Word of the Day / Lo haya v’lo nivra: I did not have sexual relations with that nonexistent woman
Israelis can do more than just deny something happened. They can deny the very premise of its existence.
“Why would I enter into a sport and then dope myself up and risk my life again? That’s crazy. I would never do that. No way,” the world’s most famous cyclist insisted in 2005. Eight years later, after many other strongly-worded denials, Lance Armstrong finally admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs while he won seven straight Tour de France races.
When issuing a denial in Hebrew, though, you don’t have to restrict yourself to merely saying you didn’t dope yourself up or have sexual relations with that woman.
You can go a step further and tell the world not just that the substance of the allegation is false but that it never existed in the first place, with the phrase lo haya v’lo nivra (lo ha-YA ve-lo neev-RA). That translates as “It never was and was never created,” and means that something is completely baseless or never happened.
The phrase comes from a Talmudic discussion of the biblical figure of Job, whose story is a model of bad things happening to good people.
The book of Job tells of how God allowed Satan to test whether the “whole-hearted and upright” Job is really a good guy or is just being good because things are going his way. In rapid succession, Job loses his 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 oxen and 500 asses; his seven sons and three daughters die on the same day; and he is afflicted with “sore boils from the sole of his foot even unto his crown.” By the end of the book, he has gotten through the test and is rewarded with 10 more kids, double the fortune and a long life.
But according to Jewish tradition, is Job’s tale of woe supposed to be seen as a true story in the life of a genuine historical figure, or as a fictional morality tale told solely to teach a lesson? The latter opinion is one of those offered in Tractate Bava Batra, which states that Job “lo haya v’lo nivra, and was only an allegory” (15a).
Israeli anthropologist Dan Boneh uses the phrase as the title of his Hebrew book about atheism, in which the being that never existed is God, though presumably he puts Job in the same category as well.
Say what you will about denial, but surely even politicians, cyclists and atheist anthropologists know that it’s a river in Egypt. Must mean there’s no such thing here in Israel, and never has been.
To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.