Israelis Love to Call Each Other Cossacks Who've Been Robbed

A versatile fellow, this Cossack, identified simultaneously with Israel’s prime minister and his bitterest opponents! Who is he and who robbed him?

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire by Ilya Repin, 1891. Wikipedia.

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire by Ilya Repin, 1891. Wikipedia.

Aug. 5 2020
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“You are fueling these violent demonstrations. You’re hypocrites, crying like the Cossack who was robbed.”—Dudi Amsalem, Likud cabinet minister, addressing the anti-Netanyahu Israeli left in a July 27 Knesset speech.

“All over Israel, the protests are growing and spreading, and with them the violent [right-wing] gangs with their criminal excesses in the name of the Cossack of Balfour Street [the site of the Jerusalem home of Prime Minister Netanyahu] who was robbed.”—Political commentator Yossi Verter, in a July 31 article in Haaretz, defending the demonstrators against the verbal and physical attacks on them.

A versatile fellow, this Cossack, identified simultaneously with Israel’s prime minister and his bitterest opponents! Who is he and who robbed him?

The common Israeli expression ha-kozák ha-nigzál, “the robbed Cossack” or “the Cossack who was robbed,” denotes a serial wrongdoer who accuses others of the wrongs he habitually commits. The expression comes from the Yiddish kozák hanígzol, which means the same thing. Its source might possibly be a Jewish joke about the Cossack who fell through the roof of a Sukkah on which he was crawling in the hope of spying something beneath it to steal. Asked what he had been doing there, he answered, “I was looking for my stolen horse.”

There’s no need for such a joke, however, to explain the Jewish association of Cossacks with robbery. These warlike, hard-riding, seminomadic inhabitants of the Ukrainian steppes had a reputation for rapacity and plunder, seared into Jewish memory by their mass pogroms in the 1648 Cossack uprising led by Bogdan Chmielnicki. Later organized in their own regiments in tsarist armies, they commonly regarded looting as their military prerogative. For a Cossack to complain of being robbed was, to a Jew, like a cardsharp complaining that he had been cheated in a game of pinochle or a counterfeiter that he had been passed bad money.

In this sense, the Yiddish expression kozák hanígzol is unremarkable. Yet it is unusual in another sense. Hanígzol, we have seen, is the Hebrew ha-nigzál, “who was robbed,” with the forward shift of syllabic stress that is typical of Yiddishized Hebrew. But though Yiddish routinely made use of Hebrew words, it did not generally make use of them in this way. When borrowing Hebrew verbs, it added Germanic prefixes or endings to them—and this is what it did with the Hebrew verb gazal, “to rob,” which became Yiddish bagazlen. In ordinary Yiddish, “the robbed Cossack” or “the Cossack who was robbed” would be der bagazelter kozák, not kozák hanígzol.

As a rule, Yiddish only resorts to “whole Hebrew,” as borrowed Hebrew not subject to the rules of Yiddification is known, when an expression has been taken directly from Jewish sources such as the Bible, the rabbinic corpus, or the prayer book. But from what source could kozák hanígzol have been taken? Robbed Cossacks not only don’t figure in the Bible or the Talmud; they don’t appear in later rabbinic literature, either. Why kozák hanígzol rather than begazelter kozák?

The answer, I would propose, is to be found in the rabbinic corpus—specifically, in the Mishnah and in the Midrash. It starts with the Mishnaic tractate of Sukkah, which deals with the laws and rituals of the holiday of Sukkot. The tractate’s third chapter treats of the regulations regarding the lulav, the palm shoot that is one of the holiday’s “four varieties,” and begins: “A stolen palm shoot [lulav ha-gazúl], or one that is dried out, is unacceptable for use.”

What, you ask, apart from the presence of the verb gazal (here in its present-tense, passive form of gazúl) does this passage have to do with robbed Cossacks? This is where our midrash comes in. The following story commenting on the proviso in Sukkot occurs in the midrashic compilation of Leviticus Rabbah:

Rabbi Levi says: To whom can the user of a stolen lulav be compared? To a highwayman who lurked at a crossroads to waylay travelers. One day a royal tax collector passed by and he fell on him and took all he had. Eventually, he was caught and jailed. Hearing of this, the tax collector went to him and said, “Give me back what you took from me and I’ll testify on your behalf.” “The only thing left me from what I took,” the highwayman replied, “is a carpet of yours.” The tax collector said, “Give it to me and I’ll testify.” And so he gave it to him. . . .

The next day the man was put on trial before the king. “Is there anyone,” the king asked him, “who can testify on your behalf?” “There is a tax collector who can,” answered the man. The tax collector was brought before the king, who asked him, “What do you know about this man’s innocence?” “I only know,” said the tax collector, “that after I was sent to collect taxes and he waylaid me and took all I had, he gave me back this carpet.” And all the spectators in the courtroom exclaimed, “Woe to the man whose own witness testifies against him!”

Thus it is with the man and the lulav with which he hopes to gain merit. If it is stolen, it cries out to God and says, “I’m plundered property.” Then all the angels exclaim, “Woe to the man whose own witness testifies against him!”

Of course, the stolen palm shoot, the lúlov hagόzul in whole-Hebrew Yiddish, is not the equivalent of the kozák hanígzol, the robbed Cossack. Yet both cases are proverbial. The Mishnah’s luláv ha-gazúl is referred to by rabbinic commentators, including Maimonides, as a test case, an illustration of how mitsvah ha-ba’ah b’averah eynah mitsvah, “The commandment performed with the help of an unlawful act is not considered performed.”

The case of “the Cossack who was robbed” states a general principle too, namely, that one charging others with unlawful acts that one is guilty of oneself has no credibility. Indeed, the Hebrew expression ha-kozák ha-nigzál has become a quasi-judicial one, used often in Israeli courts. Thus, for instance, in a concurring opinion handed down in the Israeli Supreme Court’s upholding of a 2011 law of the Knesset aimed at the BDS movement, Justice Elyakim Rubenstein wrote that, while the movement claims to support the rights of oppressed Palestinians, “calling for a boycott [of Israeli businesses] in order to influence the policies of the state of Israel is an inherently coercive measure on the order of the Cossack who was robbed.” One could cite numerous other examples.

In short, if the Hebrew ha-kozák ha-nigzál clearly comes from the Yiddish kozák hanígzol, the Yiddish very likely originated as a play on the Hebrew’s luláv ha-gazúl. The palm shoot’s complaint of robbery is genuine. The Cossack’s is tainted. Framing it in the language of the Mishnah was a humorous way of mocking it.

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