Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Today I was asked about the word beshert (often spelled bashert). Let's take a look.

This Yiddish word entered the Oxford English Dictionary as both an adjective - "predestined, ideal", and as a noun - "soulmate". The sense of soulmate shows the association with a marriage partner - a "match made in heaven", but in Yiddish the sense was more general and referred to "fate" or "destiny" in a wider sense. An interesting explanation of the more recent prominence of the term (and concept of soulmate as a whole) can be found in this article:

The term beshert found deeper resonance after the 18th century, when romantic love and compatibility began to replace marriages arranged on the basis of money and social standing.  
So if the parents or matchmakers weren't setting up the marriage - then perhaps it became more clear that God was.

What is the origin of the word? There are two primary theories. One says it comes from the German bescheren - "to give, to bestow - usually as a gift" (which has the third-person singular simple present beschert, past tense bescherte, past participle beschert). This root is cognate with the English word "share".

The other theory is that it derives from the German bescheren - "cut, clip", cognate with the English "shear" (which ultimately has the same common ancestor as "share"), and related to upsherin - the Hasidic practice of cutting a boys hair at three years of age. (The claim that it is related to the Hebrew באשר ba-asher - "in that" is a folk etymology.)

Those who accept the first etymology explain that the destiny described is allotted (given) by the providence of God. Some add that

 "Beschert" is often used to mean Christmas and New Year presents, which according to folklore are divine gifts, hence the connection to beshert.

On the other hand, in Fields of Offerings: Studies in Honor of Raphael Patai, Robert Gordis thinks that the origin from the sense of "shear" is more likely. He quotes Isaiah 38:12 and Job 7:6 as using the theme of "the thread of life", and from Greek mythology through Milton and Shakespeare we find examples of fate cutting that thread. Gordis writes, "that it is within this conceptual framework that the etymology of bashert is to be sought."

He brings both theories and then writes:

In favor of relating the Yiddish bashert to "shear, cut off," rather than to "share," are several considerations.
(1) The meaning "share" does not occur in Yiddish, while the verb sheren, "cut, clip," does.
(2) The Modern German root bescheren is used in a favorable sense, "give as a share or present." On the other hand, the Yiddish bashert generally carries a negative connotation, "predestined to trouble, disaster or sorrow."
(3) The theme of "determine, decide," as these very words indicate ("determine," make an end, de-cido, Latin "cut off") is generally expressed by the idea of cutting off. Hebrew offers a wealth of examples in every period of the language. For biblical Hebrew, we may note haratz, gazar, hatakh. The two latter roots continued to be used in rabbinic Hebrew. Most common of all is the root pasaq, "cut," from which is derived the basic term p'saq, "decision," frequent in rabbinic Hebrew and Yiddish (p'saq din).
(4) The ubiquity of the figure of the shears of fate supports the view that the Yiddish locution means "determined, predestined, foreordained."

But if the idea of bashert as a bad thing is confusing, he adds the following clever, if cynical, footnote:

The negative connotation is not absolute. The substantive basherte is used of one's (predestined) bride. I hesitate to suggest that this use carries an ironic nuance.

I have a feeling that the romantics will probably prefer the alternate etymology.

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