Word of the Day / Shas: The Party That Ovadia Yosef Founded

Actually, it's an acronym - which continues to represent the party even after it changed its name.

Since Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s death Monday at 93, much has been written about the former Sephardi chief rabbi’s landmark rulings on Jewish law, his disparaging remarks about non-Jews and Arabs, and his role as spiritual mentor to Jews whose families come from the Middle East or North Africa. But in this space, what we’ll be talking about is the name of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party he founded.

That party, of course, is Shas.

Shas is not a word. It’s an acronym made up of the Hebrew letters sh and s, which stand for shomrei Torah Sfaradayim, or “Sephardi Torah observers.” This was originally the party’s full name, according to the Knesset website.

In 1984 Shas went from being a municipal party to a national one running for the Knesset, and its name is now Hitahdut Hasfaradim Shomrei Torah, “Association of Torah-Observant Sephardim.” The concept is the same even if the letters aren't.

The letters shin and samekh, which make up the acronym Shas, are also the letters that appear on the party's ballot slips.

Israeli citizens vote by choosing a slip of paper with the party’s election logo of two or three letters and place it into a box. Those letters may have little to do with the name of the party, but in Shas’ case the letters spell out its party name, making the ballot easily identifiable.

The name is also meant to evoke the older meaning of shas, which is an acronym for shisha sedarim, meaning the “six orders” of the Mishna. (To quote the English version of the Passover song: “Who knows six? I know six! Six are the books of the Mishna.”)

Shas has also come to refer to the tractates of Gemara that interpret the Mishna, in effect making shas a synonym for the Talmud.

Before you ask someone who’s an expert in shas for his or her opinion on Israeli politics, then, you’d do best to find out if the person is a political scientist or a renowned talmudist.

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.

Kobi Gideon