What Do the Kenya Mall Terrorists and Naughty Jewish Children Have in Common

On the Connection Between 'Shovav' and 'Al-Shabaab'

Terrorist Is the Word: Kenyan security forces battle with militants from the Somali Al-Shabaab terror group at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
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Terrorist Is the Word: Kenyan security forces battle with militants from the Somali Al-Shabaab terror group at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

By Philologos

Published October 06, 2013, issue of October 11, 2013.
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David Bell writes to inquire:

“At present, the Arabic-named ‘al-Shabab’ — an organization composed of young Somalian Muslim fanatics intent on murder and mayhem — is very much in the news. The Hebrew word shovav denotes a mischievous child worlds apart from such murderous thugs. And yet the Hebrew and Arabic words have in common the attributes of being young and getting into trouble. Can they possibly share a common derivation?”

It’s a good guess, but that doesn’t make it a right one. The two words are unconnected. Shabab is the plural of Arabic shab, a “young man” (not to be confused with sha’b, “people” or “nation”). It can also mean “youth” collectively, as in Somalia’s ḥarakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin, the movement of jihadist youth.

In colloquial Arabic, it can have the additional sense of “the younger generation,” as in a sentence like, “The shabab today care only about iPads and iPhones”; of “the boys,” as in “I’m so busy that I haven’t seen any of the shabab in ages” or of “you guys” or “hey, gang” when addressed to a group — for example, “Ya shabab, let’s go get something to eat.”

The Hebrew shovav, on the other hand, comes from the biblical verb l’shovev, “to turn someone back or away from his proper course,” itself a derived form of la’shuv, “to return.”

These two different but closely related meanings are punned on by the prophet Jeremiah when he has God say to the people of Israel, “Shuvu, shuvu, banim shovavim” “Return, return, my wayward sons,” a shovav being someone who has gone astray. T’shuvah, or “religious repentance,” is the opposite of shovevut, or “moral profligacy,” but both depend on the metaphor of the virtuous life as a path that can be either turned back from or turned back to.

There are, however, two Hebrew words that are genuine cognates of shabab — and oddly enough, these are seva, “white hair” or “old age,” and sav or saba, “grandfather.” This curiosity makes sense if one knows that in Arabic, the verb shayyaba means “to cause something to age.” A shab is thus a child who has matured; a sav is an adult who has grown old. The same process of aging leads to different outcomes.

A shovav in the Bible is not a vicious sinner. He or she (bat shoveva, or “wayward daughter,” is a biblical term for the people of Israel, too) is a lost child whose father, God, has not despaired of their relationship, and in later Jewish tradition, the aspect of youthful — and therefore semi-pardonable — rebellion is stressed even more.

“Sin begins,” the great medieval commentator Rashi writes, “with young prankishness and shovevut,” and the shovav is a novice at it. In modern Hebrew, this has been carried a step further and shovav has become a term of affection and approbation for a high-spirited mischief-maker who means no real harm. “Shoveva at!” a father will say, pretending to scold his little daughter who has just laughingly brushed toothpaste all over her nose, the message being: “Yes, toothpaste belongs on your teeth, but you’re lots of fun and a child without your liveliness won’t go far.”

And yet in the end, strangely enough, the Arabic shabab and Hebrew shovav have gotten together in the contemporary Hebrew slang word shababnik, used by the ultra-Orthodox in Israel (and increasingly, in recent years, by the general public) to denote a young Haredi in his teens or early 20s who has dropped out of the life of yeshiva study and spends his time in the company of other youngsters like himself, hanging out and sometimes getting into trouble.

A shababnik is not a lapsed Haredi — he still considers himself part of the Haredi community and has not necessarily lost any of his former religious beliefs. He is, however, living on the community’s fringes, no longer monitored by its rabbinical authorities and unable to go to work or get a job, since this would constitute proof of his having left religious studies and make him eligible, according to Israeli law, for military conscription. Openly acknowledged today by the Haredi world as a serious problem, the phenomenon has led to shiftlessness and sometimes even to drugs and delinquency.

Israeli Haredim, always reluctant to attribute anything about themselves to non-Haredi, let alone to non-Jewish influence, have tried to explain shababnik as an acronym formed from the phrase in the book of Ecclesiastes, S’maḥ Baḥur B’yaldutkha, “Rejoice, young man, in your youth” — that is, sow your wild oats while you can.

This is clearly, though, a folk etymology — the word actually derives from a kind of Arabic-Hebrew partnership; a shababnik, in other words, is one of the shabab who behaves like a shovev — a fusion of meanings that is entirely natural, since shabab in Arabic sometimes implies the same youthful up-to-no-goodness that characterizes the biblical shovev. If only Arabs and Jews could cooperate as well as their two languages do in this interesting case of linguistic synergy!

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


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