Starting in the summer of 2021, the Jewish Language Project has presented "Fun Facts" - interesting insights about Jewish languages - on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. 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.
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.
The Judeo-Piedmontese word calavassa 'fool' comes from Ladino
קאלאבֿאסה kalavasa which means pumpkin.
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.'
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.
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."
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.'
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.
Leonard Nimoy paid a psychiatrist for regular sessions because she was also a Yiddish expert and gave him the opportunity to use his Yiddish.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The first Jewish-Georgian periodical was established in 1918. It was called ხმა ებრაელისა Khma Ebraelisa 'The Jewish Voice.'
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
In Judeo-Greek rimonim means pomegranates but also breasts.
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.
Judeo-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’).
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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.'
In Jewish Neo-Aramaic, a word for a Yeshiva in Iranian Kurdistan is "qaraulá" -- qara for "read" and the ula suffix for "ness".
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)
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’
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).
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.'
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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!
"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."
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."
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.
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.
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 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").
These posts were created by Jewish Language Project interns Sofia Rubio and Aliza Benor, Director of Education and Engagement Hannah Pressman, and Founder and Director Sarah Bunin Benor, with input from many linguists, historians, and website visitors.
Benor, Sarah Bunin, ed. 2002-. Jewish Language Website. Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project.
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.