On Root / I Like Love

From two different roots comes a whole host of affections, from like to love, and all the amateurish behavior in between.

Jeremy Benstein
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Jeremy Benstein

This week is Valentine's Day, known in Israel as Yom Ha-ahavah, yom being day and ahavah being love - "The Day of Love." 

As a child, it never occurred to me that Valentine was actually a person – and a saint, no less. Valentine's Day, which has celebrated romantic love since Chaucer's time,   is one of the two “saint’s days” on Israel’s civil calendar, along with Sylvester, the “Hebrew” name for New Year’s Eve. These two holidays happen to be among the two most celebrated holidays on the planet, so it's no wonder they've reached these shores as well.

Thou shalt love

Hebrew has two basic roots whose meanings are related to love. One is a-h-v, whence we get ahavah, "love." Before it was a Dead Sea cosmetics company, ahavah simply meant "love," both eros and agape, including divine, human, parental, filial, romantic, and everything in between. 

The Bible commands its readers to love, in two very different ways and contexts, using the same a-h-v root in both: veahavta, "you shall love." One is the love of God, the other is the love of one’s neighbor. The parallel use of the same word ahavah for both divine and human objects of love is striking. 

While Valentine's Day is the day for lovers, sometimes, though, you meet someone, and you're not yet prepared to declare undying love. You like them. You want to say: "I really like you!" and not have it sound like a totally inappropriate come-on. 

That's where the second root, ch-b-b, comes in.

Amo, amas, amateur

The root ch-b-b gives us the verb lechabev  (both the second and third consonant of the root, ch-b-b, alternate between "b" and "v" depending on whether they are in the medial or final position. For instance, the simple "I like" would be ani mechabev.)

A familiar conversational interjection is the word chabibi – literally, "my dear," meaning something like "sweetie," "hon," or "my friend." You can use this when you like the person, or even when you don't, just as calling a person "pal" or "buddy" often means they are anything but.

The noun form of the feeling is chibah, "affection," and a very warm way to sign a letter to a close friend is with bechibah, "affectionately." One of the first Zionist oriented groups in Eastern Europe over a hundred years ago was called Chibat Tziyon, and its adherents, Chovevei Tziyon. This is usually translated as "Lovers of Zion," since "likers of Zion" doesn't have quite the same ring. Though were they around today, they would surely invite us to "like" them on their Facebook page.

More recently, new words based on this root are tachbiv, "hobby," and chovev, or chovevan, "amateur."

Tachbiv as "hobby" is interesting since when Hebrew was being revived, the root ch-b-b was chosen both for the sense of doing something that one is fond of, as well as to mimic the consonantal structure of the English (h-b-b). 

Yet chovev, “amateur,” came to Hebrew from a different path. "Amateur" comes from the Latin, via the French, meaning "lover," doing something for the love of it, rather than for pay. So while you can be a chovev kaduregel, “a soccer fan,” a kaduraglan chovev is an “amateur soccer-player.” And while the for-love motif is clear from the root, the adjective, chovevani, "amateurish," has all the same negative connotations, in terms of doing something poorly, as the English.

Acharon chaviv ("the last is the favored," i.e., "last but not least"): there is a new word for "like" in Hebrew. Whether you're a lover or just a "liker," if you're skimping on valentines this year, you could just go to the Facebook pages of those you like, and as we say in Hebrew: ta'asu "like" or even - believe it or not, in one convenient verb - telaykeku. You gotta love it

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

Valentine's DayCredit: Courtesy of the Forward

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