Word of the Day Oref: Sticking Your Neck Out for the Home Front

In a small country like Israel, the army’s rearguard is, in a sense, the civilian home front.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

Israelis were lining up for hours to get gas masks a few short weeks ago, back when it looked like a U.S. attack on Syria loomed. Our family dutifully got the additional gas mask we needed too, and noticed that the box says in English, in orange letters, “Open this kit only under clear instructions from the Rear Command.”

“Rear Command” is the literal meaning of Pikud Ha’oref, which is generally translated with a word that represents the opposite of “rear”: “front,” as in “Home Front Command.” Oref means both “rearguard” and “the back of the neck.”

The idea is that, in a tiny country like Israel, where wars are fought in close proximity to at least part of the civilian population, the army’s rearguard is, in a sense, the civilian home front. The home front has been more front and less oref in recent years, as terror attacks and rocket fire on civilians have at least partly superseded old-style army-to-army combat.

“The Second Lebanon War led to an important if belated update of Israel’s national security concept,” Meir Elran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, wrote in 2008. “The continual Hizbollah bombardment of Israeli population centers in the summer of 2006 was a wake-up call for the Israeli public and its decision makers, reminding them that the home front is an active front and to a large degree of equal significance to the military front.”

This idea was mentioned in Hebrew at least as early as 1931, notes biblical Hebrew expert Yaakov Etsion. He cites a writer in the now-defunct newspaper Davar who warned that World War I – when the term “home front” made its way into the English language – had changed the nature of war: “The terrors of war will fall on the civilian community, on women and children as much as on military men, and there will be no recognizable difference between the rear [oref] and the front [hazit].”

Oref, in the sense of “nape,” forms part of the epithet k’she-oref, which still means “stubborn,” as in God’s criticism of the people of Israel for building the golden calf: “And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people’ [am k’she-oref]” (Exodus 32:9).

Pana lo oref or hifna lo oref means “turned his back on,” a phrase that appears in Jeremiah 2:27: “Who say to a stock: ‘Thou art my father,’ and to a stone: ‘Thou hast brought us forth,’ for they have turned their back unto Me [panu eilai oref], and not their face; but in the time of their trouble they will say: ‘Arise, and save us.’”

As for the “Rear Command” that appears on the gas mask box, the term isn’t exactly wrong, although it isn’t exactly English either. Maybe I ought to back off a bit; at least it wasn’t translated as the “Back of the Neck Command.”

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.

Oref means both 'rearguard' and 'the back of the neck.'Credit: Gil Eliyahu

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