Sorcerer for the Goose and Gander

Jewish Mothers, Witches and the De-Gendering of Yiddish

getty images

By Philologos

Published January 03, 2012, issue of January 06, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

A reader who may prefer to remain anonymous sends me an email in which he describes recently hearing his sister call his elderly mother a “machashefer,” a term with which he was not familiar. The letter continues:

“I asked my sister what she meant by ‘machashefer,’ and she said it’s a witch.

She then told me something my mother had never told me before. My maternal grandmother referred to my mother in her early youth as a ‘machashefer,’ she explained to me, because bad things had befallen people who had crossed her or done her wrong. I always knew that my grandmother was very superstitious, as were most people of her generation who came from the ‘Old Country’ of Eastern Europe, and I was wondering if you have ever heard of this apparently Yiddish term, the proper pronunciation of which eludes me.”

The proper pronunciation of the Yiddish word is “makh-SHEY-feh” without the final “r” (I’ll get back to that). It comes from Hebrew meḥasheyfah (with the stress on the last syllable), which indeed means “witch,” and occurs in the book of Exodus in the verse “And the meḥasheyfah you shall not permit to live” — a not very circumlocutory way of saying that witches should be put to death. It’s the feminine form of mekhashef, a sorcerer, an occupation upon which the Bible also frowns but for which it does not decree the death penalty. (This misogynous double standard was no doubt inherited from the cultures of the ancient Middle East, which, as elsewhere in the world, considered the male sorcerer or shaman to be a generally benevolent force but the female usurper of his role to be an evil one.) In modern Hebrew, under the reverse influence of Yiddish, the word is generally pronounced maḥsheyfah.

Yet as is true of words for “witch” in other languages, Yiddish makhshayfe can denote not only a sorceress, but also any ill-tempered or cantankerous female of any age. Thus, one need not necessarily resort to superstition or a belief in witchcraft to explain our emailer’s grandmother’s use of such a word for her daughter. Indeed, when applied to a small girl as opposed to a grown-up woman, makhshayfe can even be used endearingly, the way “little devil” might be used in English for a strong-willed and mischievous child. Perhaps our emailer’s mother was no more than that.

To most speakers of Yiddish, “machasheyfer” with an “-er” at the end sounds comically oxymoronic, since the final -er in Yiddish is a masculine grammatical marker on nouns, the female marker being either -e, often preceded by an added consonant, or -in. Thus, a male farmer is a poyer, a female farmer a poyerte; a male teacher a lerer, a female teacher a lererke; a salesman a farkoyfer, a saleswoman a farkoyferin, etc. The -er/-e rule is even stricter with adjectives: one says a shtarker poyer, “a strong farmer,” but a shtarke poyerte; a kluger lerer, “a smart teacher,” but a kluge lererke; a gerotener farkoyfer, “a successful salesman,” but a gerotene farkoyferin.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.