Yeshivish (Frimlish) – the Jewish Ebonics

Given that Yiddish is still widely spoken in the yeshivot, it is probably inevitable that Yiddishisms would permeate the speech of the Orthodox.

January 5, 2015 21:23
Belz yeshiva

Belz yeshiva students study Torah in Jerusalem.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Someone recently sent around an email about organizing a “habura,” by which he meant a group for Talmud study.

Another posted a lecture on intellectual property, styling it “ Mini Haburah: Intellectual Property: Nehneh and Shutfus” “Habura,” however, means “wound.” What both meant was “havura.”

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Why did these erudite shul members transliterate חבורה as “habura” instead of “havura,” adding an unwanted dagesh? The distinction amounts to a mere dot. As Hillary Rodham Clinton said in her testimony on Benghazi, “What difference does it make?” To the Talmud, it makes a world of difference.

The dagesh is an important diacritic, added to Hebrew orthography at the same time as the Masoretic text. The system of nikud (vowel points) was established by the Masoretes between the 6th and 10th centuries CE. The Talmud (Menachot 29b) says about the importance of an even smaller orthographic element (the crowns, “thorns” or koztim): “Rav Yehuda said [in the name of] Rav [who] said: ‘When [in the hour that] Moshe ascended on high the Holy One was found sitting and tying crowns to letters.’” These thorns or “tips” as the Talmud called them, and which we call crowns (tagin), are decorative designs resembling crowns. They are three-stroke flourishes added by a scribe on the upper left-hand corner of seven of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, (Gimel, Zayin, Tet, Nun, Ayin, Tzadi and Shin) when writing a Sefer Torah, Megilat Esther (Scroll of Esther), tefillin and mezuzot. The letters Bet, Dalet, He, Het, Yud and Quf have a single tag. The tagin are the “tittles” mentioned in the New Testament (Matt. 5:18; Luke 16:17), which are translated as “stroke” in the New English Bible.

The Talmud explains the importance of even these tiny elements: “There is a certain man who is yet to come, at the end of many generations, his name is Akiva ben Yosef; he will one day seek on each and every tip mounds and mounds of halachot [laws].”

As to why the unwanted dagesh was added by the emailer and the poster, I was informed that it was “Yeshivish,” or what linguists call Orthodox Jewish English.

Chabura is a [minor] example of Yeshivish, a type of Jewish Ebonics.

Ebonics, literally “Black Speech,” is a term created in 1973 by a group of Black scholars who disliked the negative connotations of terms like “Nonstandard Negro English” that had been coined in the 1960s when the first modern large-scale linguistic studies of African American speech-communities began.

Yeshivish (or Frimlish as some call it, based on Polish Yiddish for frum, devout), is somewhat analogous to Ebonics but also quite different in many important ways. Yeshivish is a sociolect of English spoken by Yeshiva students and other Jews with a strong connection to the Orthodox Yeshiva world.

According the “authoritative” Wikipedia, only a few serious studies have been written about Yeshivish. The first is a master’s thesis by Steven Ray Goldfarb (University of Texas at El Paso, 1979) called “A Sampling of Lexical Items in Yeshiva English.” The work lists, defines and provides examples for nearly 250 Yeshivish words and phrases.

The second, more comprehensive work is Frumspeak: The First Dictionary of Yeshivish by Chaim Weiser. Weiser says that Yeshivish is not a pidgin, creole, or an independent language, nor is it precisely a jargon.

Dovid Katz, in his 2007 work Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish, describes Yeshivish as a “new dialect of English,” which is “taking over as the vernacular in everyday life in some... circles in America and elsewhere.” My fellow Brandeis alum sociologist Sam Heilman wrote in Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy that he considers Yeshivish to be mostly code-switching (when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation or a single sentence). Sarah Bunin-Benor in Talmid Chachams and Tsedeykeses: Language, Learnedness, and Masculinity Among Orthodox Jews discusses Yeshivish in more detail.

The English variant of Yeshivish includes grammatical irregularities (including the example above) where an unwanted dagesh lene, a diacritic used to change the pronunciation to a hard plosive sound from a soft fricative one, is added. Yeshivish includes many borrowings; its vocabulary consists of Yiddish, rabbinic Hebrew, Talmudic Aramaic and sometimes Modern Hebrew.

The speaker will use these borrowed terms instead of their English counterparts, either because of cultural affinity or because the appropriate English equivalent has different nuances and connotations.

Modern Hebrew, like the canonical Tiberian Hebrew, uses the Sephardic pronunciation and generally has the stress on the last syllable (milra’), or less frequently, on the penultimate one. In contrast, Yeshivish follows the word stress (phonology) of Yiddish, where the stress is on the first syllable (mil’el) and follows the Ashkenazi pronunciation.

