Word of the Day Anshei Ruah: People of Spirited Mind

Once beautifully referring to people of soul and mind, from prophets to professors to Hebrew rap singers, this phrase has come to be associated with the left.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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A demonstration by 'anshei ruah' in favor of establishing a Palestinian state, April 21, 2011.
A demonstration by 'anshei ruah' in favor of establishing a Palestinian state, April 21, 2011.Credit: Moti Kimche
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

The 1970s was a big decade for wind people. “The People of the Wind” is the title of a science-fiction novel by Poul Anderson, about the merge of a race born of the Earth and one born of the sky. And an Oscar-nominated movie of the same name (minus the initial definite article) from the same decade documents the Bakhtiari nomads’ annual migration across Iran’s Zagros Mountains. Fast forward to 1999 and you get “People of the Wind River,” which tells the history of the Eastern Shoshone Indians.

Jews, of course, are known for being the People of the Book, not the flyaway nation, but that doesn’t mean there are no anshei ruah – literally "people of the wind" –among us.

The thing about ruah is that “wind,” as in air current, is only one of a long list of its definitions. Other common ones are “air,” “soul” and “spirit,” but the ones that most reflect the meaning intended in anshei ruah are “intellect” and “mind.”

Anshei ruah, a phrase seemingly as amorphous as a passing breeze, typically refers to intellectuals (“people of the mind”), though other definitions include prophets, philosophers, thinkers and “men of spirit.”

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This use of ruah resembles its meaning as used in the Hebrew term for the humanities: mada’ei haruah (“sciences of the ruah”), which is borrowed from the German word for the humanities, Geisteswissenschaften. The German word combines Wissenschaft (“science”) with Geist, which shares the same proto-Germanic root as the English “ghost” and, like ruah, means “spirit” as well as “intellect” and “mind.”

In fact, Geist (along with “esprit,” “intelligence” and, of course, “mind” and “intellect”) is one of the words used in Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's dictionary to describe this element of ruah. When used in this context, it is defined as relating to “knowledge and thought,” as in Deuteronomy 34:9: “And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom [ruah hokhma].”

Isaiah 11:2 expands on this correlation between spirit and wisdom: “And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.”

In modern Hebrew, the media tend to trot out anshei ruah as a catchall category for academics, writers, singers and artists, often when they’re banding together to protest something.

In an article from February, Maariv reported that “a group of anshei ruah” affiliated with the left had expressed their support of singer Achinoam Nini for coming out against giving another singer a lifetime achievement award because of his right-wing politics. Ariel Zilber ultimately received a downgraded award from the Acum music industry association.

Writing about the position the anshei ruah had taken, Chaim Shine, a lecturer in the philosophy of law, argued that the term has become a kind of code word signaling what he described as leftist close-mindedness. “Every time an article appears that has to do with anshei ruah, I know what it will say without having to read it,” Shine wrote in the right-leaning newspaper Israel Hayom.

Whether or not you agree with Shine that Israel’s anshei ruah are full of hot air, just remember that, every once in a while, throwing caution to the wind can be the wisest thing you do.

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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