July 14, 2024
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Have you ever considered that among the many definitions that explain us as a people, is our ability to transform ourselves from clenched fists on Yom Kippur into clenching a lulav and etrog on Sukkot? Has it occurred to you that we Jews are commanded to undergo a mood change from the solemnity of Yom Kippur to the celebration of Sukkot in less than a week’s time? In the spirit of the mitzvah of “you shall rejoice in your festival,” consider the following Yiddish aphorisms. Hopefully, they will put a smile on your face and maybe even plant laughter in your soul.

Sukkos esst menn goot oon meh shlofft shlecht (One eats well on Sukkot but sleeps poorly). Among its many teachings, the festival of Sukkot emphasizes that sleep is not dependent solely on physical comfort. There is a spiritual component to sleep as well. Perhaps this is why upon retiring for the night we wish each other “sweet dreams.” The temporary structure of the sukkah with its ersatz furnishings is to afford us a sleep that will infuse our souls with holiness that few if any experience in well-appointed bedrooms.

A yovven in a sukkah (a goy in a sukkah). Profuse apologies for the pejorative! Because the non-Jew of the shtetl understood the term “goy,” Jews had to invent synonyms so that they could speak freely without fear of being overheard. Yovven was one such synonym. The Hebrew term “Yavvan” denotes a Greek. In the shtetl, yovven was the Yiddish pronunciation of the Ukrainian “Yivahn” (Ivan). A yovven in a sukkah is a kinder, gentler Yiddish version of “a bull in a china shop.” Although the yovven will cause no damage, he has no understanding of the importance for Jews to be in a sukkah.

Az ess iz nishto kayn essrog, bentsht menn mit a boolbeh (If an etrog is lacking, one fulfills the mitzvah by reciting the blessing with a potato). Although it is halachically absurd, the aphorism teaches us to make do with what we have. I recall a fellow Jew telling me how they improvised sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah when he was incarcerated. It should be noted that boolbeh reveals a regional usage, in that typically kahrtoffel, a word borrowed from Polish, and German is used for potato.

Dehr essrog kosst doss gahntzeh gelt obber ibbern lulav mahcht menn dee brocheh (It is the etrog that costs all the money, yet the blessing is made over the lulav). It is the etrog that might very well have been the forbidden fruit. It is the etrog that is accorded “mehudar” or superior status. Nevertheless, the etrog shares equal status with the other three species. Coming mere days after the Days of Awe, it is as though Judaism reminds us, irrespective of our standing in society, we are all Jews.

An oisgeklahpteh hoshana (A well-beaten willow). Hoshana Rabba is the final day of taking up the lulav and etrog. The bimah is encircled not one, but seven times. Thereupon, a bundle of five willows is taken and beaten on the floor. Yet, an oisgeklahpteh hoshana means so much more than a willow that has taken a beating on Hoshana Rabba. An oisgeklahpteh hoshana is the Yiddish equivalent of suffering from burn-out or being worn to a frazzle. Unless one is looking for sympathy, most people would be well advised to avoid going around looking like an oisgeklahpteh hoshana.

Like all other festivals, Sukkot is measured in terms of days. The aphorisms of an oisgeklahpteh hoshana; dehr essrog kosst doss gahntzeh gelt obber ibbern lulav mahcht menn dee brocheh; az ess iz nishto kayn essrog; bentsht menn mit a boolbeh; a yovven in a sukkah; and Sukkos esst menn goot oon meh shlofft shlecht have lasted centuries.


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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