The Meaning of 7 Common Jewish Words
A deeper look behind some common Jewish words like chutzpah, oy vey and yarmulke.
Often translated as “audacity” or “guts”, chutzpah is a Yiddish word that’s entered the English language. Leo Rosten, author of the famous book Joys of Yiddish, gave a classic – and humorous – definition: “Chutzpah is the quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.”
Chutzpah is derived from the Hebrew word chatzif, which has a similar meaning, and is used extensively in traditional Jewish literature. In the Talmud, for instance, the sage Rava is perturbed at seeing a man walking by with his head uncovered (in contravention of customs of the time). “How much chutzpah does this man have!” Rava exclaims (Talmud Kiddushin 33a).
An act that results from chutzpah is called chutzpadik. Acting in an outrageous or galling manner is chutzpadik behavior.
It’s customary for Jewish to wear a head covering, called a kippah or yarmulke. The word kippah means dome in Hebrew, which describes the shape of this small, curved cap. Some believe yarmulke comes from the Aramaic phrase yira malkah, meaning “fear of the King”. Traditionally in Judaism, wearing a hat or head covering for a man has been seen as a way of acknowledging God’s presence above us.
In Hebrew, tikkun means amending or bettering something; olam means world. The phrase tikkun olam has come to mean doing good deeds, although that is not a traditional definition of the term. It occurs a few times in classic Jewish texts, usually referring to highly mystical ideas of a perfect human state, rather than to being nice or performing acts of social justice.
In the classic Jewish prayer Aleinu, the phrase tikkun olam looks forward to the world being “perfected” when everyone recognizes God and gives up idolatrous ways. In the Jewish mystical work the Zohar, tikkun olam is used to describe an esoteric concept of banishing evil in the universe by perfecting ourselves through doing mitzvot and studying Torah.
Deriving from the Hebrew word “to sit” (l’shev), yeshivas are Jewish schools where students “sit” and study Torah, Talmud, and other Jewish texts. The term is an old one: the Midrash (a classical Jewish work) describes a “yeshiva” that Noah’s sons established after the flood, where the Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob studied.
The Mirrer Yeshiva
Yeshivot (the plural of yeshiva) flourished in ancient Israel under Roman rule, and later in Babylonia, Spain, Europe and elsewhere. Today, the word yeshiva can mean a Jewish elementary or high school. It can also refer to a men’s institution of higher Jewish learning. (Women’s comparable institutions of higher Jewish learning – often attended by students for a year or more after high school – are called midrashot in Hebrew, or seminaries in English.)
The first mention of the term Ashkenaz comes in the Biblical book of Genesis: Ashkenaz is named as one of Noah’s great grandsons (Genesis 10:1-2). The Torah goes on to enumerate 69 other descendants of Noah; Jewish tradition identifies these 70 descendants of Noah as the fathers of 70 distinct nations in the ancient world. Years later, when Jews began to settle in central Europe, the “nation of Ashkenaz” – the people descended from Ashkenaz in the Torah – became identified with the region along the northern Rhine River, which flows through Germany and France.
Jews settled in this “Land of Ashkenaz” in great numbers in the Middle Ages, building flourishing Jewish communities in Germanic and French lands. In time, Jews from this area began to be called “Ashkenazi,” or “from Ashkenaz”. Yiddish originated in this area in the Middle Ages, incorporating Middle High German words as well as Hebrew. With the later dissemination of Yiddish throughout Europe, Yiddish-speaking Jews from many areas of Central and Eastern Europe became identified as “Ashkenazi” Jews.
In Hebrew Sepharad means Spain. (Sephardi means “from Spain;” in English, Sephardi is sometimes written as “Sephardic”.)
Jews lived in Spain since Biblical times. The prophet Obadiah mentions Jewish exiles from Jerusalem living in “Sepharad” who will then return to the Land of Israel (Obadiah 1:20). In Talmudic times, Jewish sages explained that “Sepharad” referred to Spain (Targum Jonathan, Obadiah).
The Jewish community of Spain was large and thriving. In the Middle Ages, many of the greatest Jewish scholars, sages, and Hebrew language poets lived in Spain. Their pride in living in Sepharad was palpable. One of the great Spanish Jewish scholars was Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Rambam or Maimonides. When extremist Almohad Muslims conquered the province of Cordova in 1150, they forced Jews there to choose between staying and converting to Islam, or fleeing Spain on pain of death. Maimonides and his family were among the many thousands of Jews who left, moving to North Africa. Throughout his long life, even after living in Egypt for many years, Maimonides always proudly signed his letters with his name then the designation Ha’Sephardi – the Sephardic (or Spanish) Jew.
With progressive waves of refugees, vibrant Jewish communities were established throughout North Africa by Spanish Jews. Many of these Jews spoke distinctive languages and dialects that they took with them from Spain. Ladino is a regional Sephardi language. Judeo-Arabic is a distinct dialect spoken by Jews in North Africa. When Jews were expelled from all of Spain in 1492 by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Sephardi Jews fled far and wide – transplanting their customs, their language, and their distinctive Sephardi identity to new locales.
Many people assume that the quintessential Jewish expression “Oy!” is Yiddish in origin. In fact, Oy is a common word used in the Torah, denoting woe. “Woe (Oy) to you, oh Moab,” the Hebrew poets declare after the ancient Israelites conquered the kingdom of Moab (Numbers 21:29). Another enemy of the Jews, the Philistines, say “Woe (Oy) to us!” when faced with defeat at the hands of the ancient Israelites (I Samuel 4:7).
Oy is sometimes followed by other words: Oy vey or Oy gevalt or Oy vey ist mir. They all emphasize woe.
Vey is nearly as old a word as Oy; it means woe in Aramaic, the language of ancient Babylonia where many Jews lived in the years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Oy vey means woe (in Hebrew) woe (Aramaic), a strongly stated expression of sorrow.
Oy vey ist Mir means “Woe, woe is me” in Yiddish. Gevalt is another Yiddish word, meaning violence or destruction. Originally a Germanic word, gevalt migrated into Yiddish and also into other languages: in Polish, gevalt means violence; in Ukrainian it has a specific meaning of violence against women. Oy gevalt was the cry of generations of Yiddish speakers faced with overwhelming disappointment and bad news.