Word of the Day / Kikar: Back to Square One, Sandwich in Hand

The same word can mean city square and loaf of bread, as social-justice activists know.

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Perhaps the most well-known plaza in Israel is the one in Tel Aviv where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 at the end of a rally in support of the Oslo Accords.

At the time, the plaza was known in Hebrew as Kikar Malkhei Yisrael, literally “Kings of Israel Square,” but it is now known as Kikar Rabin, after the slain premier.

The word kikar means “plaza” or “square” (even though it’s often circular). One square on Agrippas Street in Jerusalem, which features a circular bench where people often sit and eat a falafel or shawarma purchased in the nearby falafel store (the cats know this, and lie in wait) has an unofficial name spray-painted on the stone: Kikar Hafalafel.

The origins of this modern usage, according to the Even-Shoshan dictionary, lie in the biblical meaning of kikar as "plain" or "valley," which is how the Jordan Valley is referred to in Genesis: “And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan [kikar hayarden]” (13:10).

Kikar also means “loaf” (as in a loaf of bread), and this definition comes from Exodus, as part of a description of ritual sacrifice: “Also thou shalt take of the ram the fat… and one loaf of bread [kikar lehem], and one cake of oiled bread, and one wafer, out of the basket of unleavened bread that is before the Lord” (29:22-23).

There’s a Hebrew joke that plays on these two meanings of kikar:

“What do Rabin, bread and a sweater have in common?”

“I don’t know. What?”

Kikar.”

“Okay, but why the sweater?”

Ki kar [because it’s cold].”

The ki kar of the punch line, of course, has nothing to do with the kikar of Rabin or bread. It’s simply two separate words that sound the same as the word for “loaf” and “square.”

Less than a decade after the assassination, a different kikar in Tel Aviv found its way into the headlines, as social activism met language to create another kikar-related play on words.

In 2002 and 2003 homeless people camped out in tents in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Hamedina, literally “The State Square,” the site of many high-end clothing and jewelry stores, to call attention to inequality in Israel and protest cuts in social welfare. During that time, media outlets regularly referred to the square as Kikar Halehem, a play on words meaning both “Bread Square” and “loaf of bread.”

The organizer of the protest, Yisrael Twito, later established a political party that translates as United Social Warriors, whose Hebrew acronym is the same as the word for bread (lehem). The party did not make it into the Knesset, however, and Twito died a short time after, in 2006.

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.

Tel Aviv's most famous 'kikar.'Credit: Moti Kimche

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