On Root / What Soldiers, Soaps and Trade Unions Have in Common

Stick to the seder of the Seder or you'll wind up with a Persian wooden booth.

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What do the Jewish book of common prayer, the standing army, television series, trade unions and the ritual Passover dinner all have in common?

All of these terms, and more, come from the single Hebrew tri-literal root, s-d-r.

The main sense of this root means "order" or "structure" – like the ordered liturgy in the Jewish prayer book, the siddur.

This week, many of our readers are preparing a different kind of ordered ritual, the Passover seder. This highly structured story-telling banquet has 14 parts, taking us from before soup to after nuts, in a chronological edifice that includes drinking, washing, eating , rituals, talking, more washing, more (and more) eating, more talking, blessings, and singing.

There is so much going on that if you don't stick to the structure, you could end up not with a seder, but a balagan – "a mess" (from the Persian for wooden booth in a market, and by extension, disorderly cacophony, such as of merchants hawking wares.)

More formally, a breakdown into chaos could be described by those most primal Hebrew terms for disorder – the tenth and eleventh words of the Bible (Gen.1:2), tohu vavohu : "formless (ie without structure) and void," or chaos and confusion. This term actually makes its way into English as the somewhat archaic 'tohubohu'.

While apparently connected to actual Hebrew words for "wonderment" and "astonishment" (toheh ve'boheh), this is practically an onomatopoeia of blooming, buzzing bedlam. That term actually comes from "Bethlehem," believe it or not – but I'll leave that for an language column on English roots to discuss.

Strike that!

Another s-d-r word is the body most associated with worker's rights (and labor strikes) in Israel – the Histadrut (literally, "The Federation").

Whether the Histadrut umbrella labor organization brings more chok ve'seder, "law and order," or more balagan because of the strikes, depends on your politics. At least in Israel, general strikes don't end in the army being called in to make order.

That's an order!

This brings us back to things military, and the aforementioned "standing army", which is the sadir, the "regular" army of ordered soldiers. Part of being a soldier is standing in misdar, which could be like an "order" of nuns or monks, but in this case is the formation for inspection.

By the way, 'orders', as in military orders, is only connected in English: soldiers in the IDF receive pekudot, which is from another very rich root, sure to be the topic of an upcoming column.

This doesn't begin to exhaust the possibilities of s-d-r. My sons watch many sedarot on TV, probably not knowing that this word for "series" comes from the sidra, the weekly Torah portion, read in order throughout the year. 

And if you really want to get somebody good, you want to lesader otam, "set" them up, frame or stymie them.

Don't worry, be happy

But the absolutely most important s-d-r word in Hebrew is simply b'seder, "in order," that is: "alright," "okay."

It is universal in Israeli Hebrew, and even in much of Palestinian Arabic. It is the typical answer to "how are you"" If things are really good (or you just don't want to talk) you say hakol b'seder, "everything is fine."

The phrase "yihyeh b'seder ," "it'll be alright" is an Israeli national philosophy of life – feel free to use it in practically any situation. [LINK TO WOTD ON THAT]

And if you are asked this week whether you are mesudar, "have something on" for this Monday night – you can answer ambiguously:  "Ehyeh b'seder" – "Oh, I'll be alright," or: "I'll be at a Seder!"

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

Soldiers in "sadir" standing in "misdar," if not in a particularly "mesudar" fashion.Credit: Alon Ron
David Ben-Gurion at a Passover Seder, Kibbutz Sde Boker, 1973.Credit: Shlomo Buchbinder

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