“So I heard some bad news,” your local yenta might inform you, not without a certain relish. “I heard Rochel Rivka was diagnosed with some kind of terrible disease, lo aleinu, and you know that husband of hers isn’t going to be much help.”
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Meaning “not on us,” or less literally "may that not happen to us," lo aleinu is a superstitious phrase intended to keep talk of bad tidings – and by implication, the bad tidings themselves – at a distance.
Its premise is that if you mention undesirables like illness and death, you might be tempting the evil eye (ayin hara) to bring them upon you. So, like a fourth-grade girl rushing to be the first to say “jinx” when her best friend uses the same word at the same time, either the person talking about something unpleasant or the person listening to it can jump in and say lo aleinu.
“Not on us” expresses the same sentiment as the Yiddish-tinged English equivalent, “We shouldn’t know from it,” and isn’t too far off from the blessing for the czar offered in “The Fiddler on the Roof”: “May God bless and keep the Czar… far away from us!”
A more recent iteration can be found on the "Ask the Rabbi" feature of the Hebrew-language Jewish-themed website Kipa. The question, from someone who describes himself as having a phobia about earthquakes, is whether there’s a specific prayer that can be said to ward off earthquakes and other natural disasters.
The short answer (and I’m paraphrasing here) is “not really,” but what struck me most about this Q&A was its belt-and-suspenders headline: “Fear of natural disasters God forbid lo aleinu.”
To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.