Word of the Day Yesh Vayesh: Vegan Monsters and Purple People in Manhattan

How the biblical phrase for 'indeed' morphed into 'It takes all kinds'

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

Let’s say your friends are making a generalization based on a bad experience they had with a one-eyed, one-horned flying creature.

“Their biggest goal in life is eating purple people,” one of your friends might say.

“No way,” you might put in. “I just read a survey that found that 89 percent don’t even crave people anymore, and there’s a really popular support group for imaginary carnivores who want to go vegan.” And then you might shrug and say: “You know, yesh vayesh.”

On a literal level, you’d be saying “there are and there are.” The listener is meant to fill in the blanks: There are some like this and some like that.

It’s similar to the phrase “it takes all kinds,” and can refer to people or other nouns (“All the buildings in Manhattan are tall, dark and gloomy.” “Yesh vayesh”).

But this wasn’t always the meaning of the seemingly modern colloquialism yesh vayesh. The same term makes an appearance in 2 Kings: “And when he [Jehu] was departed thence, he lighted on Jehondadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him; and he saluted him, and said to him: ‘Is [ha-yesh] thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’”

Jehonadab’s answer was “Yesh vayesh,” which the Jewish Publication Society translates as “It is” (10:15). The second yesh gives extra emphasis, like adding the word “indeed.”

This meaning is still used today, often in contrast to “there isn’t” (ein). It can be seen clearly in the song “Osher” (“Happiness”) by prominent Hebrew songwriter Ehud Manor, who died in 2005. The song is a translation of the Portuguese lyrics by Brazilian poet, songwriter and playwright Vinicius de Moraes, and the original includes the line “Sadness has no end, happiness does.” In the Hebrew version of the song, that line reads: “Sadness has no end [with ein used for “no”], happiness yesh vayesh,” meaning that it does indeed.

Joy may be fleeting, but is it really uniform, as Tolstoy’s most over-quoted sentence would have it (you know the one: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”)? It seems to me that one family’s happiness does not necessarily look anything like another family’s; in other words, Leo, yesh vayesh.

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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