Jewish Words and Knee-Jerk Reactions

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Yesterday, Jason bolted out of his office with the news that a plane had crashed into the Hudson.

Caught in conversation, I said the first words that shot through my head: “Boruch dayan emes.” The words literally mean blessed is the true judge — or, in common parlance, God — but calls to mind God’s more esoteric, less-easily-understandable qualities. The two words we usually use for judge in Hebrew are shofet, which calls to mind God’s more merciful qualities — on Yom Kippur, when we’re apologizing and asking God to go easy on us, we say hamelech hamishpat, the Ruler who judges us favorably (“mishpat” is another form of the word “shofet”) — and then there’s dayan, which tends to signify that God is having a bad day.

We say “boruch dayan emes” when we hear about somebody dying.

As we know now, the plane landed safely, and everyone was fine (if a bit frostbitten). Thank the Lord and praise the pilot, I thought, everything is alright. It wasn’t until hours later that I did my famous verbal double-take, my even more famous saying the right thing“d’oh”-flavored slap of the forehead, and realized that, inadvertently, I’d prematurely condemned them to death — to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of their deaths had been exaggerated. It wasn’t reports, of course; it was just me.

But this kind of thing happens a lot, I think. Among us religious folk, when you ask someone how they’re doing, the correct response (read: the most common response) is “boruch Hashem,” thank God — a response which is by now so ubiquitous that it’s hard to remember, as you’re saying it, what it really means. The answer is also befuddling in its ambiguity: Thank God, I just won the lottery? Thank God things aren’t even worse than they are?

One of the most baffling inclusions of God-related Hebrew into everyday conversation that I still don’t get right is the difference between “b’ezras Hashem” (with God’s help) and “im yirtze Hashem” (If God wants it to happen). These are both used in daily conversation, both ubiquitous, and both seemingly appropriate after pretty much anything that comes out of one’s mouth. But there’s a finely nuanced way to using the two expressions correctly that still leaves me totally wrong-speaking. For instance:

SUPER NICE (AND SUPER HASIDIC) HOSTESS FROM LAST SHABBOS: It was so lovely to have you and your family visit, Matthue! You should come again!
ME: We’d love to, b’ezras Hashem!

Wrong answer. Apparently, we can make it to Monsey on our own, whether or not God’s helping the car get started.

Let’s rewind to a few minutes before, when her husband — who is similarly nice, and similarly Hasidic, and probably would not appreciate the sordid details of my memoir as much as a non-Hasidic-enclave dwelling person would:

SUPER NICE HASIDIC MAN: Your life sounds so interesting! You should bring a copy of your memoir to sell me.
ME: Im yirtze Hashem!

Again, wrong answer. “If God wills it” is not going to help my memoir get there. (Actually, God’s will would be the only thing to get it there, because the last thing this poor dude probably wants to read about is wild parties in San Francisco and dating non-Jewish girls.) But that aside, “b’ezras Hashem” would be in order here, since, I guess, I’m going to (theoretically) try to bring him a copy, and I’ll only get it there with God’s help.

So, there’s your primer for the day. Go out and practice — but not on me. Because the only way I’m going to get these expressions right is b’ezras Hashem.

Posted on January 16, 2009

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