Word of the Day Tofeset: When Catching Means Playing Tag

In Hebrew, when you play catch – or 'tofeset', from the word litfos, 'to catch' – what you’re catching is not a spherical plaything but a child.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

It seems obvious to English speakers that when one plays catch, the object one is catching (and throwing) is a ball. But in Hebrew, when you play catch – or tofeset, from the word litfos, “to catch” – what you’re catching is not a spherical plaything but a child.

The catch is that when you play catch in Israel, what you’re actually playing is tag.

Another form of the word for “catch” – tafasta, meaning “you have caught” or “you have grasped” – can be found in Tractate Sukkah 5a, which states that if we want to know the measurement of an item in the Tabernacle, we should learn from the smallest measurement given rather than the largest.

Oddly enough, given the original context, that axiom has become prevalent in modern Hebrew. Tafasta merubeh, lo tafasta (literally “you have grasped much, you haven’t grasped”) has come to mean that if you get too greedy and try to take too much, you can end up with nothing. In other words, don’t let your reach exceed your grasp.

Let’s be just a little greedy, though, and ask another question: If playing catch is actually playing tag, then what do you play if you just want to toss around a ball? The answer is mesirot, from the word limsor, meaning “to transfer,” “to deliver,” “to transmit” or, as in this case, “to pass.”

If you decide to pass on passing the ball and would rather play a rousing game of tofeset, just remember, as you try to catch your breath (but not a cold), not to catch too many kids at once, lest you end up with none of them. You’re it!

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

Playing 'catch' really means tagCredit: Draemstime

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