Word of the Day / Osher V’osher: Happily Ever After

Money may not buy happiness, but in Hebrew they go together like love and marriage.

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Living happily ever after may be the goal of fairy-tale princesses in the English-speaking world, but in Hebrew storybooks, happiness doesn’t do the trick without its Hebrew homophone, wealth. “And they lived b’osher v’osher" – in happiness and wealth – "to this very day” is the Hebrew version of the happy ending.

While in English, “may you live happily ever after” is not generally a wish one bestows on newlyweds of the non-royal variety (at least not without a heavy dose of sarcasm), Hebrew greeting cards abound with the double whammy osher v’osher.

Lexicographer Avraham Even-Shoshan describes the term as “a word pairing that expresses the best wishes for a person – both spiritual and material contentment: ‘blessings of osher v’osher to the young couple!’”

But while I like this holistic sentiment, I can’t help wondering to what degree this word couple ended up together because of the similarity of their sounds rather than the content of their character.

As for whether these two words are genuine homophones, that depends on your accent. When spoken in an Ashkenazi accent, the osher (OH-shehr) meaning “wealth” is pronounced the same as the osher meaning “happiness” – or, as Israelis would say to distinguish the two, osher with an ayin sounds the same as osher with an aleph. But in a Mizrahi accent, the letter ayin is guttural, which makes it much easier to tell the words apart.

Talk of money is often seen as a bit crass, but it’s not unusual for Jewish blessings to include the material aspect, which makes particular sense if, as in much of Jewish history, making a good living meant having enough food for the week and still being able to spring for some fish or chicken for Shabbat. The blessing recited at the end of a meal at which bread is eaten reflects this combination of the physical and spiritual wellbeing that Even-Shoshan refers to: “May You continue to provide us with grace, kindness, and compassion, providing us with deliverance, prosperity and ease, life and peace, and all goodness. May we never go in want of goodness.”

All the same, the prophet Jeremiah warns us that God doesn’t much appreciate people who rub their gifts in the faces of others: “Thus saith the Lord: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man [ashir] glory in his riches [b’oshro]” (9:22)

As for osher with an aleph (the one meaning “happiness,” as well as “bliss,” “blessing” and “felicity”), that word appears in other forms in the Bible, as in Genesis 30:13, when one of Jacob’s sons is given the name Asher: “And Leah said: ‘Happy am I [be’oshri] for the daughters will call me happy [ishruni].” The form ashrei appears in Psalms, as in the first line of the prayer known by the same name: “Happy [ashrei] are they that dwell in Thy house, they are ever praising Thee” (84:5).

May you live happily, and comfortably, ever after.

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.

A wedding in 1918, after which the bride and groom hopefully lived in osher and osher.Credit: Wikipedia

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