Word of the Day She'elat Kitbag

In Israel, many a soldier has had to run with a duffel bag on his back because a comrade asked a question that it's best not to ask.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

Remember in elementary school when there was always a kid who had to ask the teacher whether there was going to be homework that night? In Israel, the army-derived equivalent of the question that it's best not to ask because you, and probably others as well, will have to suffer the consequences is called a she'elat kitbag (sheh-ay-LAHT KEET-beg).

Though there are different variations of how this phrase came into being, one common explanation stems from a situation in which soldiers are ordered to go for a run; the commanding officer makes no mention of carrying their army-issued kitbag, a duffel bag in which soldiers carry everything but the kitchen sink, until one soldier unthinkingly pipes up, "Should we run with or without our kitbags on our back?"

For combat soldiers, this includes a screwdriver, a gun brush and three rolls of duct tape as well as a coat, shoes, a toiletry kit and nine pairs of wool socks (unless they're wearing one), among other items, according to the Israel Defense Forces website. Female soldiers carry a package of wet wipes.

Lugging a kitbag would naturally make the run much more challenging, and the soldier and his comrades are essentially penalized for the question, since the commander is sure to order a kitbag run once the issue is raised.

The reluctance to ask a kitbag question extends into other aspects of life, prompting Israelis to just go ahead and do something that may or may not be allowed rather than risk asking for permission first.

In an effort to illustrate the effect of a kitbag question, blogger David Bogner of the Treppenwitz blog, describes an old joke he says has been attributed to the late comedian Henny Youngman:

A Jewish man pulls up to the curb and asks a police officer, “Can I park here?”

“No,” he says.

So the man asks, “What about all these other cars?”

The police officer responds: “They didn’t ask!”

The man in the joke may have been Jewish, but it's a pretty sure bet he was not Israeli.

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.

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