Word of the Day / Moshe Bateivah: Pigs? What Pigs? That’s Baby Moses!

How an 8-year-old girl made Israelis eat Moses, and his basket, for lunch.

Tomer Appelbaum

Pigs in a blanket – you know, those miniature hot dogs wrapped up in pastry – tend to be a big hit. They’re easy to eat and fun to pop in your mouth, and they work as appetizers or as kid food.

But, well, pigs. Not exactly kosher, you know.

In fact, Israelis don't call blanketed hot dogs “pigs” at all. In a far more Jewish allusion, the hot dog turns out to be not a pig, but a great leader of the Jewish people: Moses, to be specific. Which naturally means that the pastry is no winter accoutrement, but a basket fit for the Nile. In Israel, pigs in a blanket morph into baby Moses in a basket, or in Hebrew, Moshe bateivah (Mo-SHEH ba-tei-VAH).

In contemporary usage, teivah generally means “box,” “case” or “chest,” as with a mailbox (teivat do’ar), a car’s gearbox (teivat hilukhim) and Pandora’s box (teivat Pandora).

Go back to the Talmud and you get teivah in the sense of “word,” as in the section of Tractate Menahot on how to write a Torah scroll. Though today the word that means “word” is milah, the vestiges of this sense of teivah can be seen in the term rashei teivot, which literally means “heads of words”: initials or any of the endless acronyms (like the ancient nadlan and the contemporary havlaz) that play such an oversize role in the Hebrew language, and especially in military jargon.

Go further back, to the Bible, and you get two famous teivot (to use the plural) that are covered with pitch and pitched into the water: the one that held Moses (called a teivat gome, an “ark of bulrushes”) and the one that Noah built (“Make thee an ark of gopher wood [teivat atzei-gofer],” God tells Noah).

But how exactly did Moses and his teivah become edible? Well, that has to do with an 8-year-old girl called Nurit.

The term Moshe bateivah to refer to the food is thought to come from a popular Hebrew cookbook for children published in 1975, called “Yeladim Mevashlim” (“Children Cooking”), by Ruth Sirkis.

In tracking down the term, linguist Hadassa Kantor contacted the Sirkis family and was informed that it was Sirkis’ daughter, Nurit, who provided the inspiration for the term.

The family was living in the United States for a few years, and Nurit was attending a Jewish day school, she told Kantor. One day in 1972 she came home from school and saw her mother cooking miniature hot dogs wrapped in pastry. She said, “Mom, what you’re doing reminds me of what we learned in school today, about Moshe in the teivah.”

The comment inspired Ruth Sirkis to name the miniature hot dogs after the man who led the Jewish people out of Egypt, and henceforward Israelis have been consuming baby Moses, basket and all.

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