On Root / Your Money and Your Life

Economic policies should support those who aspire to make a living, not a killing.

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

Money is a weighty subject. Last week we spoke about "kesef," the word for metal, and how it came to mean "money." This happened not only in Hebrew and French (with the word "argent"), but in English as well. The British unit of currency is the pound sterling. The Israeli equivalent would be the shekel kesef, a "shekel of silver."

A Shekel – the word comes from the root "sh-k-l," which literally means "weigh" – was a Biblical unit of weight equivalent to about 11 grams (which in silver would be worth about 6£ these days), and is currently the name of Israel's currency. When undertaking "to deliberate," lishkol – literally, "to weigh the options" – on economic policy, which affects the strength of the shekel as a currency and the Israeli economy in general, we can rightly ask: What mishkal, "weight," has been given to various other shikulim, "considerations," social, political and otherwise?

It seems as though some of the implications should be obvious – that "the writing is on the wall," as it were. This phrase is from the Book of Daniel (5:25), and the message written on King Balshazzar's wall (remember, this was before Facebook!) in Aramaic by a disembodied hand, said: "Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin." Daniel explains that this was a warning, meaning: "mene," "your days are numbered" (from the same root as "minyan," "a numbering"), "tekel," "you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting," ("tekel" is the Aramaic equivalent of"shekel") "upharsin," "your kingdom will be divided."

Weighing was indeed usually done on a balance scale, of the type familiar from the Zodiac sign Libra, which is not only where we get the word "lira," the previous currency of Israel and a common Mediterranean term, but also the "L" shaped symbol of the aforementioned British pound (£).

Staying out of the red

The name of that type of scale, and the Libra zodiac sign in Hebrew, is "moznaim," from the root "aleph-z-n," which gives us "izun," "balance." While today, we rarely weigh out precious metals to give or receive payments, we do often have to draw up our credits and debits in a maazan, "balance sheet." There we list the pluses and minuses in red and black ink. Being in the black in Hebrew means you have a yitrah, "surplus," from "yoter," "more." If you're in the hole, you have a chov, "deficit" or "debt."

This is an interesting root (written correctly as "ch-v-b" – where the medial "vav" can be the vowel "o" and the final "beit" can have a "v" sound), which has a range of meanings, from positive to negative and in between. A chova is an "obligation." While it can have legal and religious connotations, it also appears in that favorite teen party game, emet o chova, known in English as truth or dare. It's easy to see how "obligation" came to mean "debt" in the economic world.

Thus, the verb "lechayev," "to obligate" or "to commit," also means "to charge" (as in a bill). However, when you obligate yourself, you are affirming your mechuyavut, "dedication" or "commitment." So lechayev also means "to affirm," as opposed to lishlol, "to negate." Likewise, army slang for "yes" – "affirmative!" – is "chiyuvi." This word also means "positive," as in a positive attitude or number, as opposed to "shlili," which is "negative" in both senses.

And so we arrive at the seemingly paradoxical situation where the yitra, "surplus," in your ledger is chiyuvi, "positive," and your chov, composed of all your chiyuvim, "charges," is shlili, "negative." Go figure – literally.

'It's the economy, stupid'

These three articles on economic terms haven't yet tackled the central word of the series: "kalkala," "economy." Certain politicians notwithstanding (see Clinton: "It's the economy, stupid!"), economics should not be the measure of everything. But the Hebrew derivation implies it is – since it is related to the root "k-l-l", "total" or "inclusive," from which we get the word "kol," "every" or "all." 

The term is indeed inclusive in referring to various types of support and income, or "wherewithal." Hebrew has two other words for this as well. One is "parnasa," familiar to Yiddish speakers as a term for "livelihood." The origins of this word are shrouded in mystery. It has cognates in other Semitic languages, but seems likely comes from a Greek or Latin root – though the experts disagree. If it is indeed from the Latin "pensum," as my trusty six-volume "Even Shoshan" dictionary posits, then it brings us back full circle to the Hebrew "sh-k-l," as this is the root of "pensive" in English – similar to the Hebrew word, "shikul," "considerate" or "deliberative."

The third word is "michya," literally "livelihood," from the familiar "chai" or "chayim," "life." In fact, one of the traditional benedictions said after eating food praises God for the michya and the kalkala, the "support" and "sustenance" in this world.

When we look at life only through the "hole in the grush" – the bagel-like penny of the early State – making economy everything, it can be tempting to just go for a quick return – to make a killing. Committing to a parnasa, "livelihood," which is of necessity both longer-term and more stable, shifts our focus to making a living.

But even that is not enough. To have a real michya, "livelihood," means making a life. Shouldn't promoting this end, for ourselves and others, be our main mechuyavut, "commitment," and the central shikul, "consideration," in determining government policy on the economy?

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