Many of the earlier Hebrew poems of Hayim Nahman Bialik, Israel’s national poet, were intended to be pronounced that way.

Yeshivish as a sociolect of Yiddish has existed for centuries among Yeshiva-educated Jews in Eastern and Central Europe.

Yiddish and its Yeshivish sociolect is still spoken in religious Yiddish-speaking communities in New York, Antwerp, Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, London and elsewhere.

The Yeshivish sociolect of English, of course, is a 20th-century phenomenon. A distinguishing feature of Yeshivish is that its speakers knowingly apply highly technical and formal written language to colloquial language and common everyday usage. For example: “He caused a lot of nezek, but l’basoif was moideh b’miktzas and claimed it was b’shoigeg.”

“Nezek,” in its original context refers to Talmudic tort law of compensatory damages, so the speaker meant, “he caused much damage.” He goes on to say “l’basoif,” which is actually Yiddishized from Modern Hebrew l’vasof, a word meaning “eventually” or “at the end of the day.” The speaker then continues to explain the passage to his younger brother, with whom he is studying Talmud: “[he was] moideh b’miktzas,” referring to a partial admission by a defendant, which has important legal consequences. (See for example, Babylonian Talmud Bava Mezia 97b.) “Shoigeg” is the Yiddishized form of “shogeg,” which in its original context (the laws of Shabbat) means an incident caused unintentionally, but as result of partial negligence.

There are three ways of violating Shabbat b’shogeg: being unaware it’s Shabbat; being unaware of a particular prohibition; being unaware of the consequences of the act.

Despite the heavy borrowing and use of technical and legal terms, the above sentence would be clearly understood by speakers of Yeshivish as: “He did a lot of damage, but eventually he admitted that he did it, although he claimed it was inadvertent.”

The subtext of this circumlocution is to demonstrate to the listener that the speaker has spent sufficient time in a yeshiva to have acculturated Talmudic discourse into his conversation.

Other examples of Yeshivish are taken directly from Yiddish syntax. Modals, for example, may be used differently than in standard English, as in “I want [that] you should get her number.”

Dr. Zackary Sholem Berger, a Baltimore physician at Johns Hopkins who also was the translator of books by the likes of Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss), whose The Cat in the Hat he translated into Yiddish (as Di Kats de Payats). Dr. Berger provides a more involved example in How to Speak Yeshivish, about a 19-year-old Lubavitcher Hassid from California learning Gemara with his younger brother: “(Begin chanting intonation) Whenever you’re shaych, then you can be an eyd; whenever you’re not, you’re not (end chanting intonation). So why does Rashi say? That’s cause dina d’malchusa dina. It’s because they’re – even if not dina d’malchusa dina, Rashi says later cause al din hu nitstavu bnei noyach. The goyim are shaych to dinim; they’re not shaych to gitin. That’s why it’s good.”

This somewhat more complex example is utterly incompressible to the uninitiated.

Here is an explication. First, the definitions: “shaych” is a Yiddishized form of “shayach,” Hebrew for “applicable” or “relevant.”

“Eyd” is Hebrew for witness. “Rashi,” of course, is the famous medieval exegete and commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 CE). “Dina d’malchusa dina” is the Yiddishized version of the Talmudic rule stated by Shmuel of Nehardea (165-257 CE) that “the law of the country is the [binding] law” (See Babylonean Talmud, Nedarim 28a, Gittin 10b, Bava Kama 113b, Bava Batra 54b). “Bnei noyach” is the Yiddish form of the Hebrew term “bnai noach,” the sons of Noah – i.e., non-Jews who are exempt from Jewish law and are only required to follow the “sheva mizvot bnai noach” – the seven Noahide laws, namely prohibitions against idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, blasphemy, eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive, and the requirement to maintain courts to provide legal recourse, as stated in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9.4, and quoted in Talmud Sanhedrin 56a. “Al din hu nitstavu bnei noyach” is Yiddishized from the Hebrew “al din hu nitstavu bnei noach” – by law, all humankind (the descendants of Noah) were commanded to keep the seven Noahide laws.

The speaker, who as mentioned is studying a Talmudic passage with his brother, is citing Rashi to make the argument that to be a valid witness, there has to be a nexus. That, he says is the universal law, applicable to all.

He goes on to explain Rashi by noting, based on Rashi’s explanation in the Talmud (Gittin 9b) that all documents entered in heathen courts are valid, even if the signatures on them are those of heathens, except for writs of divorce and of emancipation (where an oral declaration is also required; thus a heathen’s testimony is inadmissible).

