Word of the Day / Mesting: The Soldiers Who Eat Together Hire Together

How a British military meal came to symbolize Israeli male comradeship.

Israeli feminist activist Hanna Beit Halachmi gave an interview a few years ago in which she said it was unlikely that a woman would be put in charge of the Israeli army radio station.

“Army Radio is an integral part of the army,” she said. “Even if more women were to put forth their candidacy, the men wouldn’t let a woman command the station today, out claiming ‘we didn’t eat from the same mesting,’ that women don’t understand the army and defense.”

So what exactly does it mean to eat from the same mesting, and what kind of Hebrew word has an -ing ending anyway?

As you may have guessed, mesting is not exactly a word that appears in the Bible. It’s actually a messed-up version of “mess tin,” which Oxford Dictionaries defines as “a rectangular metal dish with a folding handle, forming part of a soldier’s mess kit.”

As for “mess,” Oxford tells us, that came to denote food (as in a “mess of porridge”) via the late Latin missum (“something put on the table”) and the Old French word mes, meaning “portion of food.” It was recorded in military use from the mid-16th century, with today’s “mess hall” sounding a lot like the late Middle English meaning of “mess,” which denoted “any of the small groups into which the company at a banquet was divided (who were served from the same dishes); hence, ‘a group who regularly eat together.’”

In Hebrew, then, eating from the same mess tin can literally mean being in the army together, but is just as likely to refer to friends who go way back, to members of the same old boys’ network.

“An expression of a firm friendship, a strong tie between two people, as befits those who shared their food in the army,” is how David Sela describes the term in his book on Hebrew slang, “Abba Shelkha Lo Zagag.”

The term entered the Hebrew language during the British Mandate period, first becoming part of the lingo of the pre-state Palmach militia and then moving over to the IDF, according to Israeli biographer Shlomi Rosenfeld.

While Beit Halachmi highlights the underside of this Israeli fraternity and its exclusion of outsiders, Rosenfeld sees the sharing of a mess tin as an expression of equality.

“The mesting has come to mean nostalgic comradeship,” Rosenfeld writes on his blog. “In Israel, the entire nation is the army, and every Israeli has a few friends with whom he dragged stretchers and ate from the same mesting. They were a group that traveled a good part of the way together, until they separated – one became a taxi driver, another became a bank clerk, another ran a company and one became a factory worker, one opened a grocery store and one continued to climb the ladder and became a general in the IDF or a high-ranking minister in the government. But when they started out, they were all of equal status. After all, they all ate from the same mesting.

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.

Tali Mayer