Starting in the summer of 2021, the Jewish Language Project has presented "Fun Facts" - interesting insights about Jewish languages - on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and on TikTok starting in 2022. Read the posts below to learn about the existence of languages you've never heard of, written texts from magic to newspapers, words from Hebrew and Aramaic, archaic pronunciations, and evidence of historical migrations and contact between Jewish communities. For future posts, we welcome suggestions from visitors like you.
In late 2022, we started an additional program: Jewish English Lexicon Word of the Week. See the archive here.
Jan. 2: The name of the subgenre of hardcore techno known as “gabber” comes from a Dutch Bargoens slang term meaning “friend,” which in turn originates from the Yiddish usage of חבֿר khaver (“buddy,” “friend” - from the Hebrew word חבר, also meaning “friend,” literally, someone connected to you). In Dutch, a G at the beginning of a word is pronounced like a hard kh sound.
Jan. 23: Over the past two centuries, most longstanding Jewish languages have become endangered due to nationalistic language policies, migrations, and genocide.
Some endangered languages: Ladino, Judeo-Amazigh, Judeo-Alsatian, Bukharian, Judeo-Italian, Karaim, Judeo-Arabic, Jewish Malayalam, Krymchak, Judeo-Shirazi, Judeo-Esfahani, Jewish Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Grek.
Feb. 13: In the 19th century, most Jews in Ukraine spoke Yiddish. In 2020, most spoke Russian. Since the Russian invasion in 2022, many Jews have begun to learn more Ukrainian, and some leaders have incorporated more Ukrainian into their online writings - acts of solidarity and anti-Russian defiance.
Jan. 17: The French word for "gangsters," pègre, comes from Western Yiddish (and Hebrew) פגר "carcass, cadaver." It entered French slang through the jargon of Alsatian Jewish cattle traders and peddlers, who used it as an insult. During the early 19th century, there were significant contacts between Jewish merchants and the French
underworld, and many Yiddish/Hebrew words were absorbed into French
Jan. 30: Rotwelsch ("beggars' incomprehensible language") refers to the argots spoken by marginalized groups in the German-speaking world, including thieves and vagabonds. Rotwelsch varieties contain many words from Yiddish and Hebrew. Here are a few examples from Liber Vagatorum (The Book of Vagabonds), a 16th-century work popularized by Martin Luther that includes a glossary of Rotwelsch:
ACHLEN (to eat, from אכל)
GFAR (village, from כפר)
MACKUM (city, from מקום)
Feb. 6: Tu Bishvat - The New Year of the Trees around the World
shbídi pherobá - Judeo-Georgian, 'seven species'
las frutas - Ladino, 'the fruits'
meva xuri - Bukharian, 'fruit eating'
fəth əl-'úd - Tunisian Judeo-Arabic, 'blossoming of the dry tree
mooedeh ilanoot - Jewish Persian, 'holiday of the trees'
tubizvat - Judeo-Italian, 'Tu Bishvat'
khamishoser - Yiddish, 'fifteen'
tubisbat - Judeo-Arabic & Haketia
mzdane 'ilane - Jewish Neo-Aramaic, 'gifts of the trees'
ʂev hindorho - Juhuri, 'the night of the trees'
Feb. 20: Jews in Morocco have spoken many languages, including Judeo-Arabic, Haketia (Judeo-Spanish), and Jewish French. In rural Southwestern Morocco, especially the High Atlas Mountains, some Jews spoke a Jewish version of Amazigh, also known as Tamazight or Berber. This language is now endangered, but efforts to document it are underway.
Feb. 27: Since speakers of Judeo-Amazigh (Berber) often preserved their language only orally, there are very few texts in this language. One of the first Judeo-Amazigh texts discovered utilized a mixture of Hebrew, Judeo-Amazigh, and Judeo-Arabic. In the 1970s, revitalization efforts resulted in the publication of a Judeo-Amazigh translation of the Passover Haggadah.
Jan. 9: Schopfloch is a village in southern Germany where a Hebrew-filled secret language called “Lachoudisch” was spoken. Some residents still remember dozens of words, even decades after Jewish presence there ended. A fun example is Mizwefresser, literally “mitzvah gobbler” - someone of any religion who’s considered too religious.
Mar. 6: לַלַנגֵי לַלַנגֵי: טוּרַוֵי רַנגֵי רַנגֵי
lalange, lalange: ˠturawe, range range!
Purim, Purim: the mountains, colorful colorful!
Every spring, the snow begins melting off the mountains of Northern Iran, revealing their festive colors just in time for lalange (Purim). This phenomenon gives rise to the popular proverb in Lishan Didan - Jewish Neo-Aramaic from Urmia, Iran.
Mar. 13: A woman named Archondou wrote to her son, Fudayl, about her illness: "My eyes hurt very badly, and I give three zuz every week to the doctor, and I cannot move from this place." She wrote to him from Alexandria, requesting that he bring her to Cairo, where he lives. "If God is good to you, do me a favor and come quickly to fetch me out of here so that I do not die." The letter is written in Hebrew, but it also includes several Greek words written using Hebrew characters:
ארכודו, her name, Archondou
אלכסדריא, where the letter was written,
and טילרין, the Greek work for "mattress,"
Modern variants of Archondou's name include Αρχοντουλα, Αρχόντω, or Αρχοντία.
Mar. 20: Observant Jews recite blessings called Birkot Hashachar every morning. The third, as traditionally recited by men, gives thanks to God, "who did not make me a woman." Women's siddurim (prayer books) use various adaptations. Here are three early variations:
Ladino, 15th century
Bendicho tu YY nuestro Dio, rey para siempre que mi fizo cumo su vulentad.
Blessed are You, A(donay) our God, King for eternity, who made me according to his will.
Hebrew, 15th century
BA'I EM'H sheasitani isha v'lo ish.
Blessed are You Lord our God, Master of the Universe, for You made me a woman and not a man.
Judeo-Provencal, 14th century
Bendich Tu Sant Benezent nostre Diew rey dal segle ke fis mi fena.
Blessed art Thou Lord our God king of eternity who made me a woman.
Judeo-Persian attracts interest from historians of Persian because it preserves archaic traits and words lost in New Persian. And, like several other Jewish languages, the earliest surviving evidence of New Persian is written in Hebrew letters.
Jewish Iranian Languages: Judeo-Persian is Persian written in the Hebrew script, whereas Judeo-Kashani, Judeo-Isfahani, Judeo-Shirazi, etc., are non-written Iranian languages that are etymologically distant from and mutually unintelligible with Persian.
A word made from numbers: Tu Bishvat, the "New Year for the Trees," is celebrated on the 15th of the month of Shevat in the Jewish lunar calendar. Tu is an acronym for the number 15 in the Hebrew alphabet counting system known as gematria, which assigns the numerical value of 9 to tet [ט] and 6 to vav [ו]. Together these letters make the sound “tu.”
Las Frutas: Among Sephardic Jews, Tu Bishvat is known as Las Frutas, which means The Fruits in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Some communities host a symbolic seder called Frutikas, Little Fruits, including these symbolic foods:
vino - wine
(f)igos - figs
agranadas - pomegranates
azetunas - olives
datiles - dates
mansanas - apples
almendras - almonds
Many Names for Tu Bishvat:
Judeo-Italian: tubizvat (15th of Shevat)
Judeo-Arabic and Haketia: tubisbat (15th of Shevat)
Tunisian Judeo-Arabic: fətḥ əl-`úd (blossoming of the dry tree)
Tunisian Judeo-Arabic in Djerba: fətḥ əz-zərr (opening of the trees)
Judeo-Georgian: shbídi pherobá (seven species)
Ladino: las frutas (the fruits)
Yiddish: khamishoser (15)
Ilānot: Jewish communities in Iran and Central Asia have various names for Tu Bishvat:
- Bukharian / Judeo-Tajik from Uzbekistan: Meva Xūri (fruit eating)
- Judeo-Persian from Iran: Ilānot (trees) or Mooedeh Ilanoot (holiday of trees)
- Hulaula / Jewish Neo-Aramaic from Sanandaj, Iran: Mzdane 'Ilane (gifts of the trees)
Judeo-Isfahani: Though Judeo-Isfahani and Persian are quite different, we can find some commonalities. For example, both languages base the days of the week on Saturday: šanbe in Persian and šabbât in Judeo-Isfahani.
Day Persian Judeo-Isfahani
Sunday yek-šanbe ye-šabbâ(t)
Monday do-šanbe di-šabbâ(t)
Tuesday se-šanbe θe-šabbâ(t)
Wednesday čahâr-šanbe câr-šabbâ(t)
Thursday panj-šanbe bayn-šabbâ(t)
Friday jom-e ru(δ)-eδene
Saturday šanbe šabbât
Kashi / Judeo-Kashani: The Central Plateau Dialects of Kashan province were mostly replaced by Persian in the 20th century. They survive in a few rural communities and among elderly Jewish Kashani immigrants in the United States and Israel.
Jewish Braille: Many languages around the world have systems of Braille that enable blind people to read. Recently, a young language enthusiast created a Braille system for Judeo-Arabic.
