Word of the Day / Nitla Be'ilan Gadol נִתְלָה בְּאִילָן גָּדוֹל

For Tu Bishvat, Israeli Arbor Day, we dissect a phrase that has to do with hanging from a large tree. Don't worry, it isn't as morbid as it sounds.

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For some, giant trees such as these are a higher authority.
For some, giant trees such as these are a higher authority.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One might think that a phrase combining the words "large tree" and "hanging" would have kind of morbid overtones. But fortunately for those who would rather not put their necks on the line, the phrase nitla be'ilan gadol (neet-LA be-ee-LAHN ga-DOHL) has nothing to do with rope.

Let's break it down word by word. Nitla can mean "to hang from" or "to be hanged," but in this case is used metaphorically, the way you could hang your free-speech argument on the precise wording of the Constitution. (No need to thank me for saving your neck.)

A builder makes final adjustments to a Lego display of Albert Einstein, a big tree if ever there was one.Credit: Bloomberg

Ilan gadol means "large tree." Though the more basic word for tree is etz, the plural of ilan plays a prominent role in a popular song for Tu Bishvat, or Jewish Arbor Day. The minor holiday takes place Saturday and, thanks to the song, has been cemented into the public consciousness as hag la'ilanot, the holiday for the trees.

And if none of this helps you figure out what the phrase actually means, allow me to remove the fig leaf and reveal all. Nitla be'ilan gadol means relying on a higher authority, generally by means of citing a well-respected or unimpeachable source.

A 2005 glossary of Hebrew phrases by Sarah Lipkin and Nini Gottesfeld-Manoach describes the idiom as meaning "relying on a well-known and highly esteemed person," offering the sample sentence: "The prime minister nitla be'ilan gadol and quoted Albert Einstein to provide a basis for his comments and persuade those assembled."

The Israeli media watchdog Ha'ayin Hashvi'it highlighted an August 2011 line from an Israel Hayom writer who purports to hang his argument on the words of a certain eminently quotable playwright (no, not Shakespeare). "I think George Bernard Shaw was the one who said 'an actor's most important attribute is knowing when to get off the stage,'" ran the excerpt. "And if he didn't say it, he should have." Ha'ayin Hashvi'it headlined the quote (to invoke a literal translation of the idiom): "Relying on a large (and imaginary) tree."

As for the holiday marked primarily by eating dried fruit and planting trees, Tu Bishvat – whose name refers to the date on which it takes place: the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat – is also known as the new year for the trees or the birthday of the trees, since it is the start of the calendar year when it comes to calculating the age of trees for tithing. Under Jewish law, the yield of a fruit tree is not supposed to be eaten in the first three years of the tree's life.

But you don't have to take my word on that. Let's rely on an ilan gadol: Leviticus 19:23-25, which states: "And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then ye shall count the fruit thereof as forbidden; three years shall it be as forbidden unto you; it shall not be eaten. And in the fourth year all the fruit thereof shall be holy, for giving praise unto the Lord. But in the fifth year may ye eat of the fruit thereof, that it may yield unto you more richly the increase thereof."