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The Origins of Foolishness

Where does the Yiddish word narishkayt come from?

Danny Kaye as the title character in The Court Jester, 1956.

Danny Kaye as the title character in The Court Jester, 1956.

Observation
March 22 2017
About the author

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.


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

“Dear Philologos,” writes Mosaic reader Jeremy Benstein from Israel:

At a recent dinner, a discussion arose as to the origins of the Yiddish word narishkayt, “foolishness.” Although everyone seemed to agree that it came from Hebrew na’ar, “young man,” that didn’t sound right to me. In the first place, the first vowel of narishkayt is spelled with an aleph in Yiddish and not with an ayin like the first vowel of na’ar. And secondly, na’ar in the Bible and other Jewish sources doesn’t have the connotation of childishness or puerility that would go with the meaning of foolishness. When a quick Internet check revealed that Narr in German meant “fool” and närrisch meant “foolish,” I triumphantly wrote the dinner guests that the case was closed: the Yiddish word had a Germanic, not a Hebrew, derivation.

But [Dr. Benstein continues] this may have been premature. One of my correspondents, a professor of Jewish studies, wrote back:

According to my trusty German etymological dictionary, “The origin of Narr (Middle High German narre, Old High German narro) is uncertain.” In other words, it has no easily identifiable source in Germanic or Latin/Romance languages. I would submit, therefore, that the influence of Yiddish/ Hebrew on the old German word is as likely an etymology as any.

Dr. Benstein ends by asking:

What do you think? Could the Hebrew have influenced the old German, which then came back into Yiddish? Or is this an origin-unknown but still Germanic word that was simply imported into Yiddish?

I think it’s the latter. A Hebrew provenance of na’ar for Old High German narro is extremely unlikely. The term “Old High German” refers to a range of dialects spoken in what today is central Germany between roughly 700 and 1050 CE, and narro, according to the British historian Irina Metzler in her book Fools and Idiots: Intellectual Disability in the Middle Ages, is attested to from the 8th century onward. Documented Jewish communities in Germany, on the other hand, do not predate the 10th century, and while there may have been a scattering of Jews and even a few small Jewish settlements in the area before then, the Jewish presence was hardly enough to influence German speech. Moreover, not only did the Judeo-German dialect that was to become Yiddish not exist then, but the Hebrew word na’ar is not found in subsequent Yiddish vocabulary. The probability of a chance 8th-century German-Jewish encounter having led to na’ar entering the German language as narro strikes me as close to zero.

Nor is it particularly significant that narro has no known cognates in other languages. All members of linguistic families have at least some words that are not found in other members of the same family. Take, for instance, the English word “black.” Although it occurs as Old English blaec, there is nothing like it in other Germanic languages, all of which have words for black that are cognates of English “swart” and “swarthy” (German schwartz, Dutch zwart, Swedish svart, Icelandic svartur, etc.). Check on “black” in an English etymological dictionary and you will be told “origin uncertain,” too. It’s possible that blaec developed independently in Old English, and it’s possible that it comes from an ancient proto-Germanic word that left no traces in other Germanic languages—but in either case, there’s no great mystery about it. The same holds true for narro.

 

Still, Dr. Benstein and his dinner guests are not the first to look for a connection between Hebrew na’ar and Yiddish nar. As a child, I heard such a link made by my father. Though not a Ḥasid, my father came from a family of Chabad Ḥasidim in White Russia and kept certain Chabad customs—one of which was to end the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, two verses earlier than is commonly done. Ordinarily, the last three verses of this prayer, taken from Jeremiah and Psalms, are: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and the Lord is his trust. Once I was a young and now I am old, yet I have never seen a righteous man forsaken or his children begging for bread. The Lord will give His people strength, the Lord will bless His people with peace.”

My father, however, to the perplexity of Sabbath guests in our home who were used to singing these lines to the hearty melody that accompanies them, would stop after “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and the Lord is his trust” and go no further. When asked about this, he pointed to the second of the three verses, which begins in Hebrew Na’ar hayiti gam zakanti—literally, “A young man was I and I have grown old.” “This,” he would say with a smile, “should be read not as na’ar hayiti gam zakanti, but as nar hayiti gam zakanti, ‘A fool was I and I have also grown old as one.’ Who but a fool could live a long life and fail to see that the world is full of forsaken righteous and their hungry children? That’s why we Chabadniks didn’t recite the verse.”

The play of words on na’ar and nar was, my father said, Chabad lore that he grew up with. If so, however, it must have been of a local nature, because Chabadniks I have asked about it, while confirming that they end the birkat hamazon with “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,” are not familiar with this pun. Nor is it reasonable that the counter-factuality of the verse was the original reason for its omission. Plenty of other verses in the Bible, the prayer book, and even the birkat hamazon contradict human experience without being objected to by Chabad, and in any case, there was nothing to prevent its Ḥasidim from skipping “Once I was young” and ending with “The Lord will give His people strength.” My father’s explanation, as he himself was no doubt aware, was a bit of folk exegesis.

In point of fact, the last seven verses of the birkat hamazon, beginning with Y’ru et adonai k’doshav, “Fear the Lord, His holy ones,” were historically late additions to the prayer and exist in varying forms in different siddurim (prayer books) and traditions. Although the prayer book used by Chabad follows the tradition, known as Nusaḥ ha-Ari, associated with the renowned Safed kabbalist Rabbi Yitzḥak Luria Ashkenazi (1534-1572), Luria himself never issued his own authorized edition and slightly differing versions were published after his death. In some of these, there appears only the first of the last seven verses in the grace after meal; in others, the first three; in still others, including that of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745-1813), the founder of Chabad, the first five. In none, clearly, was there any specific objection to the sixth, Na’ar hayiti gam zakanti. In all versions of the birkat hamazon in the Nusaḥ ha-Ari prayer book, this was but one of several verses omitted.

And yet, even if it did not go back to Shneur Zalman of Liady, my father’s pun was genuine Chabad. The Chabad of his White Russian youth put a premium on truth-telling; nar zikh nit, “Don’t fool yourself,” was one of its favorite admonishments. It always appealed to me that it did not hesitate to address these words to the author of Psalms himself.

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

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