Leche i Miel: To wish someone a good journey in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), you can say kaminos de leche i miel, "ways of milk and honey." This refers to the biblical Hebrew description of the holy land as eretz zavat ḥalav udvash, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ ("a land flowing with milk and honey"). In both languages, the phrase conveys the sweet promise of a different place.
Love in Juhuri (Judeo-Tat):
Similar to te quiero in Spanish, mǝ ty-rǝ xosdǝnym in Juhuri means “I love you.” The use of the verb xosdǝ (to want) in this context makes many community members erroneously claim that there is no word for “love” in the language.
“Love” is myhbǝt in Juhuri, thus myhbǝt dyl-me (the love of my heart). “A person in love” is oşuq, so oşuq birǝm means “I fell in love, I am in love.” And the Jewish wedding ceremony huppah in Juhuri is called mǝhr, a cognate of Persian مهر (love, affection).
Te kero muncho bien: This beautiful expression for love is found in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), meaning, "I want all that is good for you." Other affectionate expressions in Ladino are presiado/presiada (precious); mi alma (my soul); and hanum (sweetie), which comes from the Turkish word hanım (lady). Someone who is especially beloved can be called hanumika.
Terms of affection in Jewish languages of Iran: The word jān (soul, dear) is used in Persian and various Jewish Iranian languages, often in the colloquial form joon. The Kurdish cognate, gyan, appears in Hulaula (Sanandaj Jewish Neo-Aramaic) as gyane (soul, dear) and gyani (my soul, my dear) - one of many examples of Kurdish influence in Jewish Neo-Aramaic.
A woman with two souls:
To say that a woman is pregnant, speakers of Hulaula (Jewish Neo-Aramaic) use the expression bakhta tre gyane, which means, “a woman with two souls.”
Regional Similarities around Kurdistan: Jewish varieties of Neo-Aramaic in towns around Kurdistan resemble each other more than the language of nearby non-Jews, likely reflecting contact and migration among Jewish communities in the region.
Storytelling in Judeo-Yazdi:
Jewish Iranian languages feature relatively few Hebrew words, and most relate to religious items. However, many Jewish Yazdis (from the city of Yazd) begin stories by reciting a formula based on Hebrew: bešem ašem nase onaslia ('in the name of the Lord, we will do and be successful').
A 12th-Century Jewish Puzzle Inventor:
Abraham Ibn Ezra was one of the most brilliant minds of the Golden Age of Spain. Famous as a poet, biblical commentator, astrologer, mathematician, and grammarian, he may also be considered an inventor of word puzzles! A 1924 JTA article cited Ibn Ezra's creation of a 5-word grid as a precursor to the modern crossword puzzle.
A Jewish Ukrainian Song:
Jews have spoken the Ukrainian language with words from Hebrew and Yiddish.
Shabes rano ja vstavaju (On Sabbath I get up early)
Taj v bejs-medresh pribihaju (and run into the prayer-house).
Jak v bejs-medresh pribihaju (as I run into the prayer-house),
Tales-tfiln nadivaju (I put on phylacteries and prayer shawl).
"When melodies are passed down through oral tradition, they require a continuing chain of transmission to keep the melodies alive. My project to notate Persian-Jewish prayer melodies is an attempt to preserve these melodies for future generations of Jews, non-Jews, Persians and non-Persians alike." --Cantor Jacqueline Rafii
"We don't have many historical records to prove our existence or history. Our languages and traditions are our historical records." --Alan Niku, filmmaker, scholar, and heritage speaker of Iranian Jewish languages
Where does the word homentashn (hamantaschen, hamentashen) come from? The Yiddish word homentashn is a Yiddishized version of a German pastry name, mahntasche. Mahn - in Yiddish mon - is poppy seed, the original (and, some say, best) flavor of these pastries, and tash is a pouch or pocket. Somehow this pastry became associated with Purim, and Jews recognized the similarity between the word mon and the name of the Purim villain, homon (Haman - boo!). Eventually these pastries became known as Haman pouches - homentashn. Some rabbis have continued this wordplay and assigned Hebrew meaning to both words: Haman tash (תש) - Haman is weakened.
Loanwords in Megillat Esther: Throughout history Jews have borrowed words from many languages, whether they were speaking/writing in Hebrew or a variant of the local language. Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther) is written in Hebrew but includes many loanwords:
saris (eunuch) from Akkadian
patshegen (copy) from Old Persian and Aramaic
ahashdarpan (satrap - a governor) from Old Persian
The names Esther and Mordechai are variants of Babylonian deities - Ishtar and Marduk.
Haman's Ears: The Hebrew phrase oznei haman (Haman's ears) appears in a 16th-century Hebrew play from Italy that puns on the biblical word for 'the manna' - haman. Jews in Italy and Sephardi communities ate ear-shaped fried dough called orecchi di aman (Judeo-Italian) and orejas de aman in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), 'ears of Haman.' The Hebrew version of this phrase was eventually adopted as the Modern Hebrew name for the triangular pastries brought to Israel by Ashkenazi Jews.
Dialogue in Diaspora: What was Queen Esther's spoken language? Well, her Persian is good enough that Ahashverosh and Haman have no idea she's Jewish. But, based on other Diaspora Jewish language practices, it's likely that she changed her language when speaking with Mordechai, using Hebrew words and other distinctive features.
Purim for Juhuri (Judeo-Tat) Speakers:
Some people claim that Jews of the Eastern Caucasus are descendants of Esther and Mordechai. Whether this is true or not, Purim traditions seem to be deeply rooted in the culture of this community.
Names related to this holiday used to be popular among community members. Along with the traditional names Istir (Esther), Hǝdǝso (Hadassah), and Mǝrdǝxǝj (Mordechai), two additional feminine names were used: Istirǝmǝlkǝ (Esther ha-Malka) and Purim itself!
The holiday has a different name in Juhuri: Homunui or Homunu (perhaps derived from Haman).
And the delicious halva-like sweet prepared especially for this holiday is called hǝdisǝ or hǝsido (doesn’t it sound like Hadassah?)
Şorǝ Homunui gǝrdo! Happy Purim!
Honey and Onion: The Jewish Neo-Aramaic of Kurdish Jews in Iraq has many influences from Arabic. One example is this saying about the ups and downs of life:
Yom 'asal, yom basal,
"[Life is] a day honey, a day onion."
May we all have more days of 'asal than basal!
Bring Home a Stone: When borrowing from other languages like Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish, Kurdish Jews have sometimes chosen rhyming expressions, like this one from Arabic: lamma tirja’ min safar, jib walaw ḥajar, “when you return from a journey, bring [a gift] even a stone." The idea is that the gift itself is less important than thinking about family members while you are away.
Masa, Meza, Mazal: A Ladino refran (expression) about Passover plays on the similar sounds linking three "m" words: Ni pesah sin masa, ni meza sin mazal, "neither Passover without matzah, nor a table without luck."
Charoset around the World:
charoseth, charosef - Judeo-Greek - Ioannina, Greece
haroset - Judeo-Italian - Venice, Italy
charouses - Western Yiddish - Amsterdam, Netherlands
khroyses - Yiddish - Lublin, Poland
harosi - Ladino - Sarajevo, Yugoslavia
rharoche - Judeo-French - Bayonne, France
hilq, silan, shira - Judeo-Arabic - Baghdad, Iraq
laḥliq - Judeo-Arabic - Tripoli, Libya
dukkih - Judeo-Arabic - Sana‘a, Yemen
halegh - Judeo-Persian - Tehran, Iran
haliká - Judeo-Hamedani - Hamedan, Iran
ḥəllíq - Jewish Neo-Aramaic - Betanure, Iraq
Charoset Around the World: Map
The 4 Questions - A Multilingual Version:
The Passover Haggadah asks, Why is this night different from all other nights? These questions may be heard around the world:
Oles ts-allis nichtis trōmi chamets ē matsa? Ki mon tout t'nichta mono matsa. (Judeo-Greek)
Far vos ale nakht fun a gants yor, az mir viln, esn mir bitere grinsn, un az mir viln esn mir zise grinsn, ober di nakht fun peysekh esn mir nor bitere grinsn? (Yiddish)
Dar shab-hā-ye digar mā sabzi-rā dar serkeh hattā yek bār ham nemizanim; vali emshab do bār mizanim. (Jewish Persian)
Ke en todas las noches nos comientes i bevientes tanto asentados i tanto arescovdados i la noche la esta todos nos arescovdados? (Ladino/Judeo-Spanish)
Ha Lachma Anya in Judeo-Arabic:
This Aramaic text, found at the beginning of the Seder's Maggid (Telling) section, is one of Passover's most famous refrains.
הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם. כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל
Ha lachma anya di achalu avhatana b'ara d'mitzrayim. Kol dichfin yeitei v'yeichol
מִתלוּ הָאדָא כִבְז אֶלמַסַאּכִּין אִלַדִי אַכַּלוּ אָּבּהָָתָּנָא בְאָרְד מָצָר. כִּל מִינוּ ג'וּעָאן יִגִ'י וָיָאכּוֹל
Mitlu hadha khibz elmasakin iladhi akalu abhatana be-ard maṣar. Kil minu ju'an yiji wayakol.
