Word of the Day / Halal: Into the Void on Memorial Day

The term that refers to the dead but also means outer space, and that’s no coincidence.

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'Halal'Credit: Dreamstime

I am hardly the first to note that Memorial Day in Israel is nothing like Memorial Day in the United States. In a country in which military service is mandatory and just about every family knows someone who died in uniform, the day is not seen as a signal that you can wear white shoes, or as a time to shop or barbecue (that comes a day later, on Independence Day), but as a time to acknowledge the loss that is reflected in the full Hebrew name for the day.

The full name of Memorial Day, which is commemorated Monday, is quite a mouthful: “Day of Remembrance for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism” is one of the multiple ways it is translated on official government websites. The Hebrew for “fallen soldiers” is halalei ma’arkhot Yisrael, the halalim of Israel’s wars and military campaigns.

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Halal, to use the singular,may be more familiar to English speakers as a term used in Islam to refer to things permissible under Islamic law, including approved meat and other foods. In Hebrew, though, the meaning of halal that is most directly related to Memorial Day is “a person pierced, a person totally wounded, a person slain.”

The word is used in the Bible to refer to a dead person or someone who has been killed, as in Deuteronomy: “If one be found slain [halal] in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it” (21:1) and, perhaps most reminiscent of modern-day use, in I Samuel: “Now the Philistines fought against Israel, and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell down slain [vayiplu halalim] in mount Gilboa” (31:1).

But halal doesn’t just refer to the dead; it also means outer space, and that’s no coincidence.

Halal in the sense of “slain” or “pierced” (like the halelei-herev, those killed by the sword, described in Jeremiah 14:18) derives from the meaning of space in the sense of something missing on the inside – “to be hollow, to hollow out, bore, pierce.” This gives rise to halil, the hollowed-out cylinder known as a flute or recorder, and is related to similar words in several other Semitic languages, including Aramaic (halila, or “pipe”) and Syriac (halala, or “cave”).

In modern Hebrew, halal means a hollow or a space as well as the cosmos. Israel’s miniature NASA is called the Israel Space [Halal] Agency, while halal reik, literally “empty space,” refers to a vacuum.

Those who have the most intimate of reasons to mourn on Israel’s Memorial Day know firsthand that having a halal Tzahal, a fallen Israel Defense Forces soldier, in their family leaves a cavernous halal in their lives. The object of mourning, after all, is not the life that was but the life that is no more: the hollow space, the constantly present absence, that remains. But then, this sentiment was captured long ago; whether halal is used in Psalms 109:22 to mean “wounded,” “dead” or “hollow,” the underlying pain is clear: “For I am poor and needy, and my heart is halal within me.”

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.