Wrestling with God:
Fear and Fearlessness in Jewish Languages

Jews are called the Children of Israel, since Jacob, the ancestor of the Jews according to the Book of Genesis, was renamed Israel. In Genesis 32:24-30, we read of a night during which Jacob wrestled with an unnamed man. At daybreak, Jacob said, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” The unnamed man said, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” The name Israel, of course, means “wrestled God” or “wrestled with God.” Although the meaning of the story is unclear in its own terms, it is evidence that the Jews have always thought of themselves as a people that wrestled with God. Moses successfully won a verbal wrestling match when God was ready to destroy the Jewish people in the desert, as we are told in Numbers 14:11-20. The Lord said, “I will make of thee a greater nation and mightier than they,” to which Moses answered that the nations would say, “Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which he sware unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness.” In other words, Moses was saying: What will the goyim think? “And the Lord said, I have pardoned according to thy word.”

The legitimacy of wrestling with God is made quite explicit in the Talmud. Here is part of a remarkable story in Baba Metzia 58b, in which the rabbis, debating an issue, vote against the opinions of a voice from Heaven:

The Torah was given once and for all on Mount Sinai. From that time onward, we do not listen to voices from heaven to interpret the Law, for God had already given the Law to man in the Torah. And the interpretations of the Law, as described in the Mishnah [Sanhedrin 4:1], are made by majority decision.

Rabbi Nathan, who was present during this debate, once met Elijah the Prophet. He asked Elijah what God had been doing while the discussion was taking place. Elijah said, “God laughed and said, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.’”

Is this reflected in Jewish languages? Michael Wex wrote a book called Born to Kvetch in which he characterizes Yiddish as a language of complaining. Wex writes, “From a linguistic point of view, the Talmud is nothing less than Yiddish in utero” (p. 15). What Wex says about Yiddish applies equally well to all Jewish languages, which reflect a culture that expects and respects argument. Jews are expected to obey the commandments but at the same time to examine their meaning.

Complaining is less uncomfortable, less rude, if we use euphemisms. In every society, and therefore in every language, there are subjects that are considered embarrassing or frightening and not to be discussed directly: sex, elimination, foreigners, danger, disease, words prohibited for religious reasons, etc. In Jewish languages, the Hebrew-Aramaic component has been used as a way of dealing with these scary subjects.

Borrowing is probably a linguistic universal. In bilingual societies, speakers inevitably borrow words from one language into another. Minority communities in general and immigrant communities in particular are likely to be bilingual. Jews in the Diaspora have always been minorities and have often been immigrants. Furthermore, they have always studied Hebrew. When borrowing is frequent, concepts that are either taboo, emotionally charged, or connected with danger are likely to be expressed in a second language. For example, English-speaking children of immigrants in America often use words of their parents' native languages for bathroom functions. When my family and I lived and taught in China in 1984, the word cesuo 'bathroom' entered our family dialect. We still use it today. The word is not euphemistic in Chinese; it is the most common word for 'bathroom'. Nor is it euphemistic in our family. Rather, its foreignness gives it a relaxed quality that no English equivalent has.

Words that are identified as scientific, scholarly, or aristocratic are somehow less threatening. This seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon. In every Jewish language, words of Hebrew-Aramaic origin represent both learning and religion. A word may be considered learned simply because it is recognized as Hebrew. In English, words of Latin or Greek origin that are associated with science, scholarship, or aristocracy are for that reason less threatening. Carcinoma and sarcoma sound less upsetting than cancer. The use of learned or foreign words as euphemisms seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon.

