Word of the Day / Hatan: Looking Like a Lawyer at Your Wedding

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My husband works in a field – law, to be specific – in which suits are generally considered de rigueur. But in Israel, where every day is casual Friday, a nice suit regularly nets him the comment that he looks like a hatan (kha-TAHN), a groom.
But he’s not the only man who becomes a groom even when it’s not his wedding day. The word hatan also plays a role on the holiday of Simhat Torah, which begins Wednesday night in Israel.

On this holiday, the last one in this festival-packed month, Jews in synagogue finish one annual cycle of Torah reading and begin the next. The man honored with the final aliyah, who is called to the Torah to recite the blessing before the last passages of the Torah are read aloud, is called the hatan Torah, literally “bridegroom of the Torah.”

Similarly, the man called up before the opening passages of Genesis is the hatan Bereshit. (The Hebrew name of the first book of the Pentateuch, bereshit also means “in the beginning” and is the first word of the Torah.)

In congregations in which women are called up to the Torah, the women honored with these aliyot are referred to by the parallel terms kalat Torah (“bride of the Torah”) and kalat Bereshit.

It could be that the word hatan was used on Simhat Torah as a way of alluding to actual bridegrooms.

In some Sephardi communities, it was customary to honor men who had gotten married over the past year as hatanim (to use the plural) on Simhat Torah, and the idea of God being betrothed to the Jewish people is a metaphor that runs through Jewish thought. The Song of Songs, for instance, describes a romantic relationship between a man and a woman but is traditionally seen as an allegory about the Jewish people and God.

However, perhaps hatan is used in this context to mean “prize winner,” with the prize being the honor of an aliyah that marks the end or beginning of the year’s Torah reading, just as a Nobel Prize laureate is a hatan Pras Nobel. Along the same lines, hatan can also mean “guest of honor”; the hatan bar mitzvah is the bar mitzvah boy, not that crazy boychik who got married at 13.

The word hatan appears in the Bible, as in Jeremiah 33:11, the source of a popular Hebrew wedding song: “The voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom [hatan] and the voice of the bride [kalah].”

Somewhat confusingly, hatan and kalah are not only “bride” and “groom,” but also “son-in-law” and “daughter-in-law.” This, too, has its origin in the Bible. Genesis 19:14 tells us: “And Lot went out, and spoke unto his sons-in-law [hatanav, the plural possessive of hatan], who married his daughters, and said: 'Up, get you out of this place; for the Lord will destroy the city.' But he seemed unto his sons-in-law as one that jested.”

Perhaps if Lot had managed to save his city from the wrath of God, he might have become some early version of a hatan Pras Nobel. And if he would have worn a suit, he’d even have looked the part.


Update: It turns out that the word ramzor -- which, as I wrote earlier this week, combines remez ("hint") with or ("light") to get "traffic light" -- also includes a hint I missed regarding who coined the word. Hint: It was someone who lent his name to the neologism. That someone was David Remez, ne Drabkin, who helped found the State of Israel and served as the country's first transportation minister. Remez, who died in 1951, also coined several other transportation-related words.

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.

Novelist Saul Bellow becomes a hatan of the Nobel Prize in 1976.Credit: AP
The hatan is the one next to the bride, holding a lacy umbrella, 2013.Credit: Moti Milrod

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