Word of the Day Has Vehalila: When Knocking on Wood Just Doesn't Cut It

What would you say when someone asked you which CD would you take with you if your house is on fire?

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

Asking the music lover’s alternative to the “What would you take with you on a desert island?” game, an Israeli fan of the metal band Dream Theater asks online: “If has vehalila there was a fire in your house and you only had time to pick one CD/album, what would you take?”

Has vehalila (khas ve-kha-LEE-la) – like has veshalom, a synonymous older phrase – conveys the sense of “God forbid,” though neither has nor halila means “God,” or “forbid,” for that matter.

It’s used when you mention something bad that might happen, like a house fire, and want to ward off the prospect of said bad thing actually happening. It sometimes comes up in contexts you might not expect, as with the insurance agent who asked me if I had any serious health conditions to report, has vehalila.

But what does it mean on a literal level? That’s not as simple a question as it sounds.

Let’s start with halila.

It shows up in Genesis 18, when Abraham goes toe-to-toe with God over the plan to decimate Sodom and Gomorrah. “That be far from Thee [halila lekha] to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee [halila lekha]; shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” Abraham asks God. Which just goes to show that “God forbid” doesn’t work so well as a translation if the entity you’re having a chat with happens to be the selfsame aforementioned deity.

And when Joseph frames his brother by sneaking his silver goblet into Benjamin’s bag and sending his steward to catch his siblings red-handed, they respond: “Wherefore speaketh my lord such words as these? Far be it [halila] from thy servants that they should do such a thing” (Genesis 44:7). In other words, the brothers are saying: “Do we look like goblet thieves? Has vehalila!”

On its own, then, halila functions as an exclamation distancing the speaker from the action. The medieval biblical exegete Rashi describes it as derogatory language, and the Even Shoshan dictionary offers similar exclamations in its definition, like “Please don’t!” “It can’t be!” and “Under no circumstances!”

Has is trickier.

It can mean “to pity” or “to have mercy,” which seems to indicate that it comes from hus (khoos), which has the same meaning; that’s Ernest Klein’s authoritative take on it in his etymological dictionary of the Hebrew language.

But two alternative theories offer an easier way to understand has in the context of terms like has vehalila and has veshalom.

One, based on the biblical commentator Onkelos’ Aramaic translation of the Bible, is that it means the same thing as halila. Another, complementary approach holds that has refers not to compassion but to something repellant, a theory put forth by rabbi and scholar Alexander Kohut in his Arukh Hashalem, a dictionary of the Talmud written in the late 1800s. In Kohut’s view, has is related to the Arabic word that inspired Hebrew’s ikhsa (“yuck”), writes biblical Hebrew expert Yaakov Etsion.

Looked at in this way, has vehalila is more or less a repetition of the same word in two different ways, similar to busha v’herpa, which brings together two different words for “shame” into one double whammy of an insult.

Halila halila is itself used as a phrase in the Bible, in 2 Samuel: “And Joab answered and said: ‘Far be it, far be it from me [halila halila li], that I should swallow up or destroy’” (20:20).

As for has veshalom, which is used in the Talmud and appears to be the basis for the later synonym has vehalila, Etsion offers two possible explanations: either shalom, meaning “peace” or “wellbeing,” is a positive counterweight to the negative has, or it’s an affirmation of the hope that something unwanted will stay far away, like saying “amen.”

So which album would you take with you if your house caught fire and you could only take one? Whether you’re a music aficionado or not, I think you know the right answer by now: Has vehalila!

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.

What would you say if someone told you that your house might burn down?Credit: Dreamstime

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