On Root / Buying Into Consumerism

Israel has adopted Western shopping culture but has its own way of talking about it.

This is the first of a three-part series on words from the world of consumption, money and economics.

Last week, this space was devoted to the summer heat and the places people go on chofesh, "vacation" – literally "freedom." One place that wasn’t discussed, but where people flock in droves, is the kanyon.

No, people aren't hanging out at beautiful rock formations in the Negev. A kanyon is a shopping mall, a "portmanteau word" (Lewis Carroll's neologism for one word made from two), created from keniya, "purchase," and chenyon, "parking lot." How apt is that?

Israel's first mall-like shopping center was Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Center, built in 1977. But the Hebrew term wasn’t coined until 1985, when real-estate developer David Azrieli used it to describe Kanyon Ayalon, which he built in Ramat Gan. Kanyon later caught on and became the generic term for "mall," now familiar to all Israelis. It's easy to imagine that the first multi-story malls seemed cavernous, suggesting a canyon. There's even a huge one now in Haifa called Ha-Grand Kanyon.

What do you do there? Well, some people actually buy things. But it's interesting that in Hebrew, if you go out to do keniyot, "errands," the mall is rarely one of your stops. Like la'asot kemping, the Israeli term for "to go camping" – discussed last week – what you do at the kanyon is more often la'asot shoping – like "shopping" (but with a long "o") and relating mainly to clothes or fashion-related goods. You may or may not actually purchase anything. It's more of an experience – a cultural thing.  

Quality time

"Consumption," not the disease, but the act of consuming things, is tzricha, from the root tz-r-ch, "need" or "necessity." Every creature "consumes," tzorech, things and in general you tzorech what youtzarich, "need."

But like the word le'umanut, "extreme nationalism" – which we discussed several weeks ago – the term tzarchanut has a broader meaning. It refers to the entire ideology of consumerism, which makes the experience of consumption an end in itself, not the means to some greater good. We no longer buy provisions to live and thrive. We live to consume things, often inspired by advertising that creates new needs we never knew we had.

Shoping is part of this lifestyle. When you go out liknot mitzrachim, "to purchase necessities," you usually go, with a list, to smaller local shops. These traditionally include the iconic, but fast-disappearing, Israeli corner market, the makolet, which takes its name from that most basic of necessities, "food," ochel (k and ch are alternates of the same letter).

But when you go out shoping, a foreign word for an imported, global experience, you rarely have a list. You dress differently, go to the mall or other large chains and often throw in a meal and a movie for a whole day of "quality time."

It's a mivtza'!

Shoppers are always on the lookout for bargains or deals. While in English, it's easy to confuse "for sale" with "on sale," in Hebrew, the kind of "sale" you have to wait for, has its own word, mivtza'. This word looks like mitzvah, "commandment" – and some people may indeed feel commanded to buy when they see deep discounts – but the words actually have different roots.

Mitzvah comes from the root tz-v-h, meaning "command." Mivtza', on the other hand, comes from b-tz-'ayin meaning to "perform" or "do." It can also refer to various types of campaigns, including military ones, like Mivtza' Entebbe, the operation to rescue the hostages of the hijacked plane in Entebbe in 1976. After the planning of an operation comes the "implementation," the bitzu'a. And someone who is a "doer" – rather than just a talker – is a bitzu'ist (-ist being a foreign ending, as in "artist" or "pianist," for the performer of an action).

Bemivtza' is the equivalent of "on sale," meaning you are likely to get a significant hanacha, "discount" –  from the same root as noach, "ease" or "comfort."

Another money-related root – a homonym of b-tz-'ayin – gives us betza', which means "unjust enrichment" or "ill-gotten gain." This is a small reminder that while looking for a good deal is one thing, it's a slippery slope from saving money craving it – or to acquisitiveness and outright greed.

Put it on credit

Of course, if something is too expensive to handle, or to handel, (Yiddish for "haggle"), you may whip out the plastic and buy on credit. "Credit" is ashrai (rhymes with "nosh rye"), and a "credit card" is a cartis ashrai. While both these words go back to the Talmud, putting them together is a recent innovation.

The Hebrewword cartis, "card," comes from the same Latin root as "card" and "chart" in English. It also means "ticket," as for a movie or a plane flight. Ashrai comes from the root alef-sh-r, with meanings related to "permit," "verify," "strengthen" or "confirm." So ashrai is an "acceptable delayed payment." The words ishur, a "permit" or "permission" and osher, "happiness" or "well-being" also come from this root and share the adjective meushar. Something that is meushar is "permitted" or "confirmed," while a person who is meushar is happy, since osher also means"happiness" or "well-being."

Just as you shouldn't mix up a mitzvah and a mivtza', you should distinguish ashrai from ashrei (rhymes with "gosh, Ray"), meaning "they are happy." And "Happy are they who dwell in Your house" (Ps. 84:5) is the opening of one of the best-known prayers in the Jewish tradition.

When spelled with an ayin instead of an alef, 'osher means "rich" – from the same root as 'ashir, "wealthy." Osher va'osher is a common blessing, wishing someone both "material and spiritual well-being." If your bank gives you a lot of ashrai, "credit," it may not mean you're wealthy, but ashrecha, "you should be happy about it."

Next week: is there a connection between kesef, "money," and kisufim, "desires" or "longings"? And much more

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Dudu Bachar
Gil Eliyahu