June 16, 2024
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Like other languages, Yiddish has prefixes. Among them is the prefix “tzeh.” “Tzeh” combines with a verb to intensify it. For example, klahp means “bang.” Where no doorbells exist or when doorbells are taboo such as on Shabbos or Yom Tov, we knock on the door. In Yiddish, meh klahpt oif dehr teer (one bangs on the door). Add the prefix “tzeh” to “klahp” and it becomes tzehklahpt (banged up). It is tomorrow’s Torah portion of Ki Tisa, where the prefix “tzeh” finds a natural home, in that “being out of control” appears to be pervasive throughout the entire golden calf episode.

The following vocabulary explains why: Tzehoolyet (whoop it up). Taken from the Ukrainian, “hoolyeh” means “to carouse.” Is it so terrible for a mass of people recently liberated from centuries of Egyptian enslavement to let off steam? It is when that mass of people has just received the 10 commandments. As our Eastern European ancestors would say, “Now is not the time to hoolyeh!” When serving a deity fashioned from gold nose rings gets out of control as it did in the golden calf episode, we have a people who became tzehoolyet.

Tzeheetzt (piqued): “Heetz” means “a heat wave or fever.” In Yiddish, one can say, “Ehr rehdt foon heetz (He doesn’t know what he’s saying—he’s delirious).” When Moshe started down the mountain and saw how tzehoolyet the children of Israel were as they whooped it up around the golden calf, he became tzeheetzt. This is not to suggest that Moshe became delirious. It is to suggest, however, that Moshe began to fume. It would not be overstating it in the least to say that Moshe was steaming mad.

Tzebrochen (smashed): Many with some knowledge of Yiddish are quick to translate “brechen” as “throw up” or “vomit” as “meh ken brechen” (one can throw up). Typically, this is said in response to a hideous wardrobe mismatch. “Brechen,” however, means “to break,” as in brechen teller (breaking of a plate) at the tenoyim prior to a marriage. Gebrochen is past tense, as in “zee hott gebrochen dee tzayn” (literally, she broke her teeth). It is a figure of speech which means she had trouble speaking or pronouncing a secondary language such as Yiddish. Tzehbrochen—past tense of tzehbrechen—means more than simply “broken.” “Tzehbrochen” means “smashed” and that’s exactly what a fuming Moshe did to the 10 commandments.

Tzehshmettehrt (shattered): One would do well to ask what the difference is between “smashed” and “shattered?” The answer is “size.” “Tzehshmettehrt” occurs when the object is smashed into small pieces. If the two tablets were merely “tzehbrochen,” it would be theoretically possible to put those pieces back again, assuming that the pieces were retrievable. Not so if the two tablets were “tzehshmettehrt,” in that reconstructing the tablets from miniscule pieces of stone was impossible. The English term “smattering” is derived from the German “zerschmettern.”

Tzehshtert (destroyed): Taken from the word “shtehr” (disturb), “tzehshtehr” implies that the disturbance is neither temporary nor rectifiable. “Tzehshtehr” is yet another synonym to describe how Moshe reacted when he saw—with his own eyes—the level of debauchery taking place around the golden calf. Moshe disturbed the entire setting. But Moshe did more than just tzehshtehr the two stone tablets that he was carrying. Moshe tzehshtehrt the entire behavior of the people who were not able to appreciate holiness, when it was devoid of thunder, lightning and the powerful sound of the shofar.

The aftermath of the golden calf debacle was—understandably—one of intensity where a “tzeheetzt” leader reacted to a “tzehoolyet” people. Whether Moshe made sure that the 10 commandments engraved on two stone tablets were “tzehbrochen” or “tzehshmettehrt” is debatable. One thing, however, is for certain. Even though Moshe “tzehshtehrt,” the end result was fahrkehrt (contrary).


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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