Israelispeak is the way Israelis and the Israeli media use Hebrew. Behind the literal meaning, there’s an additional web of suggestion, doublespeak, and cultural innuendo that too often gets lost in translation. Every Friday, we reveal what is really being said. To view all the entries in this series, click here.
In the States, if you’re planning to go to shul and then eat some cholent on the last day of the week, that’s the day you most likely call “Shabbos” or “Shabbat”; and if you’re not Jewish or a traditional Shabbat just isn’t your scene, chances are you’ll be referring to that day as “Saturday.”
But Hebrew has no word for “Saturday,” other than Shabbat. The universality of the word is reflected in a Hebrew axiom that has its roots in the military: “Every Shabbat has a motzei Shabbat,” or post-Shabbat. This means that all good things must come to an end, with the added implication that after the day of rest, you must get back to your real life. Soldiers often get leave for Shabbat, but have to head back to their bases early on Sunday mornings, when the buses and trains are dominated by the olive of their uniforms.
Although the phrase has its origins in the military, it is used for all kinds of situations. It may show up in a sports story that discusses how a soccer team didn’t fulfill the promise it had displayed in the first half of the game; it may appear in the headline of an entertainment column that complains that a critically acclaimed TV drama series was coming to an end after five seasons.
(Incidentally, it would be remarkably easy to create another way of saying “Saturday” in Hebrew, because the days of the week don’t have names so much as descriptions: Sunday is yom rishon, or “first day,” Monday is “second day,” and so forth. But you won’t hear even the most dedicated weekend club-goers talking about the trance party they went to on yom shevi’i, or seventh day—instead, they might refer to yom Shabbat.)
Even when it is being used literally, “motzei Shabbat” can mean a lot of things. While religious Jews—Israeli or otherwise—understand the term to mean the part of Saturday evening that begins only after Shabbat ends, non-religious Israelis use the term (or its Hebrew acronym, motzash) to mean Saturday evening in a general sense—regardless of whether it’s too early to make havdala, the ritual that marks the conclusion of the sacred day of rest. What any two Israelis mean when they say the word “Shabbat” may be as incompatible as a cheeseburger and Yom Kippur.
However, whether you’re in Bnei Brak or Eilat, the parting words you’ll hear on a Friday afternoon in an Israeli supermarket—any Israeli supermarket—will be the same: Shabbat shalom.
Shoshana Kordova is an editor and translator at the English edition of Haaretz. She grew up in New Jersey and has lived in Israel since 2001.
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Shoshana Kordova is an editor and translator at the English edition of Haaretz. She grew up in New Jersey and has been living in Israel since 2001.