This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Oy Vey!*

We can learn a lot about people from how they give expression to feelings of shock or sorrow. Different cultures have formulated a variety of quasi-verbal ways of instinctively reacting to distressing situations. In some cases it will be through an obscenity or blasphemy. Among Jews however there are two expressions which are most familiar to us. Ashkenazic Jews will cry "Oy vey!" whereas Sepharadim will blurt out the very similar-sounding "Way, way!"

The "vey" component of "oy vey" exists in German as well ("weh"), and might have entered Yiddish from there--though, as we shall observe below, this is not necessarily so. The "oy" however does not seem traceable to any outside source. This seems to hold true as well of the "Way" of North African Jews, which does not (insofar as my inquiries have revealed so far) show up in the vernacular languages of their Muslim neighbours. These facts invite further investigation.

"Oy" is actually an old and authentic Hebrew word. It appears with some frequency in the Bible, where it is usually rendered in English as "woe!" It is not always spoken by Jews, and hence we find such scenes as that in 1 Samuel 4:7-8, in which the Philistines are depicted as crying "Oy!" in confused anticipation of an Israelite attack.

In the book of Ecclesiastes we find a variant of this interjection, pronounced "Ee!" as in: "Ee to him that is alone when he falls" (4:10). This form seems to have become the prevalent one by the time we get to the era which produced the Mishnah (1st to 3rd centuries C.E.), and appears in such phrases as "Ee to me whether I speak or remain silent!" and "Ee to the wicked and to his neighbour!" [By the way, you won't find this form in the normal printed editions of the Mishnah, which replaced the strange-sounding "ee" with the more familiar "oy." The quotations listed above are from reliable manuscripts].

It is when we reach the period of the Talmud and Midrash (3rd to 6th centuries) that Jews begin using a new expression in order to give vent to their pain and tribulation: the familiar "vay' or "way!" This word appears in dozens of passages in rabbinic literature, as the equivalent of its older cousins "oy" and "ee." "Vay" (or "way") was apparently not considered a distinctively Jewish expression at the time, since the same word was in use in both Greek ("ouai") and Latin ("vae"), carrying precisely the same meanings as their Hebrew counterparts.

Thus for example, the midrash relates the following charming anecdote about Rabban Gamaliel who blessed his daughter on the birth of her first child with the rather upsetting prayer "May the word `vay" never budge from your lips." When his daughter voiced her dismay at receiving such a "blessing," the doting zeydeh explained his real intention: His wish was that she might have many occasions to lament about such domestic "troubles" as "Vay, my baby won't eat! Vay, my baby doesn't want to go to school!" Rabban Gamaliel astutely perceived that there are certain types of parental torments that we learn to prefer over the alternatives.

And just so that you should not be mistaken into supposing that Jews only knew how to suffer, we should make it clear that talmudic literature knows also of an appropriate interjection for joyous occasions: "Wah!" The similarity between the sounds of way and wah often furnished occasions for elaborate word-plays, which hinted subtly at just how fragile the borderline between sorrow and joy often is.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, March 2 1992.

Bibliography:

  • E. Y. Kutscher, "Leshon HaZa"L," in Sefer Hanokh Yalon, Jerusalem 1963.
  • E. Segal, The Babylonian Esther Midrash: A Critical Commentary, Volume 1, Atlanta 1994.