On Root / Let's Make a Deal, Israeli-style

This being the Middle East with its shuk or souk mentality, people are always haggling about something.

Oddly, considering the Middle Eastern habit of haggling, Hebrew has no word for 'negotiate'.

Rarely does a day go by without negotiations making the front pages of Israel's newspapers. Talks between Iran and the West, Israel and the Palestinians, the government and labor groups, and sports teams and players always seem to be starting up or breaking down.

This being the Middle East with its shuk or souk mentality, people are always haggling about something: bitterly trying to sweeten a deal, appeasing with carrots or flailing with all the stick and stones at their disposal.

"Negotiating" is hard work. The word's Latin root means "no leisure"– neg is"not" and otium means "ease" or "leisure." Indeed, the art and practice of negotiating comes from the business world.

But negotiations are not just about buying and selling. They are at the center of the political arena as well.

Hebrew doesn't have a word for "negotiation." Instead, it uses a phrase, masa' umatan, משא ומתן, literally "taking and giving."

Both masa/laset and matan/latet have very prolific roots. N-s-aleph נשא – with theנ being weak and disappearing in many forms – has a variety of meanings, including to "lift," "hold," "take," "carry," and even "forgive" and "marry." N-t-n נתן means to "give" or "allow."

Matan, מתן, which means "gift" as well as "giving," has become a boy's name, as have alternative words for "gift" - Doron and Shai. It also appears in phrases like matan Torah מתן תורה – the giving of the Torah, and matan beseter מתן בסתר, "giving in secret" (anonymous charity).

On the other hand, masa משא, "the taking," also connotes a burden, presumably because one can be weighed down by what he has received. A vehicle designed to carry heavy loads, a truck or lorry, is a masait משאית. And though you may transport burdens on your trip, don't confuse masa משא (burden) with masa' מסע, meaning "journey," from the root n-s-'ayin נסע, "travel."

Like the noun, the verb to "negotiate" is also comprised of two words in Hebrew, laset v'latet לשאת ולתת. Both verbs demand conjugation when parties parley.

Nisuim נישואים, "marriage," comes from the first root, not because it is a burden – heaven forfend! – or because of the many negotiations along the way, but because of the contractual "taking" of the bride by the groom.

The chatan חתן, "groom," may also give a lot along the way, but the word bears no relation to matan מתן. On the other hand, in a characteristically chauvinistic trope, when a woman "gives" to those other than her husband, she endangers her conjugal status. This is what happens in the new Israeli film Hanotenet הנותנת,"The Slut," – literally, "She who gives" – written, directed by and starring Hagar Ben Asher.

Other negotiations may take place between the rulers and the ruled. The one who is lifted up from the people is the nasi נשיא, the "president," a Biblical word meaning something closer to "prince," but retooled for modern democratic politics. Those given to the rule of law are netinimנתינים , or "subjects," those given to the rule of law.

This root does even more heavy lifting when it comes to body parts. Esa einai אשא עיניי, means "lifting up one's eyes" to the hills for divine aid (Ps 121:1). Yisa panav יישא ה' פניו means "God lifting up the divine countenance" in the priestly blessing" (Num. 6:26). And naso roshנשוא ראש , as in Naso, the name of last week's Torah portion, means to "count."

I didn't intend to get all theological, but Hebrew's different historical strata, or registers, are always intertwined – ancient with modern and sacred with secular.

Other 'godly' uses of this verb include the divine attribute of forgiveness, nose' avon נושא עוון – referring to God's forgiveness, bearing or taking away our sins. Lo tisa לא תשא is the beginning of the second commandment, telling us not to take God's name in vain.

Like the rest of the Big Ten, you can take or leave this rule, but there isn't much room for give-and-take.

The biggest negotiations around here are about war and peace as we try to somehow realize Isaiah's vision"lo' yisa' goi 'el goi cherev," "לא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב," "nation shall not lift up sword against nation" (Is. 2:4). While in our atomic age, we may wish that only swords were being brandished, we still aspire to the messianic vision of a world without the horrors of war.

Isaiah didn't specify what it would take to create world peace, but according to the rabbis, even if war is hell, heaven will be a place with no negotiations. According to the Talmud, the afterlife lacks all of life's most basic, and pleasurable, physical activities: "In the world-to-come there will be no eating, no drinking, no procreating, and no negotiating" (Berachot 17a).

Heavenly indeed. But it sure doesn't sound very Israeli!

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