Word of the Day Iltur: Improv in the Army

This word first appears in the Mishna, but its use spread when the nascent Israeli army had to learn to make things up as it went along.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Hebrew word for improvisation is iltur (il-TUR or il-TU-rim in the plural). This word also comes as a verb, ilter (il-TER), and an adjective, meultar (me-ul-TAR). While it's a modern word dating back some seven decades, its roots are firmly set in the Aramaic language of Babylon and the Mishna.

The word first appears in the 1940 Dictionary of Theater Terms published by the Committee of the Hebrew Language as a word for improvisation – inventing the performance as you go along – but its use only started to spread when it was picked up by the Israel Defense Forces.

During the War of Independence in 1948, the nascent army had no proper equipment and its soldiers, for the most part, had no real military training. So when a soldier or commander would petition his superior for provisions that were not available, or asked how to perform a mission he didn’t quite know how to pull off, the answer was often a resounding “tealter!”

The connection between immediacy and improvisation is quite obvious if you have the idiom “on the spot” in mind. The word le’altar first appears in the Mishna: “If the bearer of a get [a divorce bill] loses it on the way, if he finds it again immediately it is valid, and if not it is not valid” (Gitin 3:3).

As previously stated, the word le’altar is not originally Hebrew but Aramaic – it is a portmanteau of al (“on”) and atar (place), so that it literally means “on the spot” in Aramaic.

Word of the Day - IlturCredit: Itzik Ben Malki

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Trump and Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, in 2020.

Three Years Later, Israelis Find Out What Trump Really Thought of Netanyahu

German soldier.

The Rival Jewish Spies Who Almost Changed the Course of WWII

Rio. Not all Jewish men wear black hats.

What Does a Jew Look Like? The Brits Don't Seem to Know

Galon. “I’m coming to accomplish a specific mission: to increase Meretz’s strength and ensure that the party will not tread water around the electoral threshold. If Meretz will be large enough, it will be the basis for a Jewish-Arab partnership.” Daniel Tchetchik

'I Have No Illusions About Ending the Occupation, but the Government Needs the Left'

Soldiers using warfare devices made by the Israeli defense electronics company Elbit Systems.

Russia-Ukraine War Catapults Israeli Arms Industry to Global Stage

Flame and smoke rise during an Israeli air strike, amid Israel-Gaza fighting, in Gaza City August 6, 2022.

Israel Should End Gaza Operation Now, if It Can