Public Displays of Piety Are In Fashion, Thank God

On Language

By Philologos

Published September 11, 2008, issue of September 19, 2008.
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Back in June, I clipped an article by New York Times Egyptian correspondent Michael Slackman about the increasingly ubiquitous use of the word inshallah in Egyptian Arabic. Inshallah is a compression of the three words, in sha’a allah, “if God wills,” and it is widely used by speakers of all dialects of Arabic when referring to the future. “I’ll have it for you next week, inshallah,” an Arab shopkeeper will tell you about some item you’ve asked for that isn’t in stock; or “Inshallah, it will be a beautiful day tomorrow,” someone will say about the weather. It’s a way, all in one word, of declaring one’s religious faith, expressing one’s hope that something will happen and absolving oneself of responsibility if it doesn’t, since everything is in the hands of God.

But, as Mr. Slackman writes, nowadays in Egypt, “inshallah creep [has gone] to the extreme.” The growing Islamicization of daily life has made the word an absurdly ubiquitous “linguistic tic… a public display of piety and fashion.” Ask an Egyptian what his name is, Mr. Slackman reports, and it is not unusual to be answered “Mohammed, inshallah,” as if there were a danger that, should God so decide, he would wake up tomorrow with a different name.

Actually, although Mr. Slackman does not mention it, Arabic has a more appropriate religious response for something that, like the name given one at birth, already has happened. It’s hamdillah, a compression of il-hamdu ‘llahi, — that is, “praise to God” or “God be praised.” “Mohammed, hamdillah,” although it might strike one as comically sanctimonious, would at least make some sense.

But what right do we Jews have to make fun of this? Our own religiously observant brethren, especially the more Orthodox among them, make frequent use of a parallel set of expressions. The shopkeeper in Jerusalem or Brooklyn telling you that he expects to get a delivery will add, if he is speaking Hebrew, im yirtseh ha-shem, “if God wills,” or be’ezrat ha-shem, “with God’s help”; if he is speaking Yiddish, mirtseshem. The shopkeeper telling you that the delivery has just arrived, on the other hand, will add, barukh ha-shem, “blessed is God.” And by itself, without anything preceding it, barukh ha-shem is, just like hamdillah, the standard response to being asked how you or anyone in your family is doing or feeling. “How are you?” “Barukh ha-shem” — which can mean, depending on context and intonation, “Just fine,” “Pretty good,” “Not bad,” “It could be worse” or “Don’t ask.”

Christian languages and cultures, too, of course, each have their own “God willing” and “God be praised,” but the most fervent Christian believer does not –— and as far as I know, never did historically — resort to such expressions routinely when talking about almost anything. A Muslim would immediately understand, as a Christian might not, the joke about the Jewish girl in the arithmetic class who answers, “342, barukh ha-shem” when asked how much 224 and 118 are, but “$3.42, im yirtseh ha-shem” when asked how much she would spend if she were to buy a pound of cherries for $2.24 and a pound of cucumbers for $1.18.

Are inshallah and be’ezrat ha-shem or im yirtseh ha-shem connected? And if so, which influenced which?

They don’t have to be historically related, of course. Two religions that believe nothing happens without God’s willing it certainly could develop ways of saying so independently. Moreover, since such expressions are conversational ones, their absence from the written records do not necessarily mean very much.

And yet, having said as much, I’ll hazard the opinion that inshallah came first; that be’ezrat ha-shem developed in Muslim lands under its influence, and that im yirtseh ha-shem was a later development that took place among Eastern European Ashkenazim.

This is because the written documentation that we have points to im yirtseh ha-shem as a relatively late Eastern European expression, and to be’ezrat ha-shem as one that came into frequent use in Muslim lands in the Middle Ages. As far as I am able to determine, be’ezrat ha-shem as a verbal qualifier first occurs in “The Duties of The Heart,” an early 12th-century work of religious philosophy written by Bahya ibn Pakuda, a Jewish thinker living in Muslim Spain. Bahya wrote in a Judeo-Arabic that had many Hebrew expressions in it, one of which was be’ezrat ha-shem. As we find in sha’a allah in earlier Judeo-Arabic texts from medieval Muslim times, it seems fair to conclude that he used be’ezrat ha-shem under the influence of inshallah, and that this expression subsequently became popular in its own right.

The first time on record that be’ezrat ha-shem appears outside Muslim lands is in the well-known biblical commentary of Nachmanides, who lived in Gerona, in Christian Spain, a century after Bahya. Writing on a passage in the book of Genesis, he makes a point related to the book of Leviticus and promises to expound it more clearly “when I get there, be’ezrat ha-shem.” Since Nachmanides knew no Arabic, he couldn’t have said inshallah even if he had wanted to, but that’s exactly what he meant.

And when he reached Leviticus, barukh ha-shem, he kept his promise.

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


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