The closest English equivalent to "Shelo nedah" is "Heaven forbid" – but its Hebrew meaning goes much deeper.
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The expression literally translates as "We should not know" (in the future tense). But note that "to know" in Hebrew traditionally refers not only to mental knowledge but also to physical experience and even to sexual practice, as in "And Adam knew Eve his wife.(Genesis 4:1).
"Shelo nedah" is what one says when one comes in uncomfortably close contact with the reality of the tragedy and fragility of human life, i.e. passing a car crash on the highway or hearing about an acquaintance with an illness.
While humanity throughout history seems to have had a hard time embracing the transient and dangerous nature of existence – this phrase is a glimpse of the age-old, collective anxiety of the Jewish people about what horrible thing is right around the bend.
"I'm not afraid of dying ... I just don't want to be there when it happens. -Woody Allen
Jewish anxiety is innate – born in a Bible dictated by a harsh, punitive God and cultivated over hundreds of years when shtetl Jews never knew when the next pogrom or band of angry Crusaders was on its way. These days, think of Jewish film director and actor Woody Allen and his ongoing intellectual wrestling match with death in the form of comedy, which Freud (also a Jew) would tell you is, in fact, just a mechanism of distraction from the fear of nothingness.
"Shelo nedah" is a truncation of the phrase "Shelo nedah mitzarot," "May we not know from sorrows," which is an adaptation of a phrase traditionally used to comfort mourners after a Jewish funeral, "Shelo tedah od tza'ar," May you not know further sorrow. That, in turn, paraphrases a Biblical passage which uses the word "da'avah," an ancient verb for "to sorrow."
"They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord – the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more" (Jeremiah 31:11).
"Shelo nedah," the colloquial phrase, changes the mourner's consolation into the first-person plural (nedah instead of tedah), expressing one's wish that all present not come too close to horrible events in the future.
But as any fan of Woody Allen knows, in life, certain unfortunate events are unfortunately, unavoidable.
"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment." -Woody Allen