Word of the Day Mishpaha: It's All in the Family

This word for family appears in the Bible in various forms and also means to 'play house.'

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

In Hallmark-happy America, it’s pretty hard to forget about Mother’s Day. It’s a big day on the calendar, and the lead-up is heralded by countless ads and sale signs.

Israel has a Mother’s Day too – or rather, Yom Hamishpaha (Yom Ha-meesh-pa-KHA): Family Day, the holiday previously known as Mother’s Day, which took place Friday. But, unlike in the United States, you’d be hard-pressed to know it unless your child brings home a picture of his family that he drew in school or you happen to catch the annual media reports about the state of the Israeli family (as in this year’s surprisingly symmetrical finding that 17percent of Israeli families have four or more children aged 17 and under).

Yom means “day” and mishpaha – a word more familiar to many English speakers as the Yiddish mishpoche, which emphasizes the second syllable – means “family.”

Mishpaha (in various forms) appears multiple times in the Bible, including in Genesis 24, when Abraham’s servant Eliezer tells Laban that he has come to choose a wife for his master’s son, Isaac: “And my master made me swear, saying: Thou shalt not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I dwell. But thou shalt go unto my father’s house, and to my kindred [mishpahti], and take a wife for my son” (37-38).

The word can also refer to a people, as in Jeremiah 10:25: “Pour out thy wrath upon the nations that know thee not, and upon the mishpahot that call not on thy name.”

In modern Hebrew, mishpaha can also have a different meaning: the form of imaginative play typically known in English as “playing house.” This makes sense since, in my experience, kids are a lot more likely to fight over who gets to be which family member than over how many bedrooms their pretend house has. As with the card game milhama, the pronunciation of mishpaha often shifts to the first syllable when the topic at hand is the game rather than the real-life referent, be it war or family.

To the extent that people notice it, Yom Hamishpaha is celebrated on the 30th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, in commemoration of the day in 1945 that American Zionist leader Henrietta Szold, the founder of the Zionist women’s organization Hadassah, died. (Her gravestone gives the actual date of her death as a day later, on the first of Adar, though.) The Baltimore-born Szold, who had no children of her own, was known as “mother of the Yishuv,” the Jewish community in pre-state Israel, or “mother of youth aliya,” a tribute to her work in rescuing children from the Holocaust.

Mother’s Day was first celebrated in Israel in 1947, but the date was not set as the 30th of Shevat until the 1970s. Some 20 years later, Mother’s Day became a day for the whole mishpocha.

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.

This 'mishpaha' of stick figures is one happy family.Credit: Dreamstime
A field of anemones in the western Negev.
A field of anemones in the western Negev.
A field of anemones in the western Negev.
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A field of anemones in the western Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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A field of anemones in the western Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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A field of anemones in the western Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
A field of anemones in the western Negev

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