Just in time for the last week of December, Beth Kissileff has a query about the Yiddish word khoge, which denotes a non-Jewish holiday. Does it, she asks, refer only to a religious holiday like Christmas, or does it also include “civic holidays” like Thanksgiving and New Year’s?
Since civic holidays did not exist in Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe before modern times, all holidays being either Christian or Jewish, a khoge (pronounced “KHAW-geh,” with the “kh” like the “ch” in the spelling Chanukah) was by definition Christian.
The Yiddish proverb “Az m’klingt, iz a khoge oder a sreyfe,” “When it [that is, the church bell] rings, there’s either a holiday or a fire” — or, to put it in more ordinary language, every commotion has its reason — evidences this. In the small towns of Eastern Europe, whose thatch-roofed houses were prone to going up in flames in the dry summer months, the same church bells that called Christians to prayer were also rung as a fire alarm.
In the sense of a Christian holiday, khoge derives from a pun on biblical language. In Chapter 19 of Isaiah, where the prophet speaks of the doom awaiting the people of Egypt, there is a verse beginning, “And the land of Judah will become a terror to the Egyptians.” Although the word translated as “terror,” the Hebrew ḥaga, is found nowhere else in the Bible, “terror” is what Jewish tradition, going back to the earliest sources, has always taken it to mean.
Starting with the end of the Middle Ages, however, we find ḥaga connected with ḥag, the biblical and rabbinic word for a Jewish feast day, which refers in modern Hebrew to a holiday of any sort. The earliest documented instance of this is in a work by the noted German rabbi Ya’akov ben Moshe Moellin (1360–1427), better known in Jewish tradition as “the Maharil,” in which Easter Sunday is referred to as a ḥaga.