Word of the Day / Yeshiva: Sitting Down on the Job

Sure, yeshiva can mean institute of Torah study, but even the most secular businesspeople often find themselves in one, with nary a rabbi in sight.

Critics of the ultra-Orthodox practice of spending all day studying in a yeshiva, or institute of Torah learning, regularly charge the Haredim with doing nothing but sitting on their backsides – their yashvanim – all day instead of joining the army and then working for a living.

But while such comments may be meant as an insult, they do have some support in the language itself. That’s because yeshiva, like yashvan, comes from the word lashevet, meaning “to sit.”

In fact, the word ye-shee-VA (typically pronounced in English as the Yiddish-inflected ye-SHEE-va or ye-SHI-va) also means the very act of sitting. If there are no chairs handy at the yeshiva, students might have to balance the Talmud on their knees as they sit cross-legged, in yeshiva mizrahit (literally, “Eastern sitting”).

The funny thing is that even the most avowedly secular, anti-Haredi of Israelis often end up in a yeshiva, sometimes multiple times a day. For when the context is an Israeli workplace, yeshiva means “meeting” (even if the participants are forced to stand).

If someone answers a phone call and then adds: “I can’t talk, ani bayeshiva,” it could mean “I’m at the yeshiva” or “I’m in a meeting.”

Though Israelis of different stripes often sit in judgment of each other, when it comes to sitting on their backsides, they sometimes end up standing (linguistically) united.

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.

Emil Salman