Word of the Day Levaya: What Funerals Have to Do With Escort Services

In Hebrew, mourners are considered to be escorting the dead, much as a scantily clad woman might escort a lonely man.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
The Hebrew words for "funeral" and "escort" have the same root.
The Hebrew words for "funeral" and "escort" have the same root.
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

Those who have been watching Israeli news broadcasts over the past few weeks have recently heard more than the usual share of the words halvaya (hal-va-YA) and levaya (le-va-YA), both of which are equally correct words for “funeral” and come from the root meaning “escort.”

Judaism considers it a good deed to accompany – lelavot – a dead body to its final resting place. A funeral is essentially the escort ceremony.

On Saturday night, at the funeral of a soldier who had been due to get married in a few weeks, this tradition of dolefully accompanying the dead grimly contrasted with the rather more cheerful tradition of escorting the bride and groom to the wedding canopy, as friends and relatives found themselves keening and crying instead of singing and dancing.

“‘Funeral [levaya] instead of huppa’: Thousands escorted [livu] Benaya Sarel on his final journey,” read the Hebrew headline of a Channel 2 News article. The article quotes Sarel’s mother as saying: “We were supposed to escort [lelavot] you in another three weeks to your wedding with Gali, but God wanted something else.”

Although these two lifecycle events may seem like the ultimate contrast, Jewish tradition sometimes links them, as with the parallel between the seven days of mourning and the seven days of reciting seven blessings for newlyweds, and with a morning prayer listing deeds that people can do in this world and be rewarded for in the world to come – including helping a bride get married and halvayat hamet, escorting the dead.

Of course, not all kinds of escorts are part of Jewish tradition.

Unlike a melava (me-la-VA), which literally means “escort” and often refers to a (female) adult accompanying a new driver or an adult bus monitor taking children to school (the masculine version is me-la-VEH), an escort whose job description includes keeping lonely men company is called a na’arat livuy, or “escort girl.”

But while Saturday nights may be a popular time for escorts of the scantily clad kind, religion comes into play here too, for it is also traditionally a time for a post-Shabbat meal known as a melave malka. This literally means “escorting the queen,” and is all about sending out the Sabbath queen in style. Miniskirt not included.

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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