Word of the Day / Iltur: Improv in the Army

This word first appears in the Mishna, but its use spread when the nascent Israeli army had to learn to make things up as it went along.

The Hebrew word for improvisation is iltur (il-TUR or il-TU-rim in the plural). This word also comes as a verb, ilter (il-TER), and an adjective, meultar (me-ul-TAR). While it's a modern word dating back some seven decades, its roots are firmly set in the Aramaic language of Babylon and the Mishna.

The word first appears in the 1940 Dictionary of Theater Terms published by the Committee of the Hebrew Language as a word for improvisation – inventing the performance as you go along – but its use only started to spread when it was picked up by the Israel Defense Forces.

During the War of Independence in 1948, the nascent army had no proper equipment and its soldiers, for the most part, had no real military training. So when a soldier or commander would petition his superior for provisions that were not available, or asked how to perform a mission he didn’t quite know how to pull off, the answer was often a resounding “tealter!”

The connection between immediacy and improvisation is quite obvious if you have the idiom “on the spot” in mind. The word le’altar first appears in the Mishna: “If the bearer of a get [a divorce bill] loses it on the way, if he finds it again immediately it is valid, and if not it is not valid” (Gitin 3:3).

As previously stated, the word le’altar is not originally Hebrew but Aramaic – it is a portmanteau of al (“on”) and atar (place), so that it literally means “on the spot” in Aramaic.

Itzik Ben Malki