On Root / Israel's Homegrown Election Lexicon

Last week we saw how Hebrew imported a number of words to its political lexicon; this week we explore our local election vocabulary.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

Last week we explored some big Israeli political words that come from other languages, such as demokratya, politika, koalitziya, opozitziya (and also intrigot and skandalim). But Jewish roots of political institutions, both historical and linguistic, also vie with foreign influences to give us many central terms in the lexicon.

The main ancient political institution that the State of Israel revived with its founding is the Knesset, taking its name from "the Great Assembly" (k-n-s – "assemble") of the first return to Zion from Persian times almost 2500 years ago. For a discussion of "Knesset" and related words, see here. Today's Knesset was founded on February 14th, 1949, which happened to be Tu Bishvat, the Jewish "new year of the trees" and holiday of planting, which this year falls next week.

Israel has its version of separation of powers: the Knesset is the legislative branch (rashut mechokeket), and there is also an independent judiciary (rashut shofetet). These terms are extensively explored here. The executive branch is the one usually termed the "government," memshalah, and the one who stands at its head is the rosh memshalah, "prime minister," literally "government head."

The root here is m-sh-l, and means "rule" or "govern." In the first creation story (Gen 1:16) the sun is created "to rule" the day, and the moon, the night (lememshelet...). The form mimshal is also used, meaning "administration" or "rule." For instance, there can be a mimshal tzvai, "military rule," and the American federal government is often termed in the Israeli press simply ha-mimshal. A governor, as of a colony or an American state, is a moshel.

A newer word on the scene is meshilut, the Hebrew for what political theorists call "governance." This comes up time and again in suggestions for election reform, since the coalition system with national lists and many small parties is far from perfect, but so far no one has advanced a proposal that has garnered widespread support.

Going behind the curtain

Next week, Israeli voters will choose who they wish to lead, or serve in, the next government. And here is where we get some old Jewish words, with even older foreign roots. First, to insure privacy, we go into a booth behind a curtain, which is called a pargod. Coming into Hebrew from Greek back in Talmudic times, the pargod was a sort of metaphysical partition between humans and the deity, and hearing something from meachorei hapargod, "behind the curtain" (or screen) meant eavesdropping on God, hearing something from the heavenly sphere. More recently (1969-2005), the word began referring to a more theatrical curtain -  for example, the Pargod club was an edgy fringe theater and jazz nightclub in Jerusalem.

But the cultic association continues in the voting process. While behind the curtain, we take one of 34 slips of paper, representing the different parties, put it into an envelope (to ensure a secret ballot) and slip it into a slot of a big box – which is the kalpi (or kalfi). Also a Greek term from the rabbinic period, kalpi originally meant an urn for drawing lots, such as the lots to decide the fate of the two goat sacrifices on Yom Kippur. One was to be sacrificed on the altar, the other driven out to a place called Azazel (which has since become an epithet for "hell," as in "go to") – becoming the original "scape-goat". So, where our forebears removed slips of paper from the kalpi, we put ours in, but perhaps the result – choosing a scapegoat – isn't all that different

The some of its parts

Once the process is complete, the votes are tallied, and the mandatim (or parliamentary seats) are apportioned. The head of the party with the best chance of creating a coalition (usually the biggest party) will be approached by President Peres, the nasi (another Biblical word) to engage in harkavat hamemshalah, the process of "forming the government," literally assembling it, using the same verb as putting together a puzzle.

The classical associations continue, for this is often known in the press as ma'aseh merkavah, meaning "the act of assembly," but referencing the Jewish mystical concept by that name, meaning something like "the works of the chariot." This is a mystical theosophical doctrine, also stemming from the rabbinic period, based on Ezekiel's vision of the divine throne or chariot (Ezekiel 1). Because this is indeed a complex mystical doctrine, colloquially, it has also come to mean "no easy feat."

The word merkavah means both "assembly" and "chariot" because the root, r-k-v, has the basic meaning of "putting something on something else." From lirkav, "to ride" (as in a bicycle or horse), it is a short way to rechev (syllabic-initial "k" and medial "ch" alternating), meaning "vehicle." The causative leharkiv, is thus both "to give someone a ride" (on your bicycle, or shoulders) and also "to put together, assemble" – putting one thing on or in another. A responsible consumer should read a package of food to find out its markivim, "ingredients."

Responsible or socially minded politicians should prefer public transportation, and get to work on the rakevet, the train. But most MKs travel around in the car they receive as part of their benefits package, called a rechev srad, an official vehicle. This term (discussed here) goes back to the priestly vestments and other ancient trappings of religious office.

The big kahuna

The connection between politicians and priests does not stop there. While in English, a president presides, a minister ministers, a public servant serves, and an officer officiates, in Hebrew, a priest 'priests,' and that is the word used for all those functions. That is, the verb used to describe any official or public functionary in office is mekhahen, from k-h-n – or as it is more commonly spelled – "cohen," i.e., "priest." One of the duties of the rosh memshalah mekhahen, the 'serving' ("priesting") prime minister, is taxation policy – in particular will he levy new taxes?

But lest you think that is merely a horribly bad pun, there is a linguistic link here as well. To levy a tax, while no light or laughing matter, is connected more to levity than to things levitical. The word "levy," related to "levitate" and "lever," indicates that one raises a tax. This is exactly the idea behind the Hebrew term trumah, "offering" or "contribution" from the root r-y-m, meaning "high." In Biblical times, the ancient priests would literally raise, or lift up, a sacrificial offering, leharim trumah.

Now it means any sort of contribution, including of the political, monetary type. Many politicians, whose campaigns are not mitromemim, "rising" or "getting off the ground," may look for monetary infusions of trumot, campaign contributions or funding. This may lead them into various skandalim and intrigot. Next week, we'll check in on those campaigns, via the tashdirim, the televised party spots; and in two weeks – we should know who is slated to be the next rosh memshalah mekhahen.

More election elocutions and party palaver to come. Comments invited here or write to: jeremybenstein@gmail.com.

Next week, Israeli voters will choose who they wish to lead, or serve in, the next government. And here is where we get some old Jewish words, with even older foreign roots. Credit: AP
David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister (center), at a session of the first Knesset in 1949. Credit: Hans Pinn / GPO