Perhaps it was President Franklin Roosevelt who first said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." An examination of the words for 'fear' in Jewish languages shows that they are frequently part of the Hebrew-Aramaic component of the language, which suggests that they are or once were euphemisms. People always have feared fear itself, whether or not they said so in so many words. In Yiddish, moyre seems to be an unmarked word--the everyday word for 'fear'. The same is true for Judeo-Italian paxad 'fear', paxadoso 'timid" and impaxadito 'frightened'. David Bunis lists paxad as item 3285 in his Lexicon of the Hebrew-Aramaic Component in Modern Judezmo (1993). In Western Yiddish, we find e:me for 'fear'. Bunis gives us ema lemilxama 'fear of war' as item 158. (Judeo-Italian words will be spelled according to Italian orthography, with the addition of x for the sound represented by the Hebrew letters khet and khaf, ng for the velar nasal consonant that many Italian Jews use for the sound of the letter `ayin, and sh for the sound of the letter shin. Yiddish words will follow the YIVO orthography, with the addition of a colon to indicate length, if needed.)

These words don't feel like euphemisms; that is, they don't sound polite, indirect or evasive. For that matter, they don't sound foreign. They have been unmarked — except for their spelling — for as long as anyone can remember. It is possible that Yiddish ikh hob moyre may once have meant "I am anxious," but now simply means "I'm afraid." As euphemisms become more frequently used, they become familiar and lose their euphemistic quality. Sometimes new euphemisms have to be created. Euphemisms are fragile. The same reasons that lead speakers to replace a given word with a euphemism remain in force and lead a later generation to think of a new euphemism. When carcinoma becomes too familiar, it may be replaced by neoplasm. Some speakers feel they have to replace bathroom — itself a euphemism — with washroom, restroom or lavatory — or cesuo.

Dysphemisms are the opposite of euphemisms. A dysphemism is a pejorative rather than an ameliorative term. If we speak about death, we find both euphemisms and dysphemisms. Words for 'funeral' in Jewish languages include levaye in Yiddish and mizva in Judeo-Italian. The Yiddish word is euphemistic merely because it comes from the Hebrew-Aramaic component; the Judeo-Italian word is doubly euphemistic, since a funeral is only one of many commandments, or mitsvot. Sarah Benor lists levaya in the glossary of her article on Orthodox Jewish English (p.44). On the other hand, Judeo-Italian pegare and Yiddish peygeren 'to croak, to kick the bucket', from Hebrew peger 'corpse', could never have been polite. Bunis lists peger as item 3650 and glosses it as 'non-Jewish corpse'.

Bereaved persons, one might think, do not need euphemisms to describe them. Be that as it may, grief is an unpleasant subject, and we find almone 'widow' and almen 'widower' in Yiddish. Bunis gives us almana (item 205) and almon (item 204). Oddly, in Voltaire's short story "Zadig," a woman described as a young widow is named Almona, suggesting that Voltaire knew the word and had heard an Ashkenazic pronunciation. The title character of the story, Zadig himself, is described as a righteous man, suggesting Hebrew or Yiddish tsadik. I don't know why Voltaire chose these names.

The use of particular lexical items to refer to non-Jews introduces another semantic area where we find both euphemisms and dysphemisms. Speakers of Jewish languages, generally a vulnerable minority, could use these as secret words if they were talking about members of the surrounding majority. Jewish languages have served as secret languages. It is easier to speak rudely in a language that is foreign to those one wishes to exclude. However, dysphemisms, like euphemisms, are fragile. The Yiddish word goy is so well known that it is found in English dictionaries. The same word may be found in Judeo-Italian, but a more frequently used word is ngarel, from a Hebrew word meaning uncircumcised. The feminine form is ngarela, which suggests that the primary meaning of the Hebrew word has been forgotten. Bunis lists both arel and arela as Judezmo (item 3233), defining them as 'non-Jew, Christian (in opposition to Moslems or Jews)'. Perhaps the rare Yiddish word orel is a more private or polite word for goy.

