It is a word often used to describe the antics of young children and cats: sneaking into the (apparently not-so-) secret chocolate hiding place and coming out with a face streaked with brown, unrolling all the toilet paper in the house, plastering the couch with smiley face stickers.
If the guardian is of the authoritarian variety, such actions may be reason for the child or pet (sometimes, let’s admit it, there seems to be little distinction) to go back to that chocolate hiding place and lay low for a while. But catch that parent or pet owner in a more tolerant mood and the response might be a benevolent smile and an exasperated “Eizeh shovav!” – “What a mischievous boy!” – or its feminine equivalent, “Eizo shovava!”
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This is the baby who “gets into everything,” the schoolchild who causes mischief and maybe pulls some pranks but isn’t really a bad kid; shovav connotes a kind of amused forbearance.
The word also means “naughty,” and as in English, encompasses both kid-style naughty behavior, like sneaking out of bed to steal some more candy, and a rated-X-style raunchy kind of naughty, the sort more likely to involve sneaking into someone’s bed than out of it. Both ideas are encapsulated by a somewhat bizarre photo posted online, captioned “Hahahahaha... This little shovav...” and showing an infant holding open a Playboy while grinning widely.
In biblical times, shovav was a harsher word, referred not to someone who was being mischievous or naughty but to those who have passed into the “rebellious” and “wayward” category. “Return, o banim shovavim,” God says in Jeremiah 3:14. The Jewish Press Society’s 1917 edition translates this as “backsliding children,” a word choice that hints at the connection between shovav and shuv, in the sense of “to be rebellious,” “to turn away” or “to commit apostasy.”
The confounding thing is that shuv also means “to return” and “to turn back,” whether to religion or to somewhere more concrete – like to one’s home, as in the Hebrew name of the operation that ended up becoming a search for the bodies of the three teens recently kidnapped in the West Bank: Shuvu Ahim, literally “Brothers come home."