Friday, October 09, 2009


On Hoshana Rabbah there is a custom to greet people with the Aramaic expression פתקא טבא pitka tava - for which the Hebrew equivalent is פתק טוב petek tov. In Modern Hebrew petek means note (or the piece of paper the note is written on), so the phrase would mean "good note". What does that mean?

Well, it turns out that the original meaning of petek wasn't "note", but "lot" or "ballot". Klein gives the following etymology:

from Greek pittakion (=tablet for writing on, label, ticket; votive tablet; list of members of an association), which is of uncertain, possibly Thracian origin
(Ben Yehuda points out that while petek is certainly of a Greek origin, there is also a Semitic root פתק meaning "to break, split", and this verb could have become associated with the Greek word, as the Hebrew word for "lot", goral גורל, also originally meant a "small (broken) stone".)

Arabic has a cognate term (also deriving from the Greek) - bitaqa, meaning "ticket". Latin also borrowed the Greek for their pittacium, meaning "label, plaster, patch", which gave us the English word petechia, meaning a skin eruption caused by a minor hemorrhage. The Spanish word pedazo, meaning "piece", also comes from the Latin.

As explained on this site, the Greek pittakion meant "an imperial administrative order in the form of a letter." This seems to be an appropriate understanding of the term for Hoshana Rabbah, as described here:

In the Talmud, Hoshana Rabbah is referred to as a day when everyone comes to the synagogue. Its special character was emphasized during the time of the geonim, who saw it as the day in which each human being receives from heaven a note on which his fate is registered. And so there are those who greet each other on this day with the Aramaic blessing a pitka tava, or in Yiddish gut kveitl.
Since this is a relatively late custom, it is possible that the Yiddish term preceded the Aramaic one. The Yiddish word kvittel is used to describe a written petition of a hasid to his rebbe, as well as the notes placed in the Western Wall. The Yiddish word derives from the German quittung - "receipt". Quittung is cognate to the English "quittance" - meaning

1. Release from a debt, an obligation, or a penalty.
2. A document or receipt certifying such release.
Quittance, in turn, is related to the words "quit", "acquit", "quite" and "quiet" - all reflecting a sense of "free (from war, debts), clear, calm, resting". Together, they sound like a great blessing for all my readers!

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