Word of the Day / Harif: Some Israelis Like It Hot

Harif describes a pungent smell or a spicy sauce for Israeli food, but can also be used as criticism or a compliment.

Residents of southern Israel complained last week that a harif gas smell was pervading the city of Ashdod and nearby towns, causing their eyes to burn. Elsewhere in the country, someone doubtless asked for harif on his falafel and someone else went to a bar and ordered a mashkeh harif of one kind or another.

So what exactly is harif (kha-REEF)? Well, it’s often an adjective, and its definitions include “pungent” – like the strong gas-like odor that officials said came from the contents of a ship on the Mediterranean and posed no harm to residents, and like food that is hot or spicy (or with a strong taste of menta harifa, or peppermint).

A mashkeh harif is a strong drink, meaning hard liquor, and harif as a noun is a hot sauce that no self-respecting falafel or shwarma stand would be caught without.

But harif is not just about things that can be tasted or smelled.

Sometimes imbibing too much mashkeh harif can make people speak in a less inhibited, more harif way about things, or people, they don’t like – in other words, more sharply or harshly – than they normally would have intended.

What goes for interpersonal behavior goes for international relations too. Criticism is often described as harif (or harifa, the feminine form), and disputes and responses can be too, as in a Hebrew Haaretz article from earlier this month headlined “Harifa U.S. response to Netanyahu: We expect Israel not to distort Kerry’s remarks.”

Mix too much mashkeh harif with too much harif strife and you might end up with a mahalah harifah, or acute illness.

But harif (or harif-sekhel, with sekhel meaning “brains”) can also be a compliment, referring to someone who is clever, keen or sharp-witted.

Speaking of the late Zvi Timor, the last editor of the now-defunct Israeli newspaper Al Hamishmar, a friend of his was quoted in a 2010 article as saying Timor was harif-sekhel as well as harif in his writing. That is to say, he was sharp of mind and sharp of pen. No word, though, on whether he took harif – or Scotch – with his falafel.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.