Hebrew Rootword: D-M-A

Jewish history lacks little in the Tears Department. Witness the biblical book called (in English) Lamentations and the fact that, for insiders, the expression bearing the date of national mourning, (tish'a be-av), the ninth of Av, stands for just about any sorrowful occasion. In fact, tears are so commonplace that there are several Hebrew words related to the act of weeping. These range from (bekhi), crying, to (dema'ot), tears, with several interposed onomatopoetic words that imitate the sound of crying: for example, (yevava), (yelala), and, accompanied by a sigh, (nehi).

Jews weep nationally for their condition of exile. As the Psalmist says: "by the waters of Babylon," (sham yashavnu gam bakhinu), "there we sat and wept."[1] Mainly, however, Jews follow King Solomon's dictum (et livkot ve-et lis-hok), "There is a time for tears and a time for laughter."[2]

Because Jewish culture frowns on a tragic outlook on life, crying will often lead to laughter. The Book of Psalms tells us repeatedly and metaphorically that crying is merely a first step toward redemption. Thus we have: (ba-erev yalin bekhi ve-la-boker rinah), "In the evening, one may lie down weeping; but at dawn there are shouts of joy."[3] Then there is another famous verse from Psalms: (ha-zor'im be-dim'a be-rina yiktzoru), "They who sow in tears will reap in joy."[4]

The vision of the crying matriarch Rachel (rahel mevaka al baneha) uses our words in a prophetic consolation: (min'i kolekh mi-bekhi ve-einayikh mi-dim'ah), "Restrain your voice from weeping, you eyes from shedding tears." It also promises a happy Zionist conclusion: "The children shall return to their country."[5]

The Hebrew root (vet, khaf, heh) is found in many a biblical narrative and is associated with several biblical figures. First, there are the "other" sons of the patriarchs. Both Ishmael and Esau shed real tears, the former because he is dying of thirst, the latter because he is deprived of his blessing; both are promised future prosperity. Curiously, there is a neat linguistic parallelism in both episodes. In the Ishmael story, though God hears the son's voice, it is his mother Hagar who cries: (va-tissa et kolah ve-tevk), "She lifted her voice and wept."[6] In the Esau episode: (va-yissa esav kolo va-yevk), "Esau lifted his voice and wept."[7]

There is the story of Joseph for whom kissing and crying out of happiness go together. Joseph, even though he is viceroy to the Pharaoh, cannot restrain his sentimental side when his brothers come to Egypt for food. He finally breaks down and, after weeping with Benjamin, (va-yenashek le-khol ehav va-yevk aleihem), "he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them."[8]

In some instances, crying has the same function as prayer, as a tool to ask God for more life. When Hannah cries because she is childless, her husband Elkanah reminds her that his love for her transcends her fertility and that she therefore has no need to cry: (hana lameh tivki), "Hannah, why should you cry?"[9]

David stops crying when the infant he has fathered with Bathsheba dies. As David explains to his advisors, (be-od ha-yeled hai tzamti va-evkeh) "I fasted and cried as long as the child was alive" [10] now that he is dead we must go on with living. In modern Hebrew, in less serious situations, one would say resignedly, (haval al ha-dema'ot), literally, "It's a shame to waste the tears," and figuratively, " There's nothing to be done."

The biblical expression (bakha al)[11] has a different connotation in modern Israeli Hebrew. It is used in cases where things just do not "go well." Thus, a woman discussing her friend's ill-fitting item of clothing might say, (ha-simla bakhta aleha), "The dress did not suit her at all." From weeping matriarchs to weeping dresses it shows how far we've come.

footnotes [1] Psalms 137:1 [Back]
[2] Kohelet 3:4 [Back]
[3] Psalm 30:6 [Back]
[4] Psalms 126:5 [Back]
[5] Jeremiah 31 [Back]
[6] Genesis 21:16 [Back]
[7] Genesis 27:38 [Back]
[8] Genesis 45 [Back]
[9] I Samuel 1:8 [Back]
[10] II Samuel 12:22 [Back]
[11] Genesis 45:14 [Back]

Dr. Joseph Lowin is Executive Director of the National Center for the Hebrew Language (NY). He has written extensively (in both popular and scholarly formats) on Jewish narrative, modern Jewish literature, and Hebrew language. You can visit his site at http://www.ivrit.org

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