The Twisting Tale of the Yiddish Term for B----

How a bizarre talmudic passage led to klafte, the derogatory word for an unpleasant woman.

Flickr/claylarsen.

Flickr/claylarsen.

Observation
April 6 2016
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Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


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Rochelle Mogilner writes:

The Israeli television series Shtisel uses the word klafte a number of times in its Yiddish dialogue. As a Yiddish speaker, I know this means “bitch”—a woman who, to say the least, is not pleasant. Although it is part of the Hebrew lexicon here in Israel, my son in New York, who knows Hebrew very well, says he isn’t familiar with it. He thought it might be related to Hebrew kalba, a female dog, but I highly doubt it. I would guess it is of Slavic or Germanic derivation. What do you think?

Shtisel, for those of you who don’t watch Israeli television, is a Hebrew sitdram set in the ḥaredi community of Jerusalem, some of whose characters occasionally speak Yiddish. But klafte, which means exactly what Rochelle Mogilner says it does, did not enter Yiddish from a Slavic or Germanic source. It did so straight from the Aramaic of the Talmud, and thereby hangs a tale—or, if you prefer, a tail.

The rather bizarre talmudic passage that concerns us is found on pages 3b-4a of the tractate of Rosh Hashanah. There, in a discussion of what month the biblical year begins with, Rabbi Ḥisda proposes, based on an analysis of biblical sources, that it starts with Nisan if the reigning king is a Jewish one, but with Tishrei if a Gentile. This distinction, however, turns out to be difficult to apply to a number of biblical texts having to do with the Persian kings Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes—the biblical Koresh, Daryavesh, and Artaḥshastra—all of whom were involved, according to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, in the return to Judea of exiles banished to Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple.

To solve this problem, the Talmud decides that Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes were all the same king, one whose given name was Darius; whose royal name in the first part of his reign, dated from Nisan because he was God-fearing like a Jew, was Cyrus; and whose name was changed in the second part of his reign, dated from Tishrei because he “went bad,” to Artaḥshastra.

The book of Nehemiah begins after Ezra, allowed by Cyrus to return to Judea and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, has died there with the work unfinished. Hearing of this, Nehemiah approaches Artaxerxes, who now is king, and asks permission to continue Ezra’s work. The book of Nehemiah, which is told in the first person, relates:

And I said unto the king, “If it please the king . . . send me unto Judea, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may build it.” And the king said unto me (the shegal sitting by him), “For how long shall thy journey be? And when wilt thou return?” So it pleased the king to send me.

What does the Hebrew word shegal mean? It occurs in only one other place in the Bible, in Psalm 45, a hymn to an unidentified king (associated by later Jewish tradition with the messiah) who is described as accompanied by his “shegal in gold of Ophir” (associated by tradition with the Torah). Both early Jewish and Christian sources translate shegal as “queen,” and today we know from excavated cuneiform inscriptions that the word indeed derives from ancient Babyonian sha ekalli, “the woman of the palace”—that is, the first lady of the king’s harem.

Yet shegal is also similar to another word, the biblical verb shagal or shigel—a term considered so vulgar by the rabbis that, although they had no choice but to leave it in the text, was read aloud by them as shakhav, to sleep with or have sex with. Thus, for instance, in Isaiah’s dire prophecy that Israel’s “children shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes [by a foreign conqueror], their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives tishagelnah,” this last word is regularly read as tishakhavnah, “shall be slept with.” Shagal, it would seem, was the ancient Hebrew equivalent of our f- word.

 

And now let us return to the tractate of Rosh Hashanah and to Nehemiah’s audience with Artaxerxes. Our discussion’s talmudic participants were facing a problem. While their theory depended on Darius-Cyrus-Artaxerxes “going bad” in the latter years of his reign, nothing in the Bible points to this having happened. After several not very successful attempts to find such corroboration, the Talmud tells us:

Rabbi Yosef—some say Rabbi Yitzḥak—says: How do we know he went bad? From [the verse] “And the king said unto me (the shegal sitting by him).” What is a shegal? Rabba bar Lima says in the name of Rav: a female dog [kalbeta].

You don’t get it? Rashi, the great medieval commentator, did. Realizing that the talmudic rabbis were connecting shegal with the biblical f– word, he observed: “A female dog—for sex.” Artaxerxes, it seems, had taken to copulating with a pet and was so in love with her that he had her sit by him while he held court. Talk about going bad!

But what, you ask, about the verse in Psalms? The Talmud asks the same question. “If a shegal is a bitch,” it inquires, “what was Israel’s prophet [i.e., David, the author of Psalms] telling us?” To which it answers: he was telling us that “in recompense for the Torah’s being as precious to Israel as a sex-object [shegal] is to pagans, you [the Jewish people] shall be rewarded with the gold of Ophir.”

Far-fetched? That may be, says the Talmud, but nonetheless true: “Whoever says that shegal means queen should know that Rabba bar Lima was citing a confirmed tradition.”

Kalbeta is the feminine form of Aramaic kalba, “male dog.” In Hebrew, Aramaic’s sister language, kalba is a female dog and a male dog is kelev. Yet since the Talmud, unlike the Bible, was traditionally written without vowel marks or other such pointers, so that the consonant bet, for instance, could be pronounced either like b or like v, kalbeta came to be mispronounced as klavta, and klavta, in turn, by a process of lenition, became Yiddish klafte. It’s as simple—or as complicated—as that.

In Yiddish and in Israeli Hebrew, klafte, like “bitch” in modern English, simply denotes a nasty woman and is not a comment on her sexual behavior. Since female dogs in heat are not ill-tempered (as are the males who pursue them), it is an interesting question why, in both languages, independently of each other, the word followed a similar trajectory. I have, however, quite run out of space and will leave that up to Rochelle Mogilner and the rest of you to think about.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at philologos@mosaicmagazine.com.

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More about: Hebrew, History & Ideas, Shtisel, Yiddish