The first hints of fall are here and that means the High Holidays, not to mention the “kol-nídre bárlekh,” or Autumn-ripening pears. We greet each other with “leshóne téyve” (Happy New Year), and to absent friends and family we might pop a “shóne-téyve” (a high-holiday greeting card) in the mail. Part of our practice might involve eating apples and honey, to signify a sweet new year, but other significant foods feature in come celebrations. For example, in honor of the prayer “that our merits might increase” it is customary among Sephardi Jews to eat string beans because of the visual symbolism of the plentiful peas in their pods. Ashkenazi Jews commemorate the same prayer by eating carrots because of the Yiddish homophony between the verb “zikh mern” (to increase) and “mern” (carrots).
Food notwithstanding, the majority of high-holiday-related expressions in Yiddish have to do with the peculiarities of the liturgy of “rósheshóne” and “yonkíper,” especially their length. “Lang vi der rósheshónediker músaf”—“as long as the musaf on Rosh Hashanah”—is self-explanatory for those familiar with that service’s lengthy additional prayers. By the end of Yom Kippur our voices, not to mention those of the poor cantors, have endured quite a marathon. By “níle” (Ne’ilah), the final service of the holidays, we can speak of “khrípen vi an óysgedinter khazn tsu níle” (“croaking like a worn-out cantor at Ne’ilah”) or being “héyzerik vi der khazn nokh níle” (“as hoarse as the cantor after Ne’ilah”). A Yiddish word for smelling salts is “yonkíper tropns,” on the assumption that they are helpful for keeping one awake till the end of Ne’ilah after a full day of fasting and (let’s assume) vigorous atoning. (Of course “kúmen nokh níle” (“to come after Ne’ilah”) means to arrive somewhere very late late, after the party’s good and over.)
Not only is the prayers’ length at issue, but also their emotional content. The section of penitential prayers, or selihot, on Yom Kippur eve begins with the liturgical poem “Ya’aleh.” Because of the intensity and volume with which it is customarily intoned, a “yáyle” in Yiddish is a way of referring to a howl, or a din, or a noisy scene. “Makhn a yáyle” or “makhn yáyles” means to scream one’s head off, or, according to one source, to “raise the roof.”
One of the most symbolic elements of the High Holidays is the blowing of the shofar. In East Yiddish to blow the shofar is “blozn shóyfer.” West Yiddish, however, preserves a separate verb of Romance origin, “tetshn,” that is only used for blowing the shofar. Note, for example, the West Yiddish adage, “fir tetshn hot man kan khokhme naytig,” which is to say, “no wisdom is needed for blowing the shofar.” So the shofar can still be the source of irreverence despite its symbolic importance. Indeed, “shóyfer” can also be a particularly slangy way of referring to a nose, evoking both its length and resonant honk.
Irreverence is also on display in another high-holiday pun. The practice of tashlikh on Rosh Hashanah afternoon involves casting one’s sins into a body of water often undertaken symbolically by throwing breadcrumbs. “Er geyt tsu táshlekh” indicates “he’s going to perform tashlikh.” Given the similarity between the sounds of “táshlekh” and “téshlekh” (“wallets”), the phrase “er geyt tsu táshlekh” in underworld slang has taken on the meaning “he’s going off to pick pockets.” An activity certainly not in keeping with the spirit of the holiday. Finding a “gánef” (thief) like that in synagogue on Yom Kippur might elicit the comment “yonkíper zogt men khatósi, óber men zogt nisht loy ékhte”—“on Yom Kippur they say ‘I have sinned’ but not ‘I shall not sin’.”
Leshóne téyve, a sweet and healthy new year to one and all. And as always, “léyent gezúnterhéyt”—read it in good health!
Dr. Finkin, the Rare Book and Manuscript Librarian at the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, writes a monthly column for The American Israelite, on Yiddish, the area of his academic expertise. Please address questions about Yiddish for Dr. Finkin to email@example.com.