Part of the reason for the popularity of Yeshivish in communities where it is spoken is that it is deemed more learned and more pious. It’s also a medium for esoteric communication, understandable only to the cognoscenti.

In his writing, Shmuel Yosef (Shai) Agnon, Israel’s first (and so far only) Nobel Prize laureate for literature, whom philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem called “the Jews’ Jew,” used many Talmudic allusions, albeit written in beautiful Hebrew, to great effect. My teacher, the noted Talmudist Prof.

Saul Lieberman (who was his friend) used to say that to understand Agnon, you need to be a talmid chacham (a Talmud scholar).

Agnon’s writing is suffused with Talmudic references and allusions. For examples, see Jeffrey Saks’ S.Y. Agnon’s Shaking Bridge and the Theology of Culture.

Yeshivish actually constitutes somewhat of an historical change from the use of classical Hebrew for rabbinic communication.

Hebrew, whose existence dates to at least the 10th century BCE, was employed as a literary and official language and the language of prayer. From early times, it was also the lingua franca of rabbinic dialog. Since post-Geonic times, letters and responsa were almost universally written in Hebrew, even though Hebrew ceased being a spoken language around the 2nd century BCE, when it was replaced by Lishán Didán (our language) or Judeo-Aramaic, in a gradual process that began already in the 6th century BCE.

Then came along Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman, who changed his name to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda when he arrived in Palestine in 1881, and made a one-man revolution.

Ben-Yehuda is credited for reviving Hebrew as a spoken language. It was his long-held dream, to which he devoted his life. To fulfill and actualize his dream of revitalizing Hebrew as a living language, he adopted a three-part plan: “Hebrew in the Home,” “Hebrew in the School,” and “Words, Words, Words,” coining neologisms as necessary for Hebrew to function as a modern language. He spoke only Hebrew with his family and also with every Jew he met. His son, Itamar Ben-Avi, born in 1882, was the first all-Hebrew speaking child in modern history. In 1913, The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology (originally called The Technikum) fought the epic milhemet hasafot (“Battle of the Languages”) with Ben-Yehuda, who threatened a boycott if Hebrew was not adopted as the language of instruction.

The battle was won by Ben-Yehuda in 1914.

Acceptance of Hebrew by the early Jewish immigrants to the Land of Israel was largely driven by necessity, based on the need for a common language for immigrants arriving from many lands, where Yiddish, Ladino, Arabic and Russian predominated. It owes much to financial support from Edmond James de Rothschild in the 1880s and the official status Hebrew received in Article 22 of the 1922 constitution of the British Mandate for Palestine.

Brought up in a religious home and with a yeshiva background, Ben-Yehuda later became far removed from traditional observance.

Ben-Yehuda’s daughter Dola Ben-Yehuda Wittmann and her husband Max (who was not Jewish) are buried in the Alliance Church International Cemetery in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood.

Ben-Yehuda was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. His funeral in 1922 was attended by 30,000 people.

Perhaps the reluctance to embrace spoken Hebrew among the Orthodox is as a result of Ben-Yehuda’s estrangement from the observant community coupled with the adoption of Hebrew by the mostly secular Zionists.

Hebrew, the lashon hakodesh, the holy or sacred tongue, was always the language of prayer and textual study but was not spoken in traditional yeshivot. Even Rabbi Dr. Joseph B, Soloveitchik, who read, wrote and spoke masterful Hebrew and English, taught Talmud in Yiddish. It remains the language of instruction at the Beth Medrash Govoha, the preeminent haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva located in Lakewood Township, New Jersey and in many (but certainly not all) yeshivot in Israel. It is also the language of instruction in such haredi bastions as New Square, Monsey and parts of Brooklyn. Hebrew, as a spoken language was, back in the day, inextricably related to secular Zionism. Hence, its adoption by the Orthodox was discouraged in those days. Today, however, most Israeli Orthodox, even the haredim, speak Modern Hebrew on an everyday basis.

In the United States, even in Modern Orthodox day schools (with Ramaz being a notable exception), English and not Hebrew is the primary language of instruction; texts are still studied in the original.

Given that Yiddish is still widely spoken in the yeshivot, it is probably inevitable that Yiddishisms would permeate the speech of the Orthodox, and that rabbinic allusions would also then find their way into their everyday speech.

The author is a writer and former entrepreneur.

He has eight published books, including his latest, Evernote For Dummies, V2. He has nearly completed his first novel about the Mossad and the Jewish treasures in the Vatican’s secret archives and is hard at work on a book about the Talmud for general readers.

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