Furthermore, there was a need to distinguish between the clergy and houses of worship of Jews and gentiles. The Hebrew-Aramaic component of Jewish languages filled the need. Judeo-Italian has tongeva for ‘church’ from a Hebrew word meaning 'abomination'. My mother's Central Yiddish had time, which would be tume in Standard Yiddish, from a Hebrew word meaning 'impurity'. These words clearly reflect hostility. I once wrote that "the hostility is lost as the primary meaning of the Hebrew source word is forgotten" (1981b, p. 113). I have since changed my mind about this question. When I returned from a visit to my mother's home town, Ropczyce in Polish, Ropshits in Yiddish, my uncle asked me whether I had seen the time and made it clear that he knew the primary meaning of the word. Yiddish tifle 'church' (Hebrew 'folly') was not used in my family. As for Christian priests, we find galekh in Yiddish and galax in Judeo-Italian, from a Hebrew word referring to a tonsure—a word that is not derogatory but that doesn’t refer to holiness.

The word for 'Jesus' in Judeo-Italian is duish, from Hebrew oto ha-ish 'that man'. Bunis lists oto aish (item 114) with the same meaning. Sarah Benor has informed me that oyso (ha)ish exists in Yiddish as well, as does toluy, 'hanging one'.

One would expect there to be words for 'anti-Semite' in Jewish languages. Yiddish antisemit is clearly not of Hebrew-Aramaic origin, although soyne 'enemy' is. sone is Bunis's item 3805. Zalman Yovely, who collected Judeo-Italian lexical items, glosses sone simply as 'anti-Semite' (see Jochnowitz 1981a, p. 150). He also lists the very common Judeo-Italian word xalto, which he glosses as 'bigoted' (p. 153). The origin of this word is unclear. Yovely suggests that it is from Hebrew hol, 'secular, profane'. Whatever the etymology, the word does occur with the Hebrew noun-forming suffix –ut, pronounced -ud in Judeo-Italian: xaltud 'bigotry'.

Related to fear is the practice that James Matisoff calls "malo-fugition" or "Deliver us from evil" (2000:43). It is common in Jewish languages to use such expressions frequently. The most common and familiar is Yiddish keyn ayn-hore 'no evil eye'. Matisoff illustrates its use with the following example: Ober mir geyt dos, keyn aynore nit, zeyer gut 'But for me things are going—no evil eye—very well' (p. 43). Bunis gives us aynarax 'the evil eye' and aynarax ke no te apode (item 3119) meaning 'may the evil eye not have power over you'. I have heard ngayin araang se ne pozza 'may the evil eye have no power' from a woman living in Florence whose family came from Venice. According to Matisoff, "An indication of the vitality of the evil eye concept in Jewish culture is the fact that on ayn-hore has been calqued back into modern Israeli Hebrew in the form bli ayin raa 'without an evil eye'" (note 35, p. 136). In that case, it is a very well-traveled expression indeed. Benor tells us that bli ayin hara in Orthodox Jewish English comes from Modern Hebrew bli eyn hara, originally calqued on the Yiddish expression (p. 42).

According to Maria Modena Mayer and Giovanna Merzagora Massariello, writing about the Judeo-Italian spoken in the city of Modena, almost all of the Hebrew-Aramaic component consists of words that are in some way frightening. They cite meleh, 'king', ghevir 'nobleman' and tafsan 'guard' as examples of those in authority who might be dangerous and should not be named (pp. 933-35). As for hadan 'groom', cala 'bride', refua scelema 'perfect cure' and gnascir 'rich', they should not be mentioned for fear of attracting the evil eye. Speaking of 'rich', the author Primo Levi, from Turin, translates the words he spells gevir or givir as 'sharecropper' (see Jochnowitz 1981b, p. 116). Landowners and sharecroppers are both involved in sharecropping, but the word seems to have undergone a pejorative change in meaning; the wealth and presumed power of the landowner has been lost.

