Word of the Day / Haslama: Escalating Violence, Courtesy of Ascending Angels

What earthquakes, musical scales and missile fire have in common.


If there were a competition for which Hebrew word encapsulates the sudden and drastic rise in tension and violence in Israel over the past week or so, haslama (hahs-la-MA) would probably take the prize.

Meaning “escalation,” the word derives from the ladder described in the biblical account of Jacob’s dream about God and the angels: “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder [sulam] set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).

The English word “escalator,” which started out in 1900 as the trade name for an Otis Elevator Co. moving staircase, is similar in concept to haslama in that it originally had to do with ladders – sulamot in Hebrew – rather than stairs. The noun “escalade,” on which “escalator” and, later, “escalation” are based, refers to the use of ladders to scale the walls of a fortified place.

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Speaking of scales, in Hebrew the musical kind are sulamot musikaliyim, and the intensity of Israeli earthquakes is measured on the sulam Richter.

As for the English words “escalate” and “escalation,” they came to be widely used to mean “raise” only after 1959, in the context of a prospective nuclear face-off in the Cold War.

In Israel, use of haslama didn’t shoot up until a decade after that, in 1969, when the War of Attrition began.

“The events of the past week along the Suez Canal and in the Jordan sector have signaled a process of haslama,” the Irish-born general and politician Chaim Herzog wrote 14 years before becoming Israel’s sixth president.

His piece in Maariv about the similarities and differences between the lead-up to the hostilities of 1969-1970 and the lead-up to the Six-Day War two years earlier concluded, correctly as it turned out, that though the string of attacks might be escalating, it was unlikely to develop into a full-blown war like the one in 1967.

Like “elevate” and “elevator,” “escalate” and “escalator” refer just to going up. The ladder image behind haslama, however, reminds us that what goes up must (eventually) come down, a law of physics that holds true not just for rockets, but also, fortunately, for levels of fear and anger, tension and violence – even in this little pocket of crazy we call Israel.

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.