Word of the Day / Hakham Balayla: Smart at Night Is Not Smart at All

For Nobel laureate Bashevis Singer, this untranslatable epithet was a good enough reason to write in Yiddish.

Hakham balayla
Hakham balayla

The Zephyr 7 unmanned aerial vehicle manufactured by the British company Qinetiq uses solar power to drive its propellers during the day and charge its batteries through the night, making it “smart not just in the day, but also hakham balayla [smart at night],” according to the Israel Air Force website.

Click here to get 'Word of the Day' sent directly to your inbox.

The IAF is showing its punny side in this description, since someone who is hakham balayla [kha-KHAM ba-LAHY-la] – also known as a hakhmolog (sometimes pronounced hokhmolog) – is actually someone who is not smart at all. Both terms start off with the word for “smart” or “wise,” hakham, and turn into mocking epithets for people who are not smart but seem to think they are – in other words, people who are at least as bright when they’re sleeping as when they’re awake.

Yiddish folklore boasts a whole town of people like that, who typically come up with convoluted solutions that have a foolish but creative logic all their own. In fact, there is an Israeli children’s production called “Hakhamim Balayla – The Tale of Chelm.” (Since the term, which uses the plural of hakham, is more or less untranslatable, the English version is “Fool Moon.”)

Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish author who has brought us some of these Chelm stories, once explained that one of the reasons he wrote in Yiddish was because how else would he say hakham balayla?

“People ask me why I write in Yiddish,” he said at a party celebrating his 1978 receipt of the Nobel Prize for literature. “My answer is typically Jewish. I answer a question with a question: Why not? Should I write in Chinese or Turkish? How do you say in Turkish hak nisht keyn chainik [‘Don’t knock a teakettle,’ more or less meaning ‘Stop rattling on and bothering me’]? How do you say that in English? How do you say... hakham balayla in English?”

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.