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.
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.
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 amanin 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.
These posts were created by Jewish Language Project interns Sofia Rubio and Aliza Benor, Director of Education and Engagement Hannah Pressman, volunteer Abby Graham, 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.
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.