May 29, 2024
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If there is any one nation that knows about labor, then we Jews ought to take a bow. For centuries, our people were subjected to slave labor by the Egyptians. During the Holocaust, we were forced to undertake slave labor by the Nazis. Even though as a people, we—typically—associate our ancestors’ labor with Passover and Holocaust Commemoration Day, perhaps, we ought to bring labor to mind at this time of the year as well. With Labor Day soon upon us, it would suit our purpose to learn that in no way is the Yiddish language at a loss for words when it comes to labor or work.

The following five words serve as case in point:

Ahrbet (work): Long before Auschwitz and other concentration camps turned “Arbeit Macht Frei” into an infamous and repugnant slogan, the German philologist and writer, Lorenz Diefenbach produced a novel by that name in 1873. As for our people, “The Arbeiter Ring,” better known as “Workmen’s Circle” was founded in 1892, to provide health and death benefits to its members, as well as to support labor and socialist movements of the world. In time, it included Yiddish education, as well as Yiddish summer camps.

Tzvahngahrbet (forced labor): The first recorded tzvahngahrbet involved generations of our people in Egypt. After Joseph’s demise, a new Pharaoh arose who was oblivious to the contributions made by Joseph to Egypt. Instead, he was malicious to Joseph’s people and the contributions they would be forced to make to his country through tzvahngahrbet.

Mahternish (drudgery): More common is the related Yiddish term oisgemahtehrt (exhausted), in that, it is rare for “mahteren” to appear in noun form. Quite often, people who work at jobs that are either physically, mentally or emotionally draining return home at the end of the day oisgemahtehrt. It is rare for people whose work is pure mahternish to return home bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Onnshtrengoong (physical exertion): Here too, the noun form is a rarity. Far more common is the verb form which usually appears as an admonition. Shtreng zich nisht onn (“don’t overexert yourself”) a concerned wife will plead with her husband, or a concerned parent will warn a child. My own experience is that onnshtrengoong is seasonal. Onnshtrengoong would typically occur in the winter, and it was associated with shoveling snow.

Horrevahnia (toil): When one thinks of menial, back-breaking labor, one thinks of horrevahnia. It is highly doubtful that the acclaimed Tennessee Ernie Ford knew any Yiddish words, but his hit song, “Sixteen Tons,” was as close to horrevahnia as one could get. Closely related to horrevahnia is horrepahshna (working one’s fingers to the bone) and horrepahshnik (one who works his fingers to the bone).

In its formative years, Israel was a far cry from the hi-tech country it is today. Much of the country depended on agriculture. Whether it was citrus orchards or produce fields, there were those of the fledgling Jewish state who knew that they had to roll up their sleeves and be prepared to put in hours of backbreaking work. Thankfully, the tzvahngahrbet, horrevahnia, onnshtrengoong, mahternish, that our ancestors knew firsthand when they arrived on the shores of this country has been relegated to the history of our people.

May we, their descendants, welcome honest and decent ahrbet, so that we are a tribute to Labor Day, and every day.


Rabbi Shawn Zell has recently returned to New Jersey, after serving at a pulpit in Dallas. He possesses certification in teaching Yiddish. Rabbi Zell is the author of three books.

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