To a certain extent, the view that even positive terms need to be referred to indirectly is convincing. On the other hand, Judeo-Italian does not give one the feeling of being euphemistic. Like Yiddish, Judeo-Italian seems to have freed its speakers from taboo, allowing them to speak with a degree of explicitness that would not be possible in the coterritorial languages. gnascir, it seems to me, may be said with a sneer, which suggests taboo but not euphemism. Asking for a complete cure, a refua scelema, avoids an explicit reference to illness. As for hadan and cala, they are simply the everyday, unmarked words for 'groom' and 'bride'.

Is 'thief' a frightening word? Robbery is certainly a threatening activity and an unpleasant side of life. We have Yiddish ganef, Judezmo ganav (Bunis item 894) and Judeo-Italian ganav or ganavve. As for the verb to steal, it is formed by adding Indo-European affixes to the Hebrew root: ganvenen, ganavear, ganavviare. A female thief in Judeo-Italian is una ganavessa.

Certain body parts are typically taboo. Yiddish tokhes, Judeo-Italian taxad and Judezmo taxad (Bunis item 4042) all refer to the buttocks and come from a Hebrew word meaning 'under'. taxad, like Yiddish tokhes, is a word used with confidence and without embarrassment. Judeo-Italian berid and Judezmo beri (Bunis item 727) both mean 'penis' and come from the Hebrew word for 'covenant'. Although bris is a Yiddish word meaning 'circumcision ceremony', I know of no Hebrew-Aramaic word in Yiddish with this meaning.

Hebrew-Aramaic words for bathroom functions in Jewish languages are typically quite euphemistic. mashtin zayn 'urinate', nekovim gedoylim and nekovim ketanim 'big holes and 'little holes', geyn af gedoylim and geyn af ketanim "to defecate' and 'to urinate' are indirect and learned ways to avoid saying kakn or shaysn and pishn.

Sarah Benor informs me that she has found pish and kaka among her informants. As for words of Hebrew-Aramaic origin, she lists bli ayin hara and levaya, both mentioned above, as Orthodox Jewish English terms. In a personal communication, she mentions goyim, shiksa, sheygets, tuxes, ganef, and others. Another word referring to something that might be unpleasant in her glossary is maxlokes/maxloket 'argument' (p. 45). I would venture to guess that the euphemisms entered the language directly from Hebrew, whereas the dysphemisms are ultimately Hebrew but directly borrowed from Yiddish. In either case, these words enable us to speak without fear.


Benor, Sarah. 1998. "'Yavnish': A Linguistic Study of the Orthodox Jewish Community at Columbia University." 'Iggrot ha'Ari—The Lion's Letters 1: 8-50.

Bunis, David M. 1993. A Lexicon of the Hebrew and Aramaic Elements in Modern Judezmo. Jerusalem: Magnes.

Jochnowitz, George. 1981a. "Lexical Items Collected by Zalman Yoveli." In BONO HOMINI DONUM: Essays in Historical Linguistics in Memory of J. Alexander Kerns. Yoel L, Arbeitman and Allan R, Bomhard, eds. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 143-157.

---. 1981b. "Religion and Taboo in Lason Akodesh (Judeo-Piedmontese)." IJSL 30: 107-117.

---. 2007. “The Yiddish Kvetch: Relating Language to Culture” (review of Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex). Midstream, July-August 2007, 29-30.

Matisoff, James. 2000. Blessings, Curses, Hopes, and Fears: Psycho-Ostensive Expressions in Yiddish. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 2nd edition. (First edition 1979)

Modena Mayer, Maria and Giovanna Merzagora Massariello. 1973. "Il giudeo-modenese negli appunti di R. Giacomelli." Rendiconti dell'Istituto Lombardo 107: 863-938.

Wex, Michael. 2005. Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Paper, 2006. New York: HarperCollins.

This essay appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Midstream

This essay was published in Jewish Identity and Comparative Studies/Judéité et Comparatisme , Danielle Buschinger et Roy Rosenstein (éds.), Amiens, Presses du “Centre d’Études Médiévales de Picardie”, 2019.