Word of the Day Beit Av: It’s a Dad’s World

If you don't watch your plurals, you may put your father in a home instead of talking about the household.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

On Friday we looked at compound nouns that include the word av but are unconnected to its primary meaning, “father.” Now let’s look at the surprising amount of terms that result when you combine “dad” and “home.”

Beit av literally means “house of the father,” a compound noun that was used in the Bible to refer to a family (or part of one) and has since become a male-centric way of referring to a household (which is also called meshek bayit).

A more contemporary usage can be found on the website of Migvan Effect, a company that provides Internet solutions for organizations. “It’s possible to add several people with different data under a single beit av,” the company informs its customers.

Using an outdated plural of beit av that pluralizes the fathers rather than the homes, the Book of Numbers tells us: “Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses [l’veit avotam], according to the number of names, every male, by their polls” (1:2).

That may be fine for the Bible, but in modern Hebrew you’ve gotta watch out how you pluralize households, or instead of defining the home as a father-based unit you may end up talking about putting dad into a home. That’s because while beit av is “household”(and is normally pluralized in modern Hebrew as batei av, using the plural for “home”), beit avot (literally “house of the fathers”) means “nursing home.” In general, avot refers not just to actual fathers but also to ancestors and, especially when preceded by the number three, to the patriarchs.

Of course, imahot, or mothers, are allowed into batei avot too, but in Hebrew the plural masculine form is often used as the generic form that includes women as well.

If we switch around the order of “home” and “father” and put dad first, we get av bayit. This can be a house father, which is also the literal translation of the term. In this context, a person with such a title generally works at a boarding school or yeshiva, is in charge of the students’ wellbeing, and may live in or near the dormitory. The parallel term for women is em bayit, or “house mother.”

But an av bayit in a regular school (where students leave at the end of the day) or in other kinds of buildings is its superintendent or caretaker. In a school, he may be responsible for opening the doors in the morning and making sure TVs and DVDs are installed in classrooms as needed, as well as for the general maintenance and cleanliness of the institution. Since the people who fill these jobs are generally male, the masculine term of av bayit is the default job title.

Add the law to “father” and “home” and you get av beit din, the head of a rabbinical court (beit din literally means “house of law”). Av is also sometimes used as a euphemism for God, as in the term av harahamim or av harahaman, both of which mean “merciful father.”

Unrelatedly, Av is also the name of the Hebrew summertime month in which the fast day of Tisha B’Av (meaning “ninth of Av”) takes place, commemorating the destruction of the Temple.

It may seem like some of these father-based terms are predicated on a patriarchal worldview. But those who like their glasses half-full can choose instead to see them as reflecting paternal involvement in matters including the household, general maintenance and caregiving, much as many real-life dads combine the home with their role as avot in an increasing variety of ways – in Av as in every other month of the year.

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.

A father running his household.Credit: Eran Wolkowski

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