Word of the Day Hotza'ah La’or: Let the Sun Shine on Your Book

Both ancient and modern Hebrew associated enlightenment by the printed word with light.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Hotza'a la'or literally means "releasing into the light" - appropriate enough for "publish a book".
Hotza'a la'or literally means "releasing into the light" - appropriate enough for "publish a book".Credit: Rami Chelouche
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

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Whenever someone’s right to free speech is challenged in the United States, chances are pretty good that you’ll be hearing someone toss around a metaphor most famously expressed by Louis D. Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, that highlights the benefits of allowing people to air even the most despicable statements.

“Sunlight,” wrote Brandeis in a December 1913 article for Harper’s Weekly, “is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

The Hebrew term for publishing – hotza’ah la’or, literally “releasing into the light,” used primarily for book publishing – closely aligns with Brandeis’ notion of the power of the sun. (The Hebrew infinitive generally used for the release of reports and publication of articles is lefarsem, literally “to publicize.”) Brandeis’ sunlight statement was itself released into the light in book form in 1914, when it became part of a collection of essays called “Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It.”

Hotza’ah la’or refers to the publishing process itself and is often used to refer to a publishing house as well, though the latter can also be called hotza’at sfarim (“releasing books”) or, in a shortened version of either term, hotza’ah. A publisher, very much including that of a newspaper, is called a motzi la’or (“releaser into the light”), more commonly known by its acronym, mol.

Though Brandeis’ well-lit metaphor is similar to the Hebrew term for publishing, it did not give rise to it. The Hebrew term was used at least as early as 1811, on the publication page of a book published in Prague and called “Siha Ba'olam Haneshamot” ("Conversation in the World of the Spirits"), a “sublime”(as per the subtitle) grammatical discussion of the Hebrew past tense.

In other early books, the term was sometimes used in conjunction with other words, as in yatza la’or hadfus (“released into the light of printing”) in a Hebrew religious work from 1852 and yatza la’or olam (“released into the light of the world”) from the 1893 edition of Midrash Shmuel, homiletic stories related to the Book of Samuel.

No additional clarifications are required nowadays, though. All you’ve got to do is release the printed word into the light, and Israelis, whether or not they’re familiar with departed U.S. Supreme Court justices, will know just what you mean.

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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