This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All those who are hungry, let them enter and eat.
Happy Passover in Jewish Languages
Rhaz Gadeïa - Chad Gadya in Judeo-Provençal:
Chad Gadya (One Kid), often sung at the end of a Passover seder, is what's known as a cumulative song: new text is added with each repetition, so that the verses get progressively longer. Here is a Judeo-Provençal version of this Aramaic classic:
Es vengu lou Cadoch barourhou
Qu'avé chorhéta lou malarhama
Qu'avé chorhéta lou chorhet
Qu'avé chorhéta lou biou
Qu'avé bégu toute l'aïgue
Qu'avé moussa lou fiou
Qu'avé brula la vergue
Qu'avé pica lou tchin
Qu'avé mourdu lou ca
Qu'avé mandja lou cabri
Qu'avé 'tchéta moun païre un escu, dous escu,
Qu'avé 'tchéta moun païre un escu, dous escu,
Rhaz gadeïa, rhaz gadeïa.
Then came the Holy One blessed be He
who slaughtered the angel of death
who slaughtered the slaughterer
who slaughtered the ox
that drank all the water
that put out the fire
that burnt the stick
that beat the dog
that bit the cat
that ate the goat
that my father bought for one crown, two crowns,
that my father bought for one crown, two crowns,
one goat, one goat.
Mazuma: Jewish languages have had far reach in American non-Jewish communities. A version of mezumen, the Yiddish word for cash, was recorded in use by non-Jews in Kansas in 1916. Mazuma also appears in early 20th-century writing by O. Henry and H.L. Mencken. The word's origin lies in the Hebrew word mezuman – מְזֻמָּן, meaning "prepared, ready" – it's ready money.
Lekoudesch (from lashon kodesh, holy tongue), a dialect used by cattle traders in Germany, has 300-400 loanwords from Hebrew and Aramaic. For example, the word for no is lou (from lo - לא), and the word for good is dof (from tov - טוֹב). While Jews are no longer prominent in the cattle-trading industry, non-Jews in Germany continue to use these words today.
Fancy-Shmancy! Have you ever heard an English speaker add shm- to a word to indicate that what’s being discussed isn’t important? This phenomenon is known as “dismissive reduplication,” and it stems from Yiddish syntax. Now, reduplication occurs in English words that have no Yiddish or Jewish context. Isn't that fancy-shmancy!
Cats & Rats: Kuando el gato se va de kaza, bailan los ratones. When the cat leaves the house, the rats dance. This Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) expression is akin to, "When the cat's away, the mice will play."
Yiddish Gender Inclusivity: A list of gender-inclusive terms has been created by Yiddish speakers looking to embrace the gender identities and experiences of all speakers. Here are some of the words:
in between genders: צװישנמיניק
gender spectrum: די גאַמע מינים
[DI GÁME MÍNIM]
Merci or Merthe? In Judeo-Shirazi, a language spoken in Southwest Iran, "thank you" is merthe. If you think this sounds similar to the word for "thank you" in French, merci, you're right! The Persian languages are actually influenced by French.
Yiddish “Camp”: According to research on American English, Yiddishisms such as shmutz, kvetch, and chutzpah are more likely to be used by gay and bisexual non-Jews than by their heterosexual counterparts. One theory is the affinity between queer culture and Jewish stars like Joan Rivers and Bette Midler; Yiddish has become part of a “camp” sensibility. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that in the queer community, Yiddish words have acquired social significance beyond their Jewish origins.
Mano a Manim: The famous Portuguese dramatist Gil Vicente included a Judeo-Portuguese passage in his 1523 play, Farsa de Inês Pereira: "Alça manim dona, o dona, ha." Manim appears to be the Spanish mano (hand) combined with the Hebrew masculine plural suffix -im. Notably, neither part of the hybrid word manim is Portuguese!
In the London Spanish and Portuguese prayerbook, a special section of Mi sheberakh blessings, meant to be read on Yom Kippur, recalls the Spanish Inquisition. The Portuguese words translate as, "To all of our brethren confined by the Inquisition," and are followed by Hebrew liturgy requesting that God "bring them forth from darkness to light" (me'afelah le'orah).
Non komo muestro Dyo: Ein Kelohenu, a prayer of praise that repeats four different names of God in every verse, is generally sung in Hebrew. In recent years, a bilingual Hebrew-Ladino version has become popular even in non-Sephardic synagogues. Here’s the first verse:
Non komo muestro Dyo,
non komo muestro Senyor,
non komo muestro Rey,
non komo muestro Salvador.
Ein kelohenu, ein kadonenu, ein k’malkenu, ein k’moshi'enu.
There is none like our God, there is none like our Lord, there is none like our King, there is none like our Savior.
Note that it takes Ladino and English 4 or 6 words to express a 2-word Hebrew phrase.
Gender-neutral pronouns: Contemporary Jews are creating innovative linguistic - and artistic - forms. This Farsi image, by calligrapher Ruben Shimonov, features the gender-neutral 3rd-person pronoun ū with the word aziz ('dear') inside. Colors are inspired by the non-binary flag.
A Medieval Aramaic Poem for Shavuot:
Jews composed religious poetry in Aramaic long after they stopped speaking the language. Rabbi Meir ben Yitzhak (d. 1095) of Orléans wrote one such poem to preface the scriptural reading for Shavuot, which includes the Ten Commandments. Akdamut Millin (Introductory Words) describes the might of God, the majesty of the heavenly court, and the merit of the righteous. This evocative poem remains part of the traditional Shavuot service.
Moed-e Gol: The Jewish Persian term for Shavuot is moed-e gol, "Festival of Flowers." Gol means flower in Persian and refers to the widespread custom of celebrating this holiday through beautiful floral decorations and placing garlands on Torah scrolls. However, other explanations say that in earlier phases, gol could have been the Hebrew word gadol (great) or alternatively go'el (redemption).
A Velada Vigil: The Sephardic tradition of studying sacred texts all night on Shavuot is known as velada. This is the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) word for guarding or watching. It stems from the Spanish verb velar (to watch over) as well as the Latin velare (to cover or conceal). On the island of Rhodes, the velada included chanting special songs and prayers in Ladino and Hebrew; in the morning, those who had kept the vigil would eat rose-scented milk pudding (sutlach) and savory pies.
A Judeo-Greek Hymn on Shavuot: Considered to be Europe's oldest Jewish community, Romaniote Jews spoke Greek and lived in places like Ioannia, Thessaloniki, and Corfu. This Judeo-Greek piyyut (liturgical poem or hymn), composed in the 16th-17th century, was likely sung on the second day of Shavuot. Its opening stanza includes a reference to Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema, which proclaims God's oneness.
Judeo-Syriac: This Geniza fragment - probably from 12th- or 13th-century Cairo - is a rare artifact of a Jew studying Syriac, a Christian dialect of Aramaic. On one side of the paper (pictured right), they practiced writing the Syriac alphabet and the names of the Patriarchs (e.g., Isḥāq/ܐܣܚܩ/אסחק as shown in the pink box). On the other side (pictured left), they transcribed Psalm 20 of the Peshitta - the Syriac Bible translation - into Hebrew script.
A Magical Spell in Judeo-Latin: This magical spell to catch a thief is a rare example of Judeo-Latin - Latin written in Hebrew script. The scribe of this fragment (which likely dates to the 12th-13th century CE) probably didn’t know Latin, but the words of the spell were evidently thought to be powerful enough to be written down. The spell begins by invoking Omni potentes sempiternes deus, "Omnipotent, eternal God."
Qurʾān/Miqraʾ; The word Qurʾān (קראן) in medieval Judeo-Arabic manuscripts usually means the same thing as the Hebrew word Miqraʾ (מקרא): Bible. In this Judeo-Arabic manuscript about the birth of Moses, the 12th-century Spanish poet Moshe Ibn ʿEzra uses the plural “qurʾānāt” (קראנאת - circled at left) to refer to prophetic books in general and “the great Qurʾān” (אלקראן אלאעטֿם - circled at right) to refer to the Torah. The verb root common to both “Qurʾān” and “Miqraʾ” is קרא, which connotes reading in Hebrew and reading or recitation in Arabic.
A Yiddish Haman in the Cairo Geniza: Three fragments of what is possibly the earliest-known Yiddish prayerbook have been found in the Cairo Geniza so far. Dating to approximately the 15th century, this text was likely a translation from a Hebrew prayerbook. Pictured here is the recently discovered third fragment, part of which includes the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew piyyut (liturgical poem) Asher Heni, which is recited on Purim after the reading of Megillat Esther. The names Haman and Agag, a king of the Amalekites, are circled.
A Spanish Siddur in the Cairo Geniza: A Geniza page from a roughly 16th-century Spanish translation of the siddur (prayerbook) includes the prayer "Yaʿale ve-Yavo," which is added to the liturgy on festivals and Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the month). The underlined phrase says en el dia del rreshodes este, “on this Rosh Chodesh day.” Reshodes combines two Hebrew words (רֹאשׁ - head, and חוֹדֶשׁ - month) into one Judeo-Spanish word. The prayer expresses hope for several divine attributes: gracia, bien, merce, and apiadar (grace, well-being, loving-kindness, and compassion).
