Word of the Day / Halevai

For the Jewish people, whose collective memory includes a 2,000 year diaspora, 'wishing' is a loaded word.

David Sarna Galdi.
David Sarna Galdi
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"Halevai" is an ancient Aramaic word that migrated to modern Hebrew, taking with it a cultural heft and nuance that are difficult to boil down into a single idiom in English. But the general thrust is "if only".

This ancient word crops up in the Talmud, along with other words derived from the same root (lamed vav lamed) – such as lu (if), lulei (if not for...).

Thus going back into the dim reaches of Judaic history, halevai has been used to convey wishing. It is the informal version of the classic-Hebrew expression "mi yiten" – if only it were so.

Halevai could be equated to English expressions like "I hope so" or "If only". Thus, in Hebrew one would say to a sick friend, "Halevai you get well soon," or when asked "Will you be home for the holidays?" - answer, "Halevai."

For the Jewish people, whose collective memory includes a 2,000 year diaspora, countless pogroms, genocide, and the creation of a nation from scratch - a word like "halevai" took on a lot of meaning. When an Israeli says "halevai" it subconsciously conveys not simply a wish but a great hope, a longing for better days, a prayer for one's children, and a belief that something better is just around the bend.

In 1986 the popular singer Boaz Sharabi hoped to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest with his song "Halevai". He lost the prelim contest for that year, but his song became a local hit and dug the word "halevai" even deeper into the lexicon of Hebrew folklore.

So, beyond mere etymology, the word "halevai" has a soul; even when used in the most mundane of situations, "halevai," when spoken, carries with it the greatest Hebrew wish of our times: an end to war and days of peace in Israel.

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

Shimon Peres placing a note in the Western Wall, a favorite receptacle of Jewish wishes.Credit: AP