spinach
What makes you stronger, spinach or religion? Photo by Limor Laniado Tirosh
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When I was in labor with my youngest daughter this spring, a nurse-midwife at the hospital asked me how painful the contractions were.

Even though it was my fourth time around the block, I still had no idea how to answer that question.

Pain is, after all, relative, and what exactly was I supposed to be comparing it with here? How could I pick a number from 1 to 10 on the pseudo-quantitative pain scale without having any idea of whether labor is more or less painful than, say, a gunshot wound, or of whether a contraction that feels like a nine will end up being more of a seven by the time it's all over? Plus, since when does having a baby require the same skills as being a talent-show judge? ("Not enough oomph. I give it a six. Better luck next time.")


I did know one thing, though (other than the fact that I was waaay overthinking what was supposed to have been a simple question): The contractions were becoming more intense. "Mithazkim" (meet-khaz-KEEM), I told the nurse.

In English, that single word translates into three: "They're getting stronger."
It turned out that not only was this midwife (midhusband?) a guy, he was also a wiseguy. "Mithazkim?" he asked. And then, to the best of my faulty memory (I was in labor at the time, after all), he said something along the lines of: "What, like they're keeping Shabbat?"

Which makes no sense unless you know that, colloquially at least, lehithazek (le-HEET-kha-zek) means not only to become physically stronger (from hazak, meaning "strong") but also to become "stronger" religiously, meaning to increase one's observance of Jewish law or to feel closer to God (or both). To avoid ambiguity the term can be spelled out further – lehithazek beyahadut, or "to get stronger in Judaism" – and it can refer to a wide range of belief and practice, as long as the direction is toward more of it.

In a 2011 article about high school students becoming more interested in Judaism, a 15-year-old boy talking about the Torah study classes he attends is quoted as saying: "I don't observe Shabbat, but I go to the classes lehithazek." Many of those who describe themselves as "becoming stronger" come from families that have maintained a close connection to Jewish tradition, for instance, eating a Sabbath meal together every Friday night, but don't necessarily consider themselves religious in the sense of adhering to Jewish laws like prohibitions on driving and watching TV on Shabbat.

One seeker used the word lehithazek as she requested advice on how to open her can of spiritual spinach, posing the question: "I want to know how to get stronger… how do we begin to draw close to God?" It sounds like this would-be Popeye doesn't even know her own strength.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.