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Forget Twitter: These Days, It’s All About Tzitter

Meet the Yiddish word that perfectly captures our frightful moment

Avi Shafran
June 11, 2018

Although there are likely precious few Yiddish speakers in Ireland, that’s no reason a limerick can’t end with a Yiddish word.

And so:

We’ve a need for a president-sitter

To prevent exploitation of Twitter

Because a from-the-hip tweet

Of a thought incomplete

Can bring nations and people to tzitter.

Evocative word, no? It literally means “tremble” or “shudder” and is used figuratively to mean to be fearful.

Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, the brilliant Rosh Yeshiva, or dean, of Brooklyn’s famed Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin during the years 1943 to 1980, was not only a Talmudic scholar and theologian of the first order but a poet as well. One Purim, he penned, as part of a longer poem, an encapsulation of Judaism that includes our word:

Fun yirah der tzitter

Fun simcha der flahm

Tzuzamen bashafen

Dem Yiddishen taam.

Very loosely translated:

From fear of God, the shudder;

From rejoicing, the zeal;

Blended together,

They’re the real Jewish deal.

Considering the Jewish historical experience in Europe, the fact that there are several Yiddish words or expressions connoting fear isn’t surprising.

There is moireh and pached, borrowed and Yiddishized from the Hebrew morah and pachad, and meaning, respectively, “fear” and “terror.”

And, of course, the German-origin schreck, meaning “sudden fright” or “shock,” and often used in the phrase “chap a schreck”—or “catch a fright” (or, spelled a bit differently, “a green, swamp-dwelling ogre”).

So while Russian shtetl dweller Yankel’s trepidation at being summoned to the czar’s court would best be characterized as moireh, and as causing him to tzitter, his American great-grandson’s sudden realization that he had left his Rolex in the mikvah might better be described as his having chaped a schreck.

Chap,” incidentally, in that usage, rhymes with “top” and its “ch” is like that of “l’chaim!”—not like the “ch” in “cha cha” or kimchi (the Korean dish, that is; the “ch” in the surname of medieval Jewish grammarian and scholar Rabbi David Kimchi is indeed pronounced like the Jewish schnapps toast). And it means “catch” or “grab” or “grasp.”

To digress a bit (OK, a lot), “chap” plays a number of roles in Yiddish, especially in colloquial “yeshivish,” phraseology. To wit: If Moishe seems oblivious to his friends’ hints that he really could use a new suit jacket, it might be said of the sartorially challenged fellow, “He just doesn’t chap.”

To an overeager youngster (or oldster, for that matter) who is attacking the smorgasbord offerings with unusual determination, one might say, “chap nisht!” (or “nit,” if one is of Russian origin), or “don’t grab!”

A slang usage of chap would be “chap a gaing”—“seize a going,” or, more loosely, “beat it!”

And if I’m boring you here, you may wish to take a break, lie down and “chap a dremel,” or “grab a little dream.”

My favorite chap phrase, though, is a rather unorthodox one, used only (to my knowledge) by one European-born, Yiddish-speaking man who, for many years, frequented my dear in-laws’ home in Toronto. He knew little English, but was conversant with several phrases, among them “catch a cold,” which he understood meant being afflicted with a cough and the sniffles.

Once, he arrived at my in-laws’ home a bit under the weather himself and, after a bout of coughing and sneezing, apologized, explaining how he had “chaped a ketchikold.”

I always chap hanoeh (“pleasure,” from the Hebrew hana’ah) from that recollection.

Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at