Word of the Day: Nihye Yoter Hakhamim When Wise Guys Finish Last

Israelis don’t just find out more when the information starts rolling in; they get smarter.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Ensmarten thyself!
Ensmarten thyself!
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

If you can’t make a decision because a critical part of the picture is missing – you won’t know whether to quit your job and book a ticket to California until you find out whether you got into the graduate program you wanted, or the doctor can’t tell you what the next step in treatment should be until the test results come back – you might say in English that you’ll know more when the missing links are filled in.

In Hebrew, though, you don’t just have a better idea of what to do; you actually get smarter.

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“Let’s wait until next week,” you might hear. “Then we’ll be smarter.” In Hebrew, that’s nihye (nee-hee-YEH, “we will be”) yoter hakhamim (yo-TER kha-kha-MEEM, “more smart.”)

As an adjective, hakham means “wise,” “intelligent” or “smart.” It can also be a title referring to a Jewish sage, especially among Sephardi Jews. And the Hakhamim, or Hazal (an acronym for “our sages of blessed memory”), generally refers to the Sages (note the capital “s”), the religious scholars from the Second Temple period to the end of the talmudic era.

Jewish tradition has a lot to say on wisdom. “A wise [hakham] son maketh a glad father,” Proverbs tells us, “but a foolish son is the grief of his mother” (10:1). Ecclesiastes – which, like Proverbs, is said to have been written by Solomon, the king renowned for his wisdom – also contrasts these two figures: “The wise man, his eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness” (2:14.)

But Jeremiah warns that it would be wise not to let wisdom go to one’s head, saying: “Thus saith the Lord: Let not the wise man [hakham] glory in his wisdom [behakhmato], neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches” (9:22.)

Sometimes waiting around for more information really is the smartest thing you can do, even if it means that wise guys finish last. “Who is wise?” asks Ethics of the Fathers. “He who learns from all people.”

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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