At the Wording Desk
Learn to understand foreign terms commonly used in modern English like the Hebrew adjective "tov"
tov Hebrew ‘good’
What’s in this column: Rosh Hashanah, Shana Tova, Mazel Tov, & Other Uses of 'Tov' the Hebrew Word for ‘Good’
This column looks at tov, tova, the Hebrew adjective for ‘good’ and some of its appearances in modern English, like the most frequent and familiar use in the traditional congratulatory phrase of Hebrew mazel tov ‘good fortune,’ read literally ‘fortune good’ because the adjective in Hebrew is customarily postpositive, that is, placed after the noun it modifies.
Mazel tov is not correctly used the way English uses “good luck.” In English “good luck” often wishes you success with something that has not yet happened. Good luck in that chemistry test tomorrow! But mazel tov congratulates you only for something that has already happened. Mazzal originally meant “destiny as told by the stars of heaven.” In Mishnaic Hebrew, mazzal meant ‘constellation.’ For example, the congregation can shout “Mazel tov!” after a Jewish boy’s bar mitzvah.
To wish someone good luck with something in the future, one might say in Hebrew b'hatzlacha בהצלחה literally “with success.”
Reader Norman Shapiro adds this note: “In particular, when someone announces that they are expecting, many respond effusively with a mazal tov, but this is indeed not the correct response. As you pointed out, mazal tov is appropriate for an occurence that has already taken place. More appropriate and used by those in the know, is bsha'ah tova, translated literally as ‘in a good time’ or a better translation might be ‘in the appropriate time.’ The Yiddish equivalent for this is in a mazaldikke shoo, literally ‘in a fortunate time,’ i.e. the baby should come at an appropriate and fortunate time.”
Another familiar use of tova appears in the common Hebrew New Year’s greeting, שנה טובה shana tova ‘a good year.’ Stress the final syllables in both words: shaNA toVA. This year, 2016, Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) begins at sundown on October 3. New Year in Hebrew is Rosh Hashanah, literally rosh ‘head’ ha-shana ‘of the year.’ A variant New Year’s greeting is shana tova umetukah ‘a good and a sweet year.’
Judaism believes that, on New Year’s Day, God will prejudge all your activities and thoughts for the year to come and inscribe your name in his scroll (in the Book of Life), so another common wish is ketiva ve-chatina tovah ‘may you be written and sealed for a good year.’ Another one: Gemar chatimah tovah ‘may your final sealing in the Book of Life be good.’
Sounding the shofar in a woodcut from Amsterdam dated 1707 CE
On any holiday, one may say in Yiddish “Gut Yuntiff!” Yuntiff is a compression of the more formal Hebrew Yom tov ‘good day.’
Tov in Personal Names
The adjective is used as a feminine name, Tovah. Consider the wonderful actress Tovah Feldshuh.
Tov is a male given name. Tov may be a shortened form of Tuvya ‘God is good.’ Tov has dialectical Hebrew variants like Dov, Dev, Tavi and Dow.
What could be more English than the Toby jug shown above? Everything about it — except its name, derived from Tobias, a Greek version of Hebrew Tobiah or Tuvya ‘God is Good.’ Some claim the beer pot was named after Sir Toby Belch, a happy drunk in Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night. Others claim the namesake was an 18th century Yorkshire drinker, Henry Elwes, who was known as Toby Fillpot (or Phillpot) and that the name was inspired by an old English drinking song, “The Brown Jug,” first published in 1761.
Comedienne Judy Holliday’s real name was Judith Tuvim. Tovim is a plural form of tov, literal meaning ‘good times,’ developed meaning ‘holiday.’
Other Reflexes of Tov
In Yiddish, the good deed is dee toiveh.
Shavua Tov (shuh-VOO-ah tuv)
At the end of Sabbath services, a Jew can wish his fellows a good week to come, and does so by saying “shavua tov” ‘a good week!’
Tov in Daily Salutations
A good morning greeting in Hebrew is boker tov ‘good morning.’
A reply might be one of the sweetest wishes in any language, boker or ‘[may] morning light [shine upon you].
Tzohora'im tovim (tzoh-hoh-rye-eem toh-veem) ‘good afternoon’ uses a plural form of tov.
Erev Tov is ‘good evening’ and lilah tov (lye-lah tohv) is ‘good night.’
When leaving an acquaintance, say “Kol tov” ‘be well.’
Bill Casselman, October 03, 2016
Copyright 2016 William Gordon Casselman
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