Parshas Vaeira (5774)
“So they said, ‘The G-d of the Hebrews happened upon us…’” (Exodus 5:3)
The Midrash (Leviticus 32:5) brings this verse in Parshas Shemos as proof that our ancestors did not change their language during the entire Egyptian exile; they continued to speak Hebrew, as did their forefather Abraham, who was called "Abraham the Hebrew" (see Genesis 14:13).
Yet as much as our ancestors in Egypt were determined to speak only Hebrew (i.e. Biblical Hebrew, otherwise known as Lashon HaKodesh, lit. the “Holy Tongue”, not to be confused with Modern Hebrew) so as to remain distinct and separate from their Egyptian hosts, they continued to do so only up until the Babylonian exile and the beginning of the Second Temple era; from then on, they spoke Aramaic.
The Chasam Sofer (in Orach Chayim 85) explains that during the exile in Babylon, when our forefathers lived in a land full of idolatry, they decided that it would be disrespectful to the Holy Tongue to continue speaking it in such a defiled environment. Additionally, they realized that the people were no longer on a high enough level to use such a holy tongue as their everyday language, for sinful speech is much worse when spoken in Hebrew than when spoken in another language (Va’Yoel Moshe 3:8).
So they began using Aramaic as their everyday language, reserving Hebrew for prayer and Torah study. However, the Aramaic they used was not the same as that spoken by the gentiles around them; it was a special Jewish dialect, written with Hebrew letters. Thus they continued to uphold the principle of keeping a separate language.
This practice continued as the Jewish people were later exiled to Ashkenaz (Germany) and Sefarad (Spain), where they spoke Yiddish and Ladino, respectively. These uniquely Jewish languages served as effective barriers to assimilation – just as the Hebrew language had served for their ancestors way back in Egypt - allowing the Jews to remain separate from the gentiles among whom they lived.
The great Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin ZT”L (1818–1898) once remarked that since the Yiddish language was created and utilized as a barrier to assimilation, it is itself the “Holy Tongue”!
Like all languages which reflect the culture and worldview of those who speak them, the Yiddish language is no different. In this rich, 1000-year-old language of our heritage, many deep-seated Jewish concepts, beliefs and emotions find expression.
Allow me to share with you just a few examples of interesting Yiddish words and phrases that at their root contain fundamentally Jewish ideas:
(1) einekel (eyn'∙i∙kl) lit. “grandchild” – Some have suggested that the word einekel derives from the story of Moses and the Burning Bush (see Exodus 3:2) where Moses sees the bush burning but “einenu ookal” (it is not consumed), i.e. if one has grandchildren and Jewish continuity, then his legacy will never be consumed but will last forever.
(2) davenin (dav'∙n∙en) lit. “prayer” - Some claim that the Yiddish word davenin originates from an Aramaic word, de'avuhon or d'avinun, meaning "of their/our forefathers", as the Talmud in Berachos 26b teaches that the three daily prayers Shacharis, Minchah and Ma’ariv were instituted by our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
(3) nachas (nakhes) lit. “pleasure or pride” (especially from one’s children) – Some say that the Jewish tradition to bless someone that he should have “yiddishe” nachas from his children arose from the fact that Jacob’s evil twin brother Esau also got “Nachas” from one of his children, as we read in Genesis 36:14 that Nachas, son of Reuel, was the name of one of Esau's grandchildren. So we bless each other to have “yiddishe” (Jewish) nachas, as opposed to 'Esau-type' nachas.
(4) yarmulke (yar'∙ml∙keh) lit. “skullcap” – Some suggest that this Yiddish word is actually a contraction of two Aramaic words yarei and malka, which mean “fear of the king”. This name expresses one of the main purposes of wearing a yarmulke – to remind us that G-d is always above us and watching us at all times. This awareness of G-d’s presence, brought about by the yarmulke, humbles a person and protects him from sin.
(5) glatt lit. “smooth” - The technical definition of glatt kosher is meat from animals with smooth or defect-free lungs, but today the term glatt kosher is often used informally to imply that a product was processed under a stricter standard of kashrus.
(6) nisht geshtoigen un nisht gefloigen lit. “didn’t stand up and didn’t fly” (i.e. it is not true; it never happened) – Some suggest that this strange Yiddish proverb originated from the early Christian claim that after Jesus died, he stood up from the grave and flew away, to which the Jewish response always was: nisht geshtoigen un nisht gefloigen – he didn’t stand up and he didn’t fly - the whole story is a Bubba Meysah.
(7) der mensch tracht, un Gut lacht lit. “man plans and G-d laughs’ or “man proposes and G-d disposes’ – Some say that this famous Yiddish proverb with its fundamentally Jewish message comes from the verse “Many designs are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of G-d, only it will prevail” (Proverbs 19:21), or from the verse “He Who sits in Heaven will laugh, the L-rd will mock them” (Psalms 2:4).