If you’re planning a trip to the Holy Land this summer, you may be considering flying the airline most closely identified with Israel; after all, even the pope flew El Al (though you can be pretty sure he had more legroom than you will).
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But El Al is not just the name of Israel’s flagship airline. In September 1948, when Israel was a fledgling state and the airline had yet to take off, the government borrowed a four-engine Israel Air Force plane to bring Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, home from a meeting in Geneva. The biblical phrase el-al, meaning “upward,” “heavenward,” “aloft” or, most fittingly, “skyward,” was painted on the body of the C-54 and an Israeli flag on its tail, and the plane was loaded with an air force crew and kosher food from a restaurant. In company lore, this came to be considered El Al’s inaugural flight.
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The phrase comes from Hosea 11:7, which reads: “And my people are in suspense about returning to me; and though they call them upwards [el-al], none at all will lift himself up.”
On a literal level, the term can be read as “toward up,” with el meaning “to” or “toward” and al in this sense meaning “height” or “uppermost,” from the same root as lemala (“up”) and la’alot (“to rise” or “to climb”).
The term was used in Hebrew long before it became the name of an airline. On June 21, 1925, the newspaper Davar asked how the Jews could find out the truth about rumors that Russian Jews would be forced to settle in Crimea, saying that regardless of the source of the rumor, “Zion haters in Russia will applaud this idea and elevate it to the skies [el-al].”
Speaking of skies, the usage example provided in the Even-Shoshan dictionary, which would sound pretty flowery if you said it out loud, is “The plane took off el-al” – even if you’re flying Lufthansa or Continental.