Word of the Day Shai Lahag

In Israel, this is the time of year for giving gifts. But not just any gifts - holiday gifts. And for that, we have a special name.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Passover, not Hanukkah, is the time of year for giving gifts in Israel.
Passover, not Hanukkah, is the time of year for giving gifts in Israel.Credit: World Market
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

Going to a birthday party? Don't forget to buy a matana, which is related to the word latet, or "to give," and is the standard word for "present" or "gift." But for some reason, when it's holiday time, the operative "present" word is shai, particularly as used in the phrase shai lahag (SHAI la-KHAG), meaning "holiday gift."

In countries like the United States, where Christmas is a major holiday for much of the population, the gift culture of that Christian holiday has rubbed off on Hanukkah. But in Israel, it's not that relatively minor winter holiday that gets gift-giving honors; the major festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Passover, which begins next week, are when shai lahag makes an appearance.

This is the time of year when a plethora of hostess gifts are sold in the stores and when employees typically receive a kind of bonus from their employers, usually in the form of store vouchers or gift cards.

Seventy-five percent of Israeli citizens of working age said they expected to receive shai lahag for Passover, with the tradition costing employers a total of NIS 2.7 billion that holiday alone, according to a report by TheMarker last year.

Both shai and matana can be found in the Bible. Genesis states: "But unto the sons of the concubines, that Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts (matanot); and he sent them away from Isaac his son, while he yet lived, eastward, unto the east country" (25:6), and Psalms says: "Out of thy temple at Jerusalem, whither kings shall bring presents (shai) unto thee" (68:30).

In contemporary usage, until Rosh Hashanah or Passover roll around, shai is more likely to refer to someone's name – usually a male first name, as in MK Shay Piron of Yesh Atid, who has been designated the country's next education minister. Sometimes it gets last name duties as well (MK Nachman Shai, a former Israel Defense Forces spokesman) or a female first name.

One recent Ynet story played on this overlap, with a headline about Piron beginning "Shai lahak," which sounds similar to shai lahag but is referring to Shay the person and the Hebrew acronym for MK rather than a Passover present.

If you just celebrated your birthday, you might have received a nice matana. But if you got something special from your workplace – as did the Dead Sea Works employees who got an iPad as well as a NIS 1,780 bonus for Passover last year – don't be shy about leavening discussions of the economy with reference to your shai lahag.

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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