Sunday, July 30, 2006


In Gittin 57b, we read the moving story of the mother of seven sons, each of whom is willing to sacrifice his life instead of worshipping idols. When the last son came before the Emperor, the emperor offered him a chance to save himself: "I will throw my signet ring in front of you so that you can bend down to pick it up. Then people, thinking you bowed to me, will say that you have accepted my authority." The boy responded: "Woe (chaval) to you, Caesar, woe (chaval) to you, Caesar! If your own honor is so important to you, how much more so the honor due the Holy One, Blessed is He!"

The word chaval (or haval / khaval) חבל is familiar to anyone speaking Hebrew in Israel today. Jack Moline in Growing Up Jewish wrote:

An expression which, depending on how it is used, can mean "I'm so sorry" or "Tough cookies." For example, say to an Israeli, "I had a relative who died in a terrorist attack," and he will say, "Chaval." Or, say to the clerk at the Jerusalem Plaza, "Leona Helmsley would never issue such thin towels," and he will say, "Chaval."

In addition, Hebrew slang has the expression "chaval al hazman" חבל על הזמן - meaning "a waste of time" (sometimes abbreviated as חבל"ז chavlaz). It can refer to something that's so bad it's a waste of time "חבל על הזמן לנסות לדבר איתו" - "it's a waste of time trying to talk to him". But just as often it has a positive connotation; it's a waste of time trying to tell you how good it is. "How was that movie?" "Chaval al hazman!"

What is the origin of the word? The sense of "waste" comes from the verb root חבל, meaning loss damage or ruin. A terrorist is a מחבל mechabel, and a police sapper (who destroys the bombs) is a chablan חבלן.

Another meaning of חבל is "to pledge". According to Klein, some scholars connect this meaning with the earlier meaning "to destroy", while others see it as a separate root, connected to yet another meaning - חבל can also mean "to bind". From here we get chevel - "rope", and later "measured portion, region", chavila חבילה - package, and chovel חובל - sailor (lit. one who binds). Kutscher writes that there are those that claim that the English word "cable" derives from the word chevel, but points out that there are those who disagree.

Yet another meaning of חבל is "to writhe, travail", which, according to Klein, derives from the Aramaic חבל "to conceive, bear", and is related to the Arabic habilat ("was or became pregnant") . From here we get the term chevlei leida חבלי לידה - labour pains, and חבלו של משיח - the sufferings which precede the coming of the Mashiach.

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