A Judeo-Armenian Glossary: Many Geniza fragments are everyday documents like grocery lists or drafts of personal correspondence. We can only guess at the purpose of this glossary of common (and some not-so-common) Judeo-Arabic words, each word with its Armenian translation underneath—all written in Hebrew script.
Kon una flor no se faze el enverano. "One flower does not make the summer." The essence of this Ladino refran is that you should not get ahead of yourself. A similar expression is "Don't count your chickens before they hatch."
The noble origins of Yenta: The Yiddish women’s names Yenta and Yentl come from Gentil and Gentile (meaning noble, beautiful), names used by French- and Italian-speaking Jews in the Middle Ages. In Jewish English today, yenta generally refers to a gossipy woman or matchmaker - an association influenced by the character Yenta, played by Molly Picon, in the 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof.
The Yiddish term bedikes khomets, “the search for leavened foods,” is a ritual ridding the home of chametz before Passover. It was also used to refer to Russian police searches for illegal documents in suspected revolutionaries’ homes at the turn of the 20th century - a search for forbidden material.
"Habib Allah Eliyahu" (Elijah, the Beloved of God) is part of a family of Judeo-Arabic pizmonim (songs of praise) with the refrain habib Allah Eliyahu, sung in Jewish communities throughout the Levant and Iraq. It details the stories of Elijah the prophet. One Aleppian variation - "Eliyahu Bil Karmel" - spells out the sojourning of Elijah in the region, mentioning Jobar, Halab, Beirut, and Istanbul, among other places.
Romanized newspapers: Like many Jewish languages, Yiddish is usually written in Hebrew script. However, it has also been written using the Latin and even Cyrillic alphabets. In the years following World War II, many romanized Yiddish publications appeared in Europe, such as posters and newspapers printed in displaced persons’ camps in Germany. The motive was functional, not ideological - alef-beys type was difficult to find after presses were destroyed during the war.
An Appetite for Books: Yiddish has different words for "book" depending on whether it contains sacred or secular content. A seyfer indicates a "holy book" like the Bible, the Talmud, or a prayer book and comes from the Hebrew word sefer. Bukh comes from the German word buch and indicates non-sacred content. Some Yiddish-speaking butchers borrowed the Slavic-origin term for a cow's third stomach - knihe - which also means "book." Why? Because that organ reportedly resembles a codex-style book.
Yiddish Pseudonyms: Many women writers began publishing across the Yiddish diaspora in the early 1900s. They gained such popularity that some male authors published under female pseudonyms. After his poetry was rejected from the newspaper Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Free Voice of Labor), Jacob Glatstein submitted work under the pen name Klara Blum. The poems were then published and praised by the paper’s editor.
Where do you cry? In Northeastern Yiddish, voynen “to live” and veynen “to weep” are homophones: both sound like veynen. In order to avoid unhappy confusion, speakers use the phrase Vu freyt ir zikh? “Where do you rejoice?” instead of Vu voynt ir? “Where do you live?”
In mandate Palestine, anti-Yiddish activity included campaigns against showing films in the language—most infamously, a 1930 protest against a presentation of Mayn yidishe mame (“My Jewish mother”) in Tel Aviv, during which members of the Gedud megine ha-safah (Battalion of the Defenders of the [Hebrew] Language) disrupted the film and threw ink and “foul-smelling objects” at the screen.
Pinchas: What do Nḥaysí, Pilxaz, and Pincie have in common? They’re all forms of the biblical Hebrew name פנחס Pinchas (Phineas), the grandson of Aaron. Nḥaysí is Libyan Judeo-Arabic, Pilxaz is Judeo-Georgian, and Pincie is Jewish Polish.
阿無羅漢 - אברהם - Abraham:
Although there was not a significant tradition of Judeo-Chinese writing, the Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, wrote inscriptions and manuscripts in Chinese, sometimes interwoven with Hebrew. In a few cases, Chinese words, especially names, were written in Hebrew letters, such as גן שה zhāng shì (Miss Zhang) in a 17th-century Memorial Book. In other cases, Hebrew names were written in Chinese letters, such as 阿無羅漢 ā-wú-luó-hàn for אברהם (Abraham) in a 16th-century inscription.
Persian Torah Translation by a Sufi Rabbi: One of the earliest translations of the Torah into Persian (as opposed to Judeo-Persian) was by Sarmad Kashani (1590-1661), a Persian rabbi and merchant who became a wandering naked Sufi dervish in India. Though his many poems often espouse atheist ideas, he and his Hindu companion (some say lover), Abhay Chand, contributed to an early book of comparative religion (Dabestan-e Mazaheb) and represented Judaism at the court of Dara Shikoh, Crown Prince of Delhi. Sarmad was eventually executed for heresy by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
Esta arastado komo la aftara de Tisha B'av. "It's dragging on like the haftarah of Tisha B'Av."
This Ladino expression of impatience refers to the tradition of reading from the book of Jeremiah on the Ninth of Av, a day of mourning and fasting that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Sephardic tradition requires reading an elaborate Ladino midrash alongside the Hebrew haftarah; this addition considerably extends the duration of services.
Shab-e Noi! (Erev Tisha b’Av / When Pigs Fly): Some Iranian Jews call Tisha b'Av Noi (pronounced No-ee), likely from Noh, Persian for "nine." The phrase "Shab-e Noi!" (Erev Tisha B'Av), and its synonym "Ekhā!" (the Book of Lamentations, read on Tisha B'Av), can convey a particular kind of scoffing, much like the English phrases “Yeah, right!” and “When pigs fly!” These words can also be combined to intensify the skepticism, as in this example:
Son: "I'm going to get a dog for my birthday."
Dad: "Shab-e Noi o Ekhā!"
La ienti de Zion: The oldest known original work in Judeo-Italian is a kinah (elegy) known as La ienti (or genti) de Zion, "The People of Zion." Intended for use during the Tisha B'Av holiday, this liturgical poem dates to the 12th-13th century and presents the Jewish Italian vernacular in Hebrew characters. The text survives only in two 14th-century manuscripts of maḥzorim (holiday prayerbooks).
Zumer-time: The Yiddish word for summer, der zumer, is the basis of two delightful phrases:
di zumer-shprenklekh - freckles, literally “little summer spots”
dos zumer-feygele - butterfly, literally “little summer bird.”
El gameyo no ve su korkova, ve la del d'enfrente.
"A camel doesn't see his own hump, he sees the one that's in front of him."
This is said of someone who refuses to see his own faults but always points out the flaws of others. Generally, calling someone a gameyo is a way of insulting their intelligence in Ladino.
Chi nasce muor: This elegiac octave was written by the future Rabbi Leon de Modena when he was only thirteen, in memory of his teacher Moses della Rocca. An example of homophonous translation, it is fully comprehensible both in Hebrew and Judeo-Italian concurrently.
[includes image of original manuscript]
Onomastic wordplay: Coded Jewish names: Historically, some Jews have used names popular in their surrounding society and interpreted them as similar-sounding Hebrew words. For example, the Yiddish name Shneyer/Shneur comes from the Spanish/French senior, meaning “elder, master,” but Jews interpreted it as Hebrew shnei or – two light[s]. This practice continues among American Jews today: Aiden: Irish for little fire, interpreted as Eden; Amalya: international, interpreted as work of God; Eliana: Greek, interpreted as my God answered; Evan: Welsh version of John, interpreted as rock; Liam: Irish version of William, interpreted as my people; Lila: Persian for lilac tree, interpreted as night; Maya: international, interpreted as water
Divine inspiration: Many names used by Jews (and others), both ancient and modern, are theophoric, meaning they reference God. Some examples:
Azriel (my help is God)
Daniel (God is my judge)
Eliav (my God is father)
Elior (God is my light)
Gabriel (strength of God)
Uriel (God is my light)
Ariella (lioness of God)
Batya (daughter of God)
Danya (judgment of God)
Elisheva (God is my oath)
Galia (wave of God)
Talia (dew of God)
Names that Roar: Names meaning “lion” have circulated among Jews for centuries, in part because of symbolic associations with the tribe of Judah. These might have originally been local names, but they were often coded as Jewish. Some examples:
Ancient Rome: Leo
10th century Mainz: Juda ben Meir, a.k.a.Leontin
11th-12th centuries Byzantine Empire: Leo, Leon
15th century Portugal: Juda Abravanel, a.k.a. Leo Ebreo
16th century Florence: Juda, a.k.a. Leone
16th century Hungary: Arszlan (Turkish)
18th century Istanbul: Aslan
21st century America: Leo
Name Changing for Healing: In Jewish communities around the world, a gravely ill child would sometimes be given a new or additional name, often one that indicated life, old age, healing, or the child being (ritually) sold or abandoned. The reasoning is that the forces of illness would come looking for a specific person and turn away empty-handed if the name had been switched. Some examples of disease-fooling names in various languages:
Juhuri: Munosh (will [you] live), Ofdym ([I] found), Shende (thrown away)
Ladino/Judeo-Romance: Mercado (sold), Vidal (life), Vita (life)
Yiddish: Alte (old woman), Alter (old man), Bobe (grandmother), Zeyde (grandfather)
Hebrew (multiple communities): Haya (living), Hayim (life), Nissim (miracles), Raphael (God healed)
Ester, Anna, and 'Abdallah: In many times and places, Jews have drawn baby names from a mix of sources. We can observe distinctly Jewish Biblical (Hebrew) names, local versions of Biblical names, and local non-Biblical names in common usage at the same time. Some examples:
• 10th-century Cairo: Ephraim, Miriam (Biblical Hebrew), Da’ud, Rebekah (local variants of Biblical), ‘Abdallah, Jamila (local non-Jewish: Arabic)
• 13th-century England: Jechiel, Zippora (Biblical Hebrew), Elias, Anna (local variants of Biblical), Peter, Joie (local non-Jewish: English, French)
• 16th-century Rome: Aron, Ester (Biblical Hebrew), Giuseppe, Rebecca (local variants of Biblical), Angelo, Allegrezza (local non-Jewish: Italian)
From Nancy to Noa: Top 10 girls’ names among Jewish respondents to the Survey of American Jewish Personal Names by decade of birth.
