A Sweet Passover for All

On Language

By Philologos

Published April 16, 2008, issue of April 25, 2008.
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Forward reader Benzion Ginn is seeking information about the origins of the Yiddish expression a zisn Pesach, “[Have] a sweet Pesach,” as a Passover or pre-Passover greeting. Wondering whether such a greeting is traditional or whether it is rather a modern American invention of “Passover food providers, such as Manischewitz,” Mr. Ginn writes that he discussed the matter with a friend, who turned to New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Mr. Ginn’s friend was answered by YIVO that although a zisn Pesach may indeed have arisen in “early American commercial Passover history,” no documentation of this could be found. Perhaps, it was suggested, a search of the archives of the old Forverts would turn up advertisements bearing out the theory. Meanwhile, Mr. Ginn would like to know my opinion.

It is true that ads for Passover products that also wish their readers “a sweet Passover” are common in today’s Anglo-Jewish press. Did they start with the old Yiddish press? I don’t have the Forverts archives at my disposal, and in any case, although it would be interesting to find such ads in Yiddish, too, this would not necessarily prove that the expression started with them. Turning to a friend of my own, I asked Harvard University professor of Jewish and Yiddish literature Ruth Wisse what she thought. Her answer was:

“In my experience, the adjective zis was usually reserved for Rosh Hashanah, as in the expression a zis yor, ‘A sweet year.’ To me, the most familiar Yiddish Passover greeting is a koshern Pesach, while a freylakhn Pesach is also something I’ve heard most of my life. But who knows? Maybe the greetings for one holiday passed into another.”

A koshern Pesach, of course, means “[Have] a kosher Pesach,” and a freylakhn Pesach means “[Have] a happy Pesach,” and one sometimes hears these two greetings run together as a *koshern, *freylakhn Pesach, “Have a happy, kosher Passover.” (The Hebrew Passover greeting Pesah.kasher ve-same’ah. is a translation of this.) Yet, in contemporary America, as Mr. Ginn writes, a zisn Pesach and “Have a sweet Passover” are also increasingly heard, a phenomenon for which we now have two proposed explanations: Mr. Ginn’s, that it originated as advertising copy, and Professor Wisse’s, that it could have been a spontaneous transference from another holiday.

These two explanations are not mutually exclusive, since either source of a zisn Pesach could have come first and then been reinforced by the other. The only contribution I myself have to make is to point out that a koshern Pesach, which is almost certainly the oldest of the Yiddish Passover greetings, became inherently problematic in the course of the past century as Jewish religious observance grew laxer, so that the need for an alternative form must have been felt.

After all, whereas once, in a more traditional age, practically every Jewish family observed the Passover dietary laws as strictly as it could, so that the greeting “Have a kosher Pesach” corresponded to real plans and desires, this has ceased to be the case in modern times. Already in the period of the great Eastern European Jewish immigration to the United States before World War I, to say nothing of later decades, such observance weakened or vanished among most Jews — and to be wished, or to wish others, “a kosher Passover” must have struck many of them as insincere and hypocritical-sounding. Not only is it awkward to express the hope that someone will have a holiday unmarred by the slightest suspicion of a speck of leaven when you know that this is not that person’s intention, but it also is awkward even if it is his intention, unless it is your intention, too. An observant Jew who is wished a kosher Passover by a nonobservant Jew is more likely to feel amused or irritated than pleased, just as you might feel if told by a chronic speeder to drive safely. “Spare me your good wishes until you learn to drive safely yourself!” would probably be your natural, if unuttered, reaction.

Both a freylakhn Pesach and a zisn Pesach most likely originated as ways of getting around having to say a koshern Pesach, the first at an earlier stage than the second. Both, too, were borrowed from other holidays: a zisn Pesach, as Professor Wisse observes, from Rosh Hashanah, and a freylakhn Pesach from Purim, on which a freylakhn Purim was the traditional greeting. Thus, while commercial advertising certainly could have had a role in promoting a zisn Pesach, a deeper motivation also existed. And indeed, a koshern Pesach, or its English equivalent, still remains the preferred greeting among the Orthodox, although it is not considered improper to add freylakhn or zisn.

A sweet and happy Passover to you all, then! And as for kosher, how does the old Marxist slogan go? From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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