique mission in life and given the exact tools and circumstances that we require to fulfill our God-given potential. Instead of wishing others “luck” in their endeavors, we hope that they achieve success in their goals.

Yasher Koach

This expression is a common way of congratulating people after a job well done. You finished the project? Yasher Koach! Got a promotion at work? Yasher Koach! The phrase comes from yishar koach, which means “may your strength (koach) be straightened (yishar).” A loose translation may be: more power to you!

The phrase comes from a curious statement in the Talmud (Shabbat 87a) by Jewish sage Resh Lakish in his comments on one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah.

When Moses first ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, many Jews waiting for him down below at the foot of the mountain began to doubt that he was ever coming back. Thinking that Moses abandoned them, they built an idol in the shape of a golden calf to worship instead. As Moses came down the mountain holding the heavy stones that bore the text of the Torah, he could scarcely believe the sight that awaited him (Exodus 32:19).

When Moses witnessed the Jews worshipping the golden calf, he lost the strength in his arms and dropped the heavy stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Moses threw down the tablets, smashing them to pieces. (He later ascended the mountain again and brought down the second tablets to the Jewish people.) Resh Lakish notes that God Himself approved the actions of Moses, saying "Yishar kochecha sheshibarta – all strength to you for breaking them!"

Bli Neder – without promising

This common Jewish expression is deployed before making a promise or commitment: Bli neder I’ll be able to come to your party next week, or Bli neder I’ll remember to send a check to the charity you just told me about.

It means that you promised something without (bli) making an official vow (neder). In Judaism, making a formal commitment to do something is a very serious undertaking. The Torah explains: “This is the thing that God has commanded – if a man will take a vow (“neder”) to God or swear an oath… he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do” (Numbers 30:3). In Jewish thought, promising to do something obligates you to fulfil it.

That's why Jews say "bli neder" – not because you are not good to your word, rather in recognition that oftentimes things happen out of your control and in the end you are not able to do exactly as you said. "Bli neder" ensures that your commitment is not a technical vow, and reinforces the Jewish idea that what we say matters and we need to be careful in making lasting promises.

So the next time you tell your child you'll take them to the zoo, remember to say "bli neder".

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