* indicates that the name is also in the US Top 10 for that decade.
[Includes a chart ranking names in the 1950s, 1980s, and 2010s.]
From Gary to Ari: Top 10 boys’ names among Jewish respondents to the Survey of American Jewish Personal Names by decade of birth. * indicates that the name is also in the US Top 10 for that decade. [Includes a chart ranking names in the 1950s, 1980s, and 2010s.]
Schalömchen - Hey There! The German-Jewish greeting Schalömchen is a diminutive form of Shalom. A play on the German Hallöchen, meaning “Hey there,” Schalömchen is a friendly, colloquial salutation that playfully adapts the Hebrew word שָׁלוֹם to a contemporary German context. In 2020, the city of Cologne decorated a tram with the words Schalömchen Köln! as part of an effort to celebrate the 1,700-year anniversary of the founding of the city’s Jewish community.
Judeo-Spanish Words, Greek Script: This poem was written by Jacob Joseph Sidis of Trikala in 1885, in Ladino, but using the Greek alphabet. [includes table showing Greek-Script Original, Latin Script, Hebrew Script, and English versions of the poem.]
Carrots and Cabbage for Rosh Hashana: Carrots and cabbage soup are traditional Rosh Hashana foods in Yiddish-speaking communities because of wordplay. Mern means both "carrots" and "to multiply" (as in, may we be fruitful and multiply in the new year). Kol mit vaser (cabbage with water) sounds like the Hebrew phrase kol mevaser (voice proclaiming), a harbinger of good news and the world to come.
Have a Punny New Year!:
Sephardic Jews have a tradition of starting the Rosh Hashana meal with a series of Yehi Ratsones - blessings that incorporate wordplay, using symbolic foods that echo similar words in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Ladino. In the American Sephardic community, the punning tradition appears in English too. Some examples of these hopeful blessings:
May it be Your will Lord our God and God of our ancestors…
… that this new year will be dated one when enmity, hatred, and a person’s desire for another’s harm, will be brought to an end. (date)
… that as You judge us, may the evil of the decree be squashed, but our virtue called out before you. (squash)
… that enmity, hatred, and a person’s desire for another’s harm, will be rooted out. (leek)
… that in the coming year we may go ahead in all we undertake. (fish head)
Heads or Tails?: In Judaico-Romanesco, the Roman dialect of Judeo-Italian, a general holiday greeting is bon monghedde (good holiday - the ayin in mo'ed מוֹעֵד, the Hebrew word for holiday, is pronounced "ng").
Here’s a Rosh Hashana-specific greeting:
Che sia un anno di testa e non di coda.
May it be a year of head and not of tail.
This refers to a Hebrew Yehi Ratson blessing, which is based on Deuteronomy 28:13:
וּנְתָֽנְךָ֨ יי לְרֹאשׁ֙ וְלֹ֣א לְזָנָ֔ב - God will make you the head, not the tail. Hence the Italian and Sephardic tradition of eating fish heads or lamb heads during the Jewish New Year.
Moroccan Judeo-Arabic New Year Greetings:
מועד טוב - maʕid tob
(traditionally male greeting): Good holiday
יכּון עליךּ לעאם מבארךּ -
ikun ʕlik l-ʕam mbark
(traditionally female greeting): Be the year blessed for you
Location: Taroudant, Morocco
Pepitada: A drink traditionally served by Sephardic Jews for kortar tanid (breaking the fast) is pepitada. This milky concoction is made from toasted, crushed melon seeds with vanilla, orange blossom, or rosewater flavoring. Believed to soothe the stomach and rehydrate after fasting, the drink was especially popular in places like Bulgaria, Greece, and Rhodes. Pepitada (also called pipitada) derives its name from pepitas, the Ladino word for seeds that come from melons, squash, and pumpkins.
Puns in Holiday Greetings: On Chol Hamoed (intermediary days of) Sukkot and Pesach, people often wish each other “Moadim lesimcha,” (מוֹעֲדִים לְשִׂמְחָה, Hebrew for “times of celebration”). A common reply is: “Chagim uzmanim lesason” (חַגִּים וּזְמַנִּים לְשָׂשׂוֹן, Hebrew for “holidays and times for joy,” quoting from the Festival Kiddush blessing over the wine). A humorous Ladino alternative is “Chagim uzmanim a la stasion” (holidays and times to the station), referring to the common practice of vacationing during these holidays.
Judeo-Persian letter in the Afghan Genizah: The Afghan Geniza is a collection of 11th-century documents found in caves in the Samangan province of Afghanistan. This fragment is from a letter sent by a woman named Nāzuk bat Yosef to her relative Yehuda ben Daniel. It’s written in Judeo-Persian - Persian written in Hebrew characters.
From Latin to Aramaic to many Jewish languages: Ushpizin:
One Sukkot tradition involves the ushpizin (אושפיזין, singular: ushpiz), symbolic guests who are invited into the Sukkah because they represent specific spiritual qualities. This custom can be traced to the Zohar, a 13th-century Jewish mystical text written in Aramaic. The Aramaic word ushpiz comes from hospes, Latin for both "host" and "guest." Like its Latin antecedent, ushpiz shifted in meaning over the centuries: in the Aramaic of the Talmud, ushpiz referred to lodging or an innkeeper (that is, the host). By the medieval period, when kabbalists were developing their mystical philosophy, ushpiz had flipped to mean a guest (the object of hospitality).
S'chach, a Hebrew word, refers to the roofing over a sukkah. S'chach is used in Jewish languages around the world, including Judeo-Arabic, Haketia, Ladino, Yiddish, and Jewish English.
S'chach typically consists of branches, fronds, or a woven mat laid over the top of the temporary dwelling. The covering is supposed to provide shade during the day but also allow viewing of the stars in the night sky.
Rooted in the Hebrew verb meaning 'to cover,' the shade-giving s'chach symbolizes divine protection in Jewish theology. Indeed, the sukkah's image as the ultimate shelter appears in sacred texts, mystical thought, and liturgy.
Torah vs. The Evil Eye: In Persian, Jews use the phrases Turā dar miun ("The Torah in between") and Turā moghābel ("The Torah in front of") when talking about death, illness, or anything related to the evil eye. Functioning like the expression "God forbid," these phrases imply an expectation that the Torah has the power to protect people from bad things. Some examples of this interjection: "He went bankrupt, turā dar miun!" or "Turā moghābel, she got coronavirus!"
Hulaula, Jewish Neo-Aramaic from Sanandaj, Iran, uses a related phrase that multiplies the number of Torahs to the lucky number seven: šoa sefar ṭoṛae ga bayn haven (may there be seven sefer Torahs between [us and it]).
Juhuri alphabets: Like many Jewish languages, Juhuri has been recorded using orthographies based on different writing systems, including Hebrew, Cyrillic, and Latin. This Juhuri poem was published in Hebrew script during the Soviet period in 1927, shortly before an official Latin-based alphabet was instituted in 1929. “Dədəj nə ԧəjilho/A Mother and Her Children,” by Yocheved (Liza) Ravvinovich, appears in a second-grade Juhuri textbook.
Yiddish note from a 9-year-old typesetter: Tefilah le-Moshe (Prayers to Moses) was printed by Ella bat Moshe of Dessau in 1695 or 1696 at just nine years old. Her father, Moshe ben Avraham, or Moses Wolf, was a printer in Dessau, Germany. Ella worked in her father’s business as a typesetter. She added a note in Yiddish to the Hebrew piece, asking to be forgiven for any errors:
“The Yiddish letters I set with my own hand - I am Ella, daughter of Moses from Holland - a mere nine years old
- the sole girl amongst six children -
So when an error you should find -
Remember, this was set by one who is but a child”
A concerned mother: A 12th-century Judeo-Arabic letter from Miryam bat Maimon to her brother Moses Maimonides survives in the Cairo Genizah. Her son was studying at the time in Cairo. She writes: "I know that you’re very busy, but please, I’m not eating, I’m not sleeping. I’m so worried about my son. So please find out where your nephew is and let me know how he is. And if by any chance you discover that he’s not around, maybe he went somewhere else. If for some reason he’s not in Cairo, then you send him a letter and you give him a piece of your mind and include my letter with this."
