When famous people die, the English-language press tends to be pretty straightforward about it. They haven’t “passed away,” “kicked the bucket” or “shuffled off their mortal coil.” They’ve just died. But the Hebrew-language media have a taste for the genteel when it comes to life’s end.
When the Israeli press reported over the weekend that former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir died at 96, the phrase of choice was the frequently used Hebrew euphemism “halakh le’olamo,” literally meaning that this member of “the generation of giants who founded the State of Israel” (as per the current prime minister) has “gone to his world.”
While the Hebrew idiom seems to reflect the religious conception of a material, corporeal world followed by a spiritual, post-corporeal world to come, it may actually be a distortion of a biblical verse that can be said to describe more or less the opposite. The term “halakh le’olamo” has its roots in Ecclesiastes 12:5, which includes the phrase “because the man goes to his eternal home” (beit olamo) -- which is usually understood to mean a grave or graveyard. The modern phrase thus transforms the idea of an eternal resting place into a concept that is out of this world.
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