Word of the Day Ma Shebatu’ah Batu’ah: Leap Off the Cliff, or Take the Elevator?

You can count on divine intervention, or play it safe.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

Trying to decide between embarking on a risky venture or staying on the plodding but dependable track? Or maybe you just can’t decide whether or not to pack that extra pair of underwear?

Either way, ask an Israeli with a conservative outlook on life and there’s a good chance you’ll hear an axiomatic statement indicating that you should stick to the reliable, if more boring, option, because after all, ma shebatu’ah batu’ah. In other words: What’s certain is certain.

Batu’ah is used in Psalms 112:7 to mean “trusting” or “confident”: “He shall not be afraid of evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, trusting [batu’ah] in the Lord.” In addition to “certain,” the word can also mean “safe,” “secure” and “sure.”

As for the phrase – which is often shortened to the first part, ma shebatu’ah – it is similar in meaning to “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, with a dose of “better to be on the safe side” thrown in (though the latter phrase does have a more direct Hebrew equivalent in leyeter bitahon). Or, as the Even-Shoshan dictionary explains: “It’s not worth relying on a miracle or on something dubious.”

What is certain about ma shebatu’ah is that it is a rich source of puns. Some of them play on the safety (betihut) angle, like the page on the Israel Electric Corporation website in which the company pats itself on the back for having its employees teach driving safety to high school students and soldiers, which is headlined “Ma shebatu’ah – batu’ah,” in this case meaning in part that what’s safe is safe. (The full idiom is punctuated in a variety of ways – you know, just to be on the safe side.)

You’ve also got the insurance angle, which plays on the fact that the word for insurance – bitu’ah – comes from the idea of playing it batu’ah. Thus an October article in an advertising industry trade magazine about McCann-Erickson taking over advertising for insurance giant AIG merited the headline “Ma shebatu’ah, bitu’ah.”

Because, as any insurance agent worth her salt will surely tell you, better batu’ah than sorry.

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.

And then NASA captured this image of a nebula, now known as the 'Hand of God'. But can you rely on that when facing a dilemma?Credit: AP

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