Bukharian cradle ceremony: In addition to the Brit Milah, some Bukharian Jewish women celebrate the Gahvorabandon, a ceremony laying a newborn into a special cradle. The ceremony is shared with neighboring Muslim practices. One Bukharian (Judeo-Tajik) song sung for the ceremony is "Bacha-bacha bar jonem" (My child - my heart): "My dear child/My smiling pretty baby, my dear heart/You are my son/You are my, my first born/I'll lay down my life for you, my dear heart." The song is sung by a sozanda, a highly trained female singer.
A scribe and mother: Miriam bat Benayah was a part of a family of scribes in Sana'a, Yemen, in the late 1500s. Many of the words she may have written are unsigned and may have involved collaborative efforts by many family members. However, one piece at least is directly attributed to Miriam: a Humash that presents each line in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Judeo-Arabic. This type of document is known as a taj among Yemeni Jews. At the end of the piece, she wrote: "Do not condemn me for any errors that you may find, as I am a nursing woman." Jewish women in Sana'a at the time could not often write or read, and Miriam was well-known within the community.
Malayalam song notebooks:
Jewish Malayalam songs from Jewish women of Kerala, India, passed from mother to daughter both orally and in writing. Among 32 handwritten song notebooks are approximately 300 women’s songs. Although most of the community has left Kerala and many of the tunes have been forgotten, over the past 50 years singers have recorded some of the songs. One 2014 album is called “Oh, Lovely Parrot!” after a song in the compilation.
Lishana Deni lamentation songs:
Lel Huza is the name of a lamentation song cycle in Zakho Neo-Aramiac (Lishana Deni). These mourning narratives would traditionally be sung by women on the rooftops of the synagogues in Kurdistan after the evening service on the Eve of the 9th of Av. The oral traditions were passed from mother to daughter for generations and were first recorded in writing in the mid-20th century.
הוֹדוּ hodu - give thanks
הֹדּוּ hoddu - turkey
In Biblical Hebrew, הוֹדוּ hodu means give thanks (as in Psalms), and הֹדּוּ hoddu means India (as in the Book of Esther).The Modern Hebrew word for turkey, תרנגול הודו tarnegol hodu, "rooster of India," is based on similar words for turkey in European languages, including Yiddish indik, Polish indyk, and French dinde (d’inde - from India). These words stem from mistaken European references to the Americas - where this bird originated - as the "West Indies."
We can be thankful for the amusing coincidence that caused turkey and giving thanks to sound the same in Modern Hebrew.
You never write, you never call...Medieval Edition: Among the thousands of Jewish texts preserved in Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue are a number of manuscripts and fragments written in Yiddish. One of these is a 1567 letter written by Rachel bas Avraham Zussman, a Jewish widow who had moved from Prague to Jerusalem. Writing to her son Moshe, who was working in Cairo as a scribe, Rachel details her difficult financial situation and admonishes her son for not visiting or responding to her letters.
Question with Chicken Soup: The mixture of languages that contribute to Yiddish allows for multilingual wordplay. An example is kashe in this proverb: Di beste kashe af der velt iz kashe mit yoykh (“The best question in the world is cooked buckwheat with chicken soup”). Kashe from Aramaic means difficult question, and kashe from Slavic means buckwheat.
Ugly Menorah: In Judeo-Italian, Hanukkyà (from חנוכייה) means “an ugly old woman” because the Chanukah menorahs used in the community were old and usually not polished.
Before there was Chrismukah, there was Weihnukka. This fusion of the German words Weihnachten (Christmas) and Chanukka (Chanukah) was created by 19th century German-speaking Jews. In Austria and Germany, secularizing Jewish families began to adopt gift-giving and other celebratory practices from Christmas to the holiday of Chanukah. By the turn of the 20th century, many assimilated Jews celebrated Christmas as a secular winter holiday, lighting the menorah next to a decorated pine tree. Today, Weihnukka is still used to describe the amalgamation of Christmas and Chanukah celebrations that take place around the world during the holiday season.
Feline bad after a night of purrtying?:
A Yiddish phrase for “hangover” is der katsn-yomer, literally the cat’s lament.
Benedice or Bentsch? The Yiddish word bentsh (bless) comes from Judeo-Italian benedice. Jews speaking a Jewish version of German didn’t want to use the German word for “bless,” segenen, because it also means to make the sign (of the cross). So they maintained a word used by their ancestors who spoke Judeo-Italian.
Calavassa Curiosity: The Judeo-Piedmontese word calavassa 'fool' comes from Ladino
קאלאבֿאסה kalavasa which means pumpkin.
'Poor Little Thing': In Mexico City, Sephardim and Syrian Jews use the words jazito/jazit/jazita 'poor little thing' as a term of endearment. This term comes from the Ladino word xazin meaning 'ill.'
Rahamim's Notebook: There exists one known text in which Malay, the language of Malaysia, is written in Hebrew characters. The text consists of one small notepad belonging to a Persian-speaking Jew named Rahamim Jacob Cohen who wrote in Hebrew, Judeo-Persian, Malay, Gujarati, and English.
Biblical Ge'ez: Ethiopian Jews read the Bible in Ge'ez, a semitic language distantly related to Hebrew. They also have their own religious literature written in Ge'ez such as 'The Death of Moses' and 'The Death of Aaron.'
The Memorial Book of the 15th-17th century Kai-feng Jewish community of China is written in both Chinese characters and Hebrew script, making it one of the first Chinese-Hebrew bilingual and biscriptal books in existence.
Israeli Sign Language (ISL) and Hebrew are completely separate languages. In fact, ISL is greatly influenced by German Sign Language more so than Hebrew. Today, it is used by about 10,000 people.
Jews in Dagestan/Azerbaijan wrote their language (Juhuri/Judeo-Tat, which is related to Persian) in four different writing systems in the 20th century: Hebrew, Latin, Dagestani Cyrillic, and Azerbaijani Cyrillic.
Syrian Judeo-Arabic includes some loanwords from Judeo-Spanish. For example, a bag for tallit or tefillin is called "kuracha," influenced by Judeo-Spanish "koracha," with the same meaning, which comes from Spanish coracha, "leather bag."
Alamak!: Older Syrian Jews in Mexico use the parting alamák, which derives from the Arabic phrase allah ma'ak 'God be with you,' to bless people when departing. Younger Syrian-Mexican Jews use alamák to mean 'goodbye.'
Karaeo-Hebrew: The script often used by the Karaites, a distinct Jewish sect, to write their biblical commentaries was preserved in the Cairo Genizah. The script is composed of Hebrew text written using Arabic letters. Karaeo-Hebrew is often referred to as the opposite of Judeo-Arabic script.
Did you know? Leonard Nimoy paid a psychiatrist for regular sessions because she was also a Yiddish expert and gave him the opportunity to use his Yiddish.
O Livro de Magika: The longest Judeo-Portuguese text in existence is called או ליברו די מגֿיקא O livro de magika ‘The Book of Magic,’ which has a heavy focus on astrology as well as medicine and geography.
Medieval Pizza: The first attested use of the word “pizza” in Italian is in Hebrew letters - פיצה, from a 14th-century glossary of difficult words in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.
Moses's Little Cow: In Yiddish, a word for ladybug is "Móyshe Rabéyne’s kíele” (literally, Moses Our Teacher’s little cow). The term was adopted from Slavic languages, substituting 'Moses' for 'Mary.'
Qırmızı Qəsəbə, located in Azerbaijan, is one of the last remaining strongholds for the Mountain Jewish language Juhuri (Judeo-Tat), and is the only all-Jewish city not located in the United States or Israel.
Spells and Rituals: Included in the Damascus Genizah is a magic booklet that contains magic spells and recipes written in both Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and Judeo-Arabic. Spells that must be recited or inscribed are written in Aramaic, while ritual instructions are given in either Aramaic or Arabic.
Khma Ebraelisa: The first Jewish-Georgian periodical was established in 1918. It was called ხმა ებრაელისა Khma Ebraelisa 'The Jewish Voice.'
From Hebrew to Judeo-Greek: In Judeo-Greek, the word for 'a church' chasicha comes from the Hebrew word חשיכה hashekha 'darkness.'
The Judeo-Tat word lybɛlo, which is used to refer to the secret language used to prevent gentiles from understanding conversations between Jews, comes from Hebrew לא 'no' and Aramaic בַּרָּא 'outside.' Together, these words suggest that lybɛlo literally means that secrets should not be let outside of the community.
The term mashalá from the Arabic word Masha'Allah 'what God wills' is used by Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in multiple languages to protect against ayin hará 'the evil eye' when discussing a fortunate circumstance.
Remnants of Medieval Judeo-Italian: Only one modern dialect of Judeo-Italian is considered a remnant of medieval Judeo-Italian. Judeo-Ferrarese has preserved archaic traits such as personal pronouns that have gone extinct in other dialects - essa, essi, and esso instead of modern lo, la, and li.
