Jan Koum, WhatsApp and the Meaning of 'The Walls Have Ears'

Columnist Takes a Stab at $19 Billion Question

Somebody’s Listening: Jan Koum, founder of WhatsApp, recently stated that he came from a country where ‘he walls had ears and you couldn’t speak freely.’
Caroline Cox
Somebody’s Listening: Jan Koum, founder of WhatsApp, recently stated that he came from a country where ‘he walls had ears and you couldn’t speak freely.’

By Philologos

Published March 09, 2014, issue of March 14, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Benjamin Lerner writes about an interview he came across in the media with Jan Koum, the rags-to-riches Jewish immigrant from the former Soviet Union who founded WhatsApp and recently sold it to Facebook for a reported $19 billion dollars. Referring to WhatsApp’s emphasis on privacy in its social network, Koum said: “I grew up in a country where I remember my parents not being able to have a conversation on the phone. The walls had ears and you couldn’t speak freely.” And Mr. Lerner asks, “What is the origin of the expression ‘the walls have ears’? Does it come from the Hebrew oznayim la’kotel?”

Oznayim la’kotel means “the wall has ears” and is an old Hebrew expression going back to the early centuries of the Common Era. One first finds it in the midrashic compilation of Vayikra Rabba, where there is a commentary on the verse in Ecclesiastes, “Curse not the king even in your thoughts and curse not the wealthy in your bedchamber, for a bird of the air shall carry the voice and that which has wings shall tell the matter” — in other words, be careful what you say about powerful people who can harm you, because it may get back to them. Quoting a certain Rabbi Levi, the midrash comments, “The wall has ears, the road has ears,” meaning that Ecclesiastes’ advice applies not only to bedrooms, but to the out-of-doors as well.

Is this the source of our English “the walls have ears,” or of the Russian sten’i imeyut ushi, which may have been how Koum first heard it? Before we jump to hasty conclusions, we need to remember two things: 1)The mere existence of an expression in Language X that is the same as, but historically earlier than, an expression in Language Y is not presumptive evidence that it was transmitted from X to Y unless there is a satisfactory explanation of how the transmission could have taken place; and 2) One cannot look at Languages X and Y in isolation. Other languages have to be considered, too, to see whether the expression exists in them also.

In the case of “the walls have ears,” it certainly does. Its exact equivalent occurs in French les murailles ont des oreilles, Italian i muri hanno orecchi, German Wände haben Ohren, Swedish väggama har Öron, and Greek hoi toikhoi ekhoun aftiá, to name but a few cases. It would be a highly unlikely coincidence if such a saying had developed independently in each language, but in theory, any of them could have borrowed it from any other, making its spread throughout Europe impossible to trace.

Still, oznayim la’kotel is far older. As distinct languages, English, Russian, French, Italian, German and Swedish didn’t even exist when Vayikra Rabba was written. Aren’t we then forced to conclude that the Hebrew expression was the original one?

Not necessarily. In the first place, since rabbinic and midrashic literature, unlike the Hebrew Bible, were all but unknown in the countries of Europe over the centuries, it would be difficult to account for an originally rabbinic expression turning up in so many European languages. (True, it need only have been borrowed by one of them, from which it could have been disseminated to the others, but how would it have made its way into that one?) And secondly, the possibility must be considered that Hebrew itself borrowed the expression from some other language, which influenced both it and the languages of Europe.

Now, there is only one language that could have played this role. This is Latin, which was spoken in much of the Roman Empire at the time of Vayikra Rabba’s composition and had a great impact on the languages of Europe throughout the Middle Ages. And indeed, there are Latin writings in which we find statements similar to “the walls have ears,” such as the First Century B.C.E.’s Cicero’s nihil mihi intra parietes meos tutum, “there is no safety for me [even] within my own walls,” or the fourth-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus’s assertion, in writing about the police-state atmosphere under the reign of his contemporary, the emperor Constantius II, etiam parietes arcanorum soli conscii timebantur, “Even the walls, the only sharers of secrets, were feared.”

Was Latin then the original source of “the walls have ears”? And yet the actual expression is nowhere to be found in classical Latin texts and seems first to occur in Latin as parietes habent aures in a work published in 1552, a thousand years after Vayikra Rabba, by the French mathematician and theologian Charles de Bovelles, also known by his Latin name of Carolus Bovillus. Moreover, according to Joseph Victor’s “Charles de Bovelles: An Intellectual Biography,” Bovillus, like other Christian scholars of the Renaissance period, took an interest in Jewish writings that had never before been evinced in European intellectual life and even discussed them with rabbis.

And so we are back to the possibility that perhaps oznayim la’kotel was indeed the original source of “the walls have ears,” that Charles de Bovelles heard it from a rabbi, and that he translated it into Latin, from which it was transmitted to a slew of other languages. That could be the answer to Mr. Lerner’s $19 billion dollar question.

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


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!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • 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.