Word of the Day / Basad

Spend enough time in Israel and you will start to notice this little acronym, which has intense significance to religious Jews, scrawled at the top of documents and printed in the top corner of receipts and other items.

David Sarna Galdi.
David Sarna Galdi
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David Sarna Galdi.
David Sarna Galdi

When it comes to religion, Israel is a unique and sometimes confusing country. It's a democracy; it’s also Jewish. Religion creeps into everyday life in interesting ways, which might be alien to an American or Brit.

There is absolute religious freedom here, yet there is no civil marriage. Businesses close for the Sabbath or get themselves fined. On the debaucherous Jewish holiday of Purim, city ordinances allow for party noise to continue all night, rendering neighbors' complaints to police useless. In Jerusalem, the ultra-Orthodox tried to enforce their custom of separating men and women on public buses, though that little endeavor did not go over well.

And sometimes the most prosaic objects of daily life get infused with religious significance. Take, for example, the common practice of inscribing the acronym basad (bet-heh-daled) at the top of receipts, textbooks and posters. Sometimes shortened to just bet-heh, basad is another way that religion has intermingled itself with mundane daily life in Israel.

The acronym stands for be-siyata de-shmaya which means "with God's help" in ancient Aramaic (shmaya literally translates as "sky").

Bet-heh is the Aramaic phrase's modern Hebrew descendant, standing in for be'ezrat haShem and meaning exactly the same thing.

It is a custom of religious Jews to write these abbreviations in the upper right-hand corners of all their documents. It's a statement of faith, reflecting their belief that even the most mundane of everyday tasks should serve God or at least mention him, and thus be imbued with holiness. Some call it borderline superstition. Whatever you call it, you can't ignore the fact that to outsiders, the practice is fascinating.

Although the expression be-siyata de-shmaya originates in the Talmud, the practice of writing its abbreviation on documents is a completely 20th-century phenomenon, which some credit to Rabbi Isaac Karo, who in his book "Toldot Yitzhak" (1517) mentioned this personal practice.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

A jewelry store's sign in Italy. Notice 'basad 'in the top right corner. By the way, they're also closed on Saturday.Credit: Wikipedia

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