Just as the Siesta Disappears, Hebrew Finally Has Its Own Word For It

Will shnatz have arrived on the Hebrew scene just in time for it to denote something that no longer exists?

People sleep during a public napping event in central Jerusalem on November 2, 2018. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
June 8 2023
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It’s ironic. Just when the custom is on its way out, Hebrew finally has its own word for it. You can now call it a shnatz.

Shnatz, with its echoes of “snooze” and “snore,” is an acronym for shnat tzohorayim, “afternoon sleep,” known to much of the world as a siesta. Long part of Israeli culture, the siesta has gradually been disappearing from the local scene just as it has done elsewhere—and if you wonder how a custom that was long part of a culture could have had no name, the answer is that it had one, it just wasn’t a Hebrew one. For decades, the siesta was known to Israelis as the Schlafstunde, or shlafshtunde to de-Germanize its spelling, and many still call it that.

The shlafshtunde, though by no means universally observed, was once so common in Israel that there was no need to explain its rules to anyone. In the hours after lunchtime, you did not knock on people’s doors or ring their bells. You did not call them on the telephone. You did not talk loudly outside their windows. You did not play the piano or turn up the radio if you lived next-door to them—and if you needed to be reminded of this, signs were sometimes posted in front of homes and apartment buildings with notices like, “Do Not Disturb Your Neighbors’ Rest Between the Hours of 2 and 4.” Small stores and businesses regularly shut down for the duration, and children knew that it was not a time to play in the streets. Not a few municipalities, including Tel Aviv, had noise-level ordinances that applied equally to the shlafshtunde and the late hours of the night.  

Although it is widely assumed, as the word suggests, that the shlafshtunde arrived in pre-Israel Palestine with the German-Jewish immigrants who came in droves in the 1930s, this was at best true of urban areas; in the country’s kibbutzim and farming villages, where agricultural work, especially in the summer months, started at the crack of dawn to beat the midday heat, the afternoon nap was a necessity that did not have to wait for German Jews to introduce it. Nor was Germany itself a country associated with afternoon napping, which was more a practice in southern Europe. Yet as explained by the Israeli writer and sociologist Raya Harnik, the author of “No Noise Between Two and Four,” a book about her Tel Aviv childhood, many of the German-Jewish immigrants, or “Yekkes” as they were known, had been independently self-employed with “shops and offices next to their homes, to which they were in the habit of repairing for lunch and resting there before re-opening their businesses,” and they continued their afternoon naps in Palestine.

Curiously, Schlafstunde in German does not denote such a nap. The word’s literal meaning is “sleeping hour” or “hour for sleep,” and it can refer to any time of the day or night in which one sleeps or wants to sleep, for however long or short a period. In its sense of a siesta that was given it in Palestine, it was an odd creature—a German word with a meaning peculiar to Hebrew speakers. Most likely, it was not originally used this way by the new immigrants themselves. What probably happened was that when they complained to their non-Yekke neighbors about the noise they or their children were making in the after-lunch hours and were asked why it mattered so much, their reply was something like, “Das ist unsere Schlafstunde,” “This is our time for sleep.” The neighbors, at least some of whom would have spoken Yiddish and understood, then began to use shlafstunde in their Hebrew to denote the newcomers’  afternoon nap or nap time, from which the word morphed into a general term for a siesta—and with it, the custom,  too, spread well beyond its original German-Jewish base.

Since concerted efforts were made in these years to find Hebrew equivalents for non-Hebrew words, it might be asked why, throughout the 20th century, none was found for shlafshtunde. The answer is that no one looked for one, because shnat tzohorayim, “afternoon sleep,” was already a perfectly good Hebrew expression with a distinguished rabbinic pedigree. To take one of numerous possible examples, we find the renowned Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838–1933), better known as the Ḥafets Ḥayyim, writing in his halakhic work Mishnah Brurah: “If one cannot study Torah [after lunch] without an afternoon nap [shnat tzohorayim], one may sleep if it is not for too long, it being forbidden to sleep during the day more than the sleep of a horse, which is 60 breaths—and even this small amount must be not for physical pleasure but for reinvigorating the body for the service of the Almighty.” For Hebrew purists, shnat tzorohayim was good enough. If shlafshtunde was preferred by the general public because it had more flavor, so much the worse.