Shomayim: While most Hebrew and Aramaic loanwords in Judeo-Tajik retained their original meanings, some shifted entirely. For example, shomayim שמיים means 'heaven' and 'sky' in Hebrew but has now come to mean 'an intoxicated man' in Judeo-Tajik.
Yemenite Hebrew: The Jewish community of Yemen, until recently one of the most isolated Jewish communities in the world, maintained a conservative approach to Hebrew pronunciation. For example, in Yemenite Hebrew, vāv/waw ו is pronounced /w/ in certain cases, whereas in Modern Israeli Hebrew, ו is pronounced /v/. Also unique to Yemenite Hebrew is the pronunciation of dālet ד. In Yemenite Hebrew, ד is pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘this.’ In Modern Israeli Hebrew, ד is pronounced /d/ like the English “d” such as in ‘dog.’
Una pastora yo ami: The Ladino folk song Una pastora yo ami 'I Loved a Shepherdess' is based on the Ladino translation of the 1891 play O agapitikos tis voskopoulas, which was written by the Greek playwright Koromilas.
Cumbia Tujes Mit Tujes: Jewish Argentine authors have found creative ways to combine Yiddish and Spanish in their works. For example, author Carlos Ulanovsky cleverly coined the phrase cumbia tujes mit tujes 'butt to butt cumbia,' which uses the Yiddish word for 'backside' tujes (tuches), alongside the Latin American dance genre cumbia.
Pomegranate Euphemism: In Judeo-Greek rimonim means pomegranates but also breasts.
Maloche!: Contact between Western Yiddish and German resulted in many Hebrew words being integrated into modern German. For example, maloche 'hard work' (from Hebrew מלאכה) is now frequently used in German.
Jewish-Amharic Congratulatory Message: Jewish-Amharic speakers avoid the Orthodox Christian Amharic congratulatory message for a woman who has recently given birth
(እንኳን ማርያምማረችሽ / ǝnkwan Maryam maräččǝš / ‘it is good that Mary has pardoned you’), instead opting for (እንኳንእግዚአብሔርበሰላምገላገለሽ / ǝnkwan ǝgziʾabher bä-sälam gälag-gäläš / ‘it is good that God has relieved you peacefully’).
Toilet Euphemism: The word macom from the Hebrew מקום maqom 'place' is used as a euphemism for 'toilet' in several Judeo-Italian dialects.
The Judeo-Tat newspaper Zaħmətkəş / Захьметкеш / זחמתכּש (Worker), which was founded in 1928, played an important role in developing Judeo-Tat. It featured a "Learn" section, which included Judeo-Tat word lists and lessons.
Luterā'i: Iranian Jews often use a secret jargon, Luterā'i, to communicate with each other. This jargon consists primarily of heavy Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary used with Persian syntax.
Jewish Malayalam incorporates Hebrew loanwords from sacred texts in compound verbs. For example, the compound verb for 'died' is śālŏm-ā.yi.tě which comes from the Hebrew word shalom שָׁלוֹם 'peace.'
Hebrew Revival: Modern Hebrew is the most successful revived language in history, but it was greatly influenced by Jewish diaspora languages. For example, Hebrew word order changed from verb-subject-object to subject-verb-object, widely attributed to the influence of Yiddish.
Haverkodik: In Hungarian, a term for 'being friendly' is haverkodik which stems from Hebrew xaver 'friend' and the Hungarian 3rd person verbal suffix of becoming. Once exclusively used by Hungarian Jews, the term has now made its way into the vocabulary of non-Jewish Hungarians.
Karanhy Bułut Black Cloud: Southwest Karaim is a Jewish language once spoken by Karaite communities in Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and the Crimea. One of the first known pieces of Southwest Karaim literature is the poem Karanhy Bułut 'Black Cloud', which was written by Joseph ben Yeshu'a from Ukraine in the 17th century.
Judeo-Greek: Several Judeo-Greek words of Hebrew/Aramaic origin became part of colloquial Greek, especially in Ioannina, where the Judeo-Greek-speaking Jewish community was centered. Examples include ganav (thief), emet (truth), and pasal (fool, from Hebrew ‘unacceptable’).
Jewish Papiamentu, which is spoken by the Jewish community in Curaçao, takes many loanwords from Hebrew. For example, horban 'suffering, calamity' comes from Hebrew חורבן 'destruction.'
Iranian Kurdistan: In Jewish Neo-Aramaic, a word for a Yeshiva in Iranian Kurdistan is "qaraulá" -- qara for "read" and the ula suffix for "ness".
Multiple Mezuzahs: In Judeo-Italian, mezuzah means the scroll placed on the doorpost but also a beautiful woman (someone the speaker would want to kiss, like they kiss a mezuzah).
Salkinson's Shakespeare: The first complete Shakespearean plays were translated into Hebrew by Isaac Salkinson, a Lithuanian Jew, in the 1870s. His translation of Romeo and Juliet was called רם ויעל
ram we-yaʿel ‘Ram and Jael.’
Shabbat Stew: Jewish communities around the world have their own recipes - and words - for the Shabbat stew that is cooked overnight. Several are based on a line in the Mishnah (Shabbat 2:7) regarding hiding/covering/insulating/ burying hot water/food for Shabbat. In Ladino, Judeo-Italian, and some varieties of Judeo-Arabic, the word is ḥammin/ḥamin (hot), as in the Mishnah. In Western Yiddish it is shalet, and in Eastern Yiddish, tsholnt/tshulnt, from Judeo-French chalant (hot), which leads to Jewish English cholent. Judeo-Arabic has various words, such as s'khina (hot), t'beet/t'bīt (spend the night), and tefina/dfina/adafina (buried, also found in Haketía and Old Judeo-Spanish).
Franbreu: In Franbreu, a hybrid Hebrew-French language spoken in Israel, what happens to words for which the corresponding French and Hebrew genders differ? Sometimes speakers use the French article with the gender of the Hebrew loanword, as in la gvina (Hebrew, feminine) a translation of le fromage (French, masculine) for 'the cheese.'
Modern Palestinian Judeo-Arabic: Starting in the 16th century, a community of Jews originating in Morocco lived in the Holy Land, especially in Safed and Tiberias in the Galilee region, and later in Jerusalem and Hebron. They developed a language based on their Maghrebi Judeo-Arabic and influenced by Palestinian Arabic, which came to be known as Modern Palestinian Judeo-Arabic (MPJA). MPJA flourished alongside Yiddish well into the 20th century, reaching a peak of about 10,000 speakers. Today, MPJA is considered "nearly extinct" and numbers only five remaining speakers in the Galilee region.
Qesim: Many Ethiopian Jews in Israel speak Hebraized Amharic. This blend of language leads to interesting morphological phenomena. For example, the term for priest in Amharic qes is pluralized using the Hebrew suffix -im as opposed to the Amharic suffix -očč to form qesim 'priests.'
Knis, Kenisa, and Knishta: Jews of the Middle East have many different words for synagogues, all based on the Aramaic word for "assembly." In Judeo-Arabic, it's knis, in Judeo-Persian and Karaite communities, kenisa, and in Neo-Aramaic-speaking communities, knishta.
Hebrew Loanwords in Israeli Russian: Speakers of Israeli Russian often use Hebrew loanwords to denote concepts that they have initially encountered in Israel. Examples of such loanwords include bitokhon 'security' instead of bezopastnost, and bituakh leumi 'social security' instead of social'noe obespechenie.
Berakha: Persian Jews use the Hebrew word berakha (blessing) both for counting people and for referring to finished food. "How many are we" is "chand berākha-im," or "how many blessings are we," and "the gondi is finished" is "gondi berākhā shod," meaning "the gondi has been blessed."
Llanito: In Gibraltar, the language called Llanito (or Yanito), a mixture of Spanish and English, includes many Hebrew words and other influences from Haketia, a Judeo-Spanish variety spoken in Northern Morocco.
Tavsili: Since the 11th century, the Jews of Georgia have maintained an orally transmitted translation of the Torah called the tavsili. Written in a combination of Old Georgian and vernacular Judeo-Georgian, the tavsili also includes many Hebrew words - unusual for Torah translations. The word tavsili is a Georgian cognate of the Arabic tafsir, the term used in the 10th century for Saadia Gaon's Judeo-Arabic Torah translation. This is due to contact between Arabic-speaking Jews and Georgian-speaking Jews in the 8th to 11th centuries following the Arab invasion of Georgia.
Hulaula: The name of the Jewish Neo-Aramaic language spoken in Sanandaj, Iran (Kurdish region) is Hulaula, which stems from Yudauta (Judaism). The sound changes that led to this word are found throughout this language: y dropped out, and d and t became l. Y'huda (Jew) > Huda > Hulá. Y'hudautha (Jewish) > Hudauta > Hulaulá.
Folk Etymology: Ladino/Judeo-Spanish calls God Dio (also spelled Dyo) to avoid the seeming plural of Spanish Dios.
More likely etymology: Medieval Spanish used both Dio and Dios, reflecting various Latin case endings. Dios won out at a time of Latinization (as did Jesus, rather than Jesu). But Jews maintained Dio due to their non-participation in this Christian Latinizing trend and a tendency toward archaic language.
