Word of the Day / Yom Tov: Good Days Don't Have to Be Holidays

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Purim isn't technically a 'yom tov,' but any day you can dress up as Spider-Man is a good day.Credit: Nir Keidar

In a religion with as many holidays as Judaism, there has to be a good way to distinguish between the festival days and the regular days.

There’s “holiday,” or hag, of course, but that doesn’t quite cover all the gradations. After all, Passover and Sukkot each last for a week at a time, but only their first and last days are akin to Shabbat, when lighting fires and other work is prohibited and festive meals are expected. Those days are widely known as yamim tovim (literally “good days”), or the singular yom tov (often pronounced with an emphasis on the first word), which has given rise to the often-used Yiddish term yontif.

Many Ashkenazi Jews outside of Israel (as well as Yiddish speakers in Israel) greet each other on such holidays by saying “Gut yontif,” literally “Good good day,” meaning “Good holiday.” In Hebrew, the standard greeting is “Hag same’ah,” meaning “Happy holiday.”

Yom tov is used this way in the Mishna, as in Tractate Shabbat 2:2: “Don’t light oil for burning on yom tov.” But traditional Jewish texts have also used the term in a broader sense, to mean a day of joy that is not necessarily circumscribed by the labor prohibitions placed on biblically mandated holidays.

For instance, though the post-biblical holiday of Purim is not a yom tov in the sense used by the Mishna, it is still called one in the Book of Esther: “Therefore do the Jews of the villages, that dwell in the unwalled towns, make the fourteenth day of the month Adar a day of gladness and feasting, and a good day [yom tov]” (9:19). There is even a children’s Purim song called “A Yom Tov for Us.”

This looser meaning of yom tov seems to have extended into day-to-day speech in Israel, whereyom tov (with the emphasis on the second word)has become a standard greeting -- an Israeli version of the British “Good day” or a truncated version of the American “Have a nice day” (though there’s also a longer version: Sheyihye lakh/lekha yom tov, “May you [in either feminine or masculine form] have a good day”).It’s become something you say to the supermarket cashier, the bus driver or, if you’re in a particularly generous mood, to the clerk at a bank or government office.

I guess that means that in the Holy Land, rose-tinted glasses are not just for wearing to synagogue on yom tov, since every day hereabouts is a good day.

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.

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