April 17, 2024
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Long before American drivers were instructed to yield to drivers who had the right of way, the Yiddish language, with immeasurable respect for holy objects, was yielding to Lashen Kodesh (the holy tongue) when it came to holy objects. The Yiddish (and German) word for book is booch. But a booch ceases to be a booch when referring to a holy text. The Yiddish word “booch” yields to the Hebrew term sayfer (pronunciation is Eastern European). Yet, sayfer serves as a generic term for a holy text. A prayer book is not referred to as a sayfer. A prayer book is referred to as a siddur. And a High Holy Day prayer book is referred to as a machzor. Worthy of note, both siddur and machzor appear in my tried and trusty Webster’s New World Dictionary.

When it comes to synagogue furnishings, Yiddish yields to Hebrew as well. The Yiddish word for table is tisch. Yet, if that table serves as the Readers Table in the synagogue, it ceases to be a tisch. Insisting on having it no other way, Yiddish respectfully yields to Hebrew, and a tisch suddenly becomes a shulchan. Just as no self-respecting native Yiddish speaker would extend an invitation to guests sitting in the parlor by saying “Koomt tzum shulchan” (come to the table), so too would no self-respecting native Yiddish speaker finding himself/herself at synagogue services, ask: “Vehr gayt tzu tzum tisch?” Wishing to know who has gone up for an aliyah to the Torah, he/she would ask, “Vehr gayt tzu tzum Shulchan (who is going to the Shulchan)?

Having mentioned a Torah scroll, a Torah scroll is never adorned with a kroin (Yiddish for crown). It was a kroin, our sages tell us, that the toddler Moshe removed from Pharaoh’s head and placed on his own head, ultimately placing his own life in danger. A Torah scroll is adorned with a keter (Hebrew for crown, unless you prefer the way our European ancestors pronounced it, then it becomes kesser). Of interest, Kesser Torah is also the name of an Orthodox synagogue in Pittsburgh, a yeshiva in Queens, and a housing development in Naugatuck, Connecticut.

Back in late November, I was introduced to a young man with the family name of Forhang. Instinctively, I tested him by asking him if he knew the meaning of forhang. “Curtain,” he answered confidently. I was impressed. But a forhang is not what is hung in front of the aron kodesh, or holy ark. Here, too, Yiddish steps aside, yielding to the Hebrew. In fact, vernacular Hebrew also steps aside. Instead of villon, the term parochet is used.

Machzor and siddur are not the only words of our people that have found their way into the dictionary. So too has the Yiddish word daven. While daven is a verb, one would think that the one who davens is a davener. And so is the case. Yet, in speaking to or about all those participating at a prayer service, no one would think of referring to them or addressing them as daveners. Borrowing from the Hebrew, they are referred to or addressed as mispallelim or mitpallelim if you prefer modern Hebrew or Israeli pronunciation.

Among the many precious aphorisms in the Talmud, we find “whoever humbles himself, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, exalts him” (Eruvin 13b). With Yiddish being so gracious to Hebrew when it comes to holy objects, I take the liberty of restating this aphorism: When Yiddish yields to Loshen Kodesh in matters of holiness, it is the Yiddish language that yields a much richer word base.


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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