Proto-Feminist Prayer in Judeo-Provençal: A 15th-century women's prayer book, written in the Jewish language of Southern France, includes a unique blessing: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who made me a woman," Benedich Tu Sant Benezet nostre Diew rey dal segle ke fis mi fena, quite different from the original, "...who did not make me a woman."
Beshimantó!: Jews played an important role in the history of Papiamentu, the Iberian-based Creole language spoken in Curaçao and other Caribbean islands. The Papiamentu expression “Beshimantó!” means ‘good luck’ and could also be said when a glass object breaks. It derives from the Hebrew בסימן טוב be-siman tov, meaning ‘in a good sign,’ and refers to the glass-breaking tradition that concludes Jewish weddings.
Oh what a world: Jewish Neo-Aramaic uses the Hebrew עולם olam for ‘world,’ rather than the traditional Aramaic word עלמא alma. The use of Hebrew loanwords is a major difference between Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects and their Christian counterparts.
Who's who?: Many students of Hebrew remember singular pronouns by the jingle: “הוּא hu means ‘he’ and הִיא hee means ‘she.’” What about the nonbinary singular "they"? The Nonbinary Hebrew Project has created a new grammatical system with a third gender pronoun: הֶא heh. Just another example of language evolving to reflect its speakers’ realities.
Devilish Distance: It's the time of year when many people enjoy stories about ghosts and demons. The Ladino expression for "really far away" is ande se arapa el guerko, which literally means "where the devil shaves himself"--in other words, to hell and gone!
(W)rite of Passage: "Bar mitzvah" is the phrase for the coming-of-age ceremony and the Jewish adult status in European Jewish languages - Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Italian. But Jewish languages of Asia and North Africa - Haketía, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Georgian, Bukharian/Judeo-Tajik, Juhuri/Judeo-Tat, and various Iranian languages - generally use variants of "tefillin"/"tifillim," and Jewish Malayalam says that a boy has "joined the minyan."
Barmy: Contemporary Jewish communities have various abbreviations for this rite of passage, such as "die Bar" and "die Bat" in Germany, "el bar" and "la bat" in Latin America, and "barmy" in Australia. In North America, many have added to their repertoire gender-inclusive terms like "B mitzvah," "bnai mitzvah" (singular), or simply "mitzvah."
A Provençal Play: By 1896, Judeo-Provençal, the historic Jewish language of southern France had mostly disappeared. Even so, a cantor from Marseilles named Raoul Hirschler republished Harcanot et Barcanot, a Judeo-Provençal play that takes place in the late 18th century. Those who read it likely laughed at the comedic portrayal of their grandparents' language.
To Market, To Market: The Yiddish phrase yeder (yedn) montik un donershtik, literally "every Monday and Thursday," describes an event that repeats regularly, especially if you're kvetching. Why these particular days? These are the weekdays when Jews read Torah in a minyan. This tradition has roots in ancient Israel, where Mondays & Thursdays were market days that brought an influx of farmers to town -- creating a large built-in audience for the public Torah reading.
Judeo-Georgian Intonation: The Jewish community of Georgia is one of the oldest in the world (approx. 2600 years old!). Their speech differs from that of their non-Jewish neighbors in grammar and the use of Hebrew words. But the most distinctive feature - the one that non-Jews highlight when imitating Jewish speech - is their intonation, the melody of their sentences.
Hebrew-Arabic Contact: Hebrew words in Jewish languages sometimes take new forms. For example, Judeo-Arabic uses Arabic diminutive patterns in Hebrew words: a small siddur (prayerbook) is a sdidər, and a small lulav (palm frond) is a lwiləb.
Jews around the world have many expressions to wish their dinner companions well. Yiddish speakers might say mit a gutn apetit (with a good appetite) or es gezunterheyt (eat in good health); Hebrew speakers say beteavon (a translation of the first Yiddish phrase).
In Ladino, guests might say kome kon gana (eat with desire) or bendichas manos (blessed hands) as a way to compliment the cook. After a meal, some Sephardim place a hand on the table and say meza de alegria (a table of happiness).
In Judeo-Arabic, various words meaning "in health" can be said at the start of a meal: Morocco: b-ṣəḥḥkum, Egypt: bissiha, Iraq: awafi.
Let’s eat! Speakers of Judeo-Italian from Rome say buon pro te faccia – may something good be done for you [starting with the meal at hand].
In Judeo-Tajik, spoken by Bukharan Jews, Oshaton shavad! literally means “May whatever you’re eating be food!” The implication is, "May the food you’re eating be great, and may you have a good time eating it!" This phrase features the word osh - Bukharian for food and also for rice pilaf.
When someone says "Thank you!" for a meal, speakers of Juhuri (Judeo-Tat) reply ħəlol gərdo! This means, "May it be good [to you]!" The word ħəlol means "positively acquired" or "allowed, permitted''; if it sounds familiar, that's because it is a cognate of Arabic halal. Thus ħəloli in Juhuri means "kosher." By wishing someone ħəlol-ty! (or ħəlol-işmu! in the plural), you're wishing them well.
Hulaula is the Jewish Neo-Aramaic spoken by Kurdish Jews of Sanandaj, Iran. Before a meal, Hulaula speakers might say gyana basimta (female singular) or gyana basima (male singular), meaning "enjoy eating." The word gyana comes from Kurdish, while basima is Aramaic, a mixture typical of eastern Jewish Aramaic dialects. A Hulaula expression to say "thank you" after a meal is ilokh basime (literally "may your hand be well").
Got Gelt? The foil-wrapped chocolate coins known as gelt delight young and old on Hanukkah. This Jewish English word comes from the Yiddish gelt, meaning money in general, not just the coins given as gifts on Hanukkah. It stems from the 15th-century Germanic word gelt (gold, money).
Chanukia: Modern Israeli Hebrew includes influences from many Diaspora Jewish languages. A timely example is חנוכייה chanukiá (Chanukah candelabrum, menorah), which comes from Ladino hanukía.
Benadamlik: This Ladino word is a result of fusion between Hebrew and Turkish. Ben adam, literally "son of man," means "person" in Hebrew. The Turkish suffix -lik refers to "a quality." Benadamlik means humanness, acquiring in some contexts the religious or moral connotations of righteousness and positive character.
Ijos de mis ijos, dos vezes mis ijos: Children of my children, doubly my children. This poignant Ladino refran (proverb) illustrates the powerful love between grandparents and grandchildren.
Haketia: This North African variety of Judeo-Spanish includes many words from the surrounding spoken Arabic and from ancient Hebrew texts. Some examples:
Arabic: zinzelá (earthquake), estormía (cushion)
Hebrew: kehillá (community), enka‘asarse (to get angry, from ka‘as)
Echoes of Haketia in the Americas: Jews of Northern Moroccan origin living in Venezuela today teach Haketia words to Ashkenazi Jews, leading to a secret Jewish language variety distinct from Christian Venezuelan Spanish. These distinct words are also used in the Venezuelan Jewish diaspora in Miami and elsewhere.
Kratsmach: Based on the Yiddish for “scratch me" (krats mikh), the word Kratsmach is an in-group, euphemistic, often tongue-in-cheek way of referring to "Christmas" in Jewish English, especially among Jews who want to avoid uttering the name of Christ. It was likely coined by a bilingual Yiddish-English speaker in the United States, and today it is common among Orthodox Jews.
Erev Christmas: The Hebrew word erev (evening) is used in many Jewish languages to indicate the evening when a Jewish holiday begins or the day before a Jewish holiday (for example, erev Rosh Hashana). In Jewish English erev has both of these meanings, as well as an additional one: the day before a non-Jewish holiday.
Kwanzakkah: Black Jews in the United States coined this term to describe a dual celebration of Kwanzaa and Chanukah. This is an example of a portmanteau, a word that blends elements of two other words, like brunch, motel, and, of course, Chrismukkah.
Sylvester in Modern Hebrew: Israelis refer to the secular new year with the name of a Roman Pope from the 4th century CE. After his canonization by the Catholic Church in the 16th century, the date of December 31 was named Saint Sylvester's Day. European Jewish immigrants in Israel continued to call New Year's Eve by Sylvester's name, even though they did not observe it as a religious feast day.
These posts were created by Jewish Language Project interns Sofia Rubio, Lael Sacho-Tanzer, and Aliza Benor, Director of Education and Engagement Hannah Pressman, volunteers Ross Berman, Abby Graham, and Gittel Marcus, and Founding Director Sarah Bunin Benor, with input from many linguists, historians, and website visitors.
Our posts draw information from many sources, including:
Benor, Sarah Bunin, ed. 2002-. Jewish Language Website. Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project.
Benor, Sarah Bunin, and Ofra Tirosh-Becker, eds. Journal of Jewish Languages.
Hary, Benjamin, and Sarah Bunin Benor, eds. Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2018.
Kahn, Lily, and Aaron Rubin, eds. 2015. Handbook of Jewish Languages. Leiden: Brill, 2016.
Lowenstein, Steven M. The Jewish Cultural Tapestry: International Jewish Folk Traditions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Rubin, Aaron D., and Lily Kahn. 2021. Jewish Languages from A to Z. London: Routledge.