The Ḥafets Ḥayyim’s “sleep of a horse” and “60 breaths”—their English equivalents would be “cat nap” and “40 winks”—are what are known today as a power nap, and there is no material difference between an office worker catnapping over a sales report and a rabbi horse-sleeping over a volume of the Talmud. Clearly, the power nap is the wave of a future that portends more office workers and less shop owners, and recent medical research claims that it is healthier, the optimal time for an afternoon nap being about twenty minutes, after which its benefits wane and may turn harmful. If the siesta is vanishing in our post-modern age even in Spain where the word originated, it seems that not even Spaniards should be mourning it, since its passing will be good for their blood pressure.

And at precisely this moment in history, shnatz has been born! The date of its birth can  be pinpointed fairly exactly, for while it is not included in Ruvik Rosenthal’s comprehensive 2005 Dictionary of Israeli Slang, it appears in Internet postings as early as 2011. New words have entered modern Hebrew in one of two ways, either from “above” in the form of a neologism coined and handed down by some august body or personage, or from “below” in the form of an unknown inventor’s creation that is picked up and circulated, at first by friends and then by wider circles. But although shnatz belongs to the second of these categories, its inventor was working in a classical mode, because a resort to acronyms—composite words formed from the first letter or letters of their components—has characterized Hebrew since early rabbinic times.

True, in other languages, such as English (where they are more of a modern development), abbreviations are commonly used too, but these generally remain such, while in modern Hebrew they are most often turned into words. (Thus, for instance, English UAV, “unmanned aerial vehicle,” is pronounced “yoo-ay-vee,” not “yu-av,” whereas its Hebrew equivalent, kli tayis bilti m’uyash, is articulated as katbam rather than as kaf-taf-bet-mem.) This has the advantage of enabling them to function like any other word with all the linguistic possibilities this involves. You wouldn’t normally speak in English of “UAVification,” whereas in Hebrew you could definitely use the verbal noun kitbum.

So it is with shnatz. You can’t conjugate or inflect shlafshtunde in Hebrew, but you can say ani shanatzti (“I took my afternoon nap”) and hi tishnotz (“she’ll take her afternoon nap”), or even (although I doubt anyone has gone so far yet) hi hishnitzah et ha-yeled  (“she gave the boy his afternoon nap”), or hem mishtantzim lahem (“they’re off taking their afternoon nap.”) Whatever the rules of Hebrew morphology permit you to do, can be done with shnatz.

Will shnatz have arrived on the Hebrew scene just in time for it to denote something that no longer exists? This was a question raised recently by Tel Aviv’s Time Out magazine, a popular weekly listing things to do and see about town. An article titled “The Movement for Shnatz Encouragement Suggests Ten Spots for Public Naps in the City” began:

Life is a fatiguing phase of existence. The days are too long, the nights are too short, and all we want to do is sleep—preferably, in the afternoon. Call it the siesta, call it the shlafshtunde—this marvelously civilized rite was once practiced in Israel, too. Shops were closed from two to four and whoever made noise during these sacred hours was immediately banished to Cyprus. But we have lost all that, along with our innocence. A midweek shnatz has become all but unthinkable. We have surrendered to the terrorism of wakefulness. We have been defeated in the battle for the right to nap.

Still, the magazine’s list of ten nappable spots in Tel Aviv, ranging from Dizengoff Circle’s iconic fountain to a secret park in the city’s Old North, gives room for hope. Let us shut our eyes and imagine a better world in which . . . but we’ll never know in which there is what, because we’re already shnatzed out.

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