Word of the Day Olam Keminhago Noheg

As the Jewish sages taught long ago, the world doesn't always work the way we'd like it to.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

In the tractate Avoda Zara, the Talmud tells us that Roman philosophers asked Jewish sages why, if they believed God was so antagonistic toward idol worship, had he not simply rid the world of it? The sages responded that if people had nothing else to worship, they would still bow before the sun, the moon and the stars. The idea, they said, wasn't to destroy the world as a way of preventing some people from doing certain things, but that olam keminhago noheg – the world continues as before, doing what it normally does, because that's the way the world works.

In the context of Jewish thought, the phrase, which literally means "the world behaves as it customarily does," can also refer to Maimonides' view that the Messiah's arrival will not make much of a practical difference in day-to-day life. "One should not think that in the days of the Messiah, anything about the way the world works will be changed, or that there will be a renewal of creation; rather, olam keminhago noheg," Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah. (Another version has olam keminhago holekh, which means the same thing.)

In contemporary usage, the phrase usually connotes the same fatalism as it does in the example from the Talmud: That's life, and there's not much we can do about it.

A 2009 column on the environment that appears on the website of the Israeli daily Maariv complains that nothing really happened at a United Nations conference on climate change that took place in Copenhagen that year. Though the author doesn't use the phrase in his piece, the editors saw fit to title the column (what else?) "Olam keminhago noheg."

A mocking song by the late Israeli singer and actor Yossi Banai uses the phrase as a title, but is about an altogether different topic: the immutability of intergenerational conflict. The original Hebrew lyrics have rhyming couplets, with some Yiddish epithets thrown in for fun:

"This war has gone on for years / And it takes place among fathers and sons / And it takes place among cabinet members / Among the young and the veteran administrators / The shmegegees say they're the experienced ones / and that the schmucks are a disaster for the Jews."

Nobody wants global warming, and yet it continues.Credit: Reuters

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