Where Is It Written?

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published February 25, 2005, issue of February 25, 2005.

The attractively smiling woman in the black-and-white photograph sits curled on a sofa, looking younger than she tells us she is. She says: “Where is it written that because my hair is gray and I have grandkids, I have to retire? Well, I don’t think so! Oh, sure, I’ll retire someday, I just don’t know when. What I do know is that I need to prepare now for that day.”

You can see this providently youthful grandmother in last month’s issue of Hadassah magazine, in an ad for Hadassah’s “Planned Giving & Estates” program, the “best deal around on life income plans.” But it’s not life income plans that we’re interested in today. It’s the expression “Where is it written?”

Does this expression mark our future retiree as Jewish? That depends on whether and how much it has spread by now to non-Jewish speakers of American English, in which the normal way of putting things would be to say: “Who says that because my hair is gray and I have grandkids, I have to retire?” “Where is it written?” is, without a doubt, Jewish in origin, being a translation of the Yiddish expression “Vu shteyt es geshribn?”

“Vu shteyt es geshribn?” can be used in Yiddish as a challenge to practically anything, whether it’s someone telling you to how to vote (“Where is it written that a Jew can’t support a Republican?”) or asking you to clean your desk (“Where is it written that clean desks make better work habits?”). It’s a way of saying, “Just because most people think so doesn’t mean it is,” and the “vu” or “where” of it is, or originally was, a reference to sacred writings and, especially, to the Bible.

True, you won’t often come across the question “Where is it written?” in rabbinic literature, in which there are more common ways of asking “How do we know?” such as the Hebrew “Mi-hekhan anu lemedim?” “From where do we learn?” or the Aramaic “Hekha matsinu?” “Where do we find?” Yet the Hebrew expression “ka-katuv,” “as it is written,” is a ubiquitous way of referring in rabbinic texts to a biblical verse that bears out or illustrates one’s point, as in the Aleynu prayer said three times a day by observant Jews, who recite there: “For the Kingdom is Thine and Thou shalt reign forever in glory, as it is written [ka-katuv], ‘The Lord will reign for ever and ever.’” Hence, the Yiddish “Vu shteyt es geshribn?” i.e., “Where does the Bible say that?”

On the other hand, the similar expression “It’s written [or “not written”] in stone,” which has become increasingly popular in recent years, does not have a Jewish origin and is not particularly associated with Jewish speakers. And yet it, too, sounds as if it might originally have referred to the Bible. Did it?

The reasons for thinking so can be found in this Saturday’s Torah portion of Ki Tisa, in which we read that God “gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of speaking to him upon Mount Sinai, two tablets of testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” The biblical story proceeds to tell us that when Moses descended with these tablets from the mountain and saw The Children of Israel worshipping the Golden Calf, he cast them to the ground and smashed them, after which God told him to carve another set.

Although these two tablets are commonly represented as the Ten Commandments, there is actually no place in the Bible that says — Vu shteyt es geshribn? — that this is what they were. Indeed, according to later Jewish legend it was only the tablets Moses broke that had the Ten Commandments on them, not the set that replaced them. Thus, we have the charming tale in the midrashic volume of Exodus Rabba, which tells us that because Moses broke the tablets to defend the Israelites in the Court of Heaven, hoping to acquit them on the grounds that now there no longer was any proof of the existence of a commandment against idolatry, God rewarded his love of his people by saying: “Do not grieve for the first tablets, which had only the Ten Commandments on them. The new set I give you will have the whole Law and every interpretation and story concerning it.”

Of course, since writing that is carved in stone survives longer than any other kind when exposed to the elements, “written on stone” could originally have referred to other things, too, such as gravestones, or ancient steles or stone inscriptions. There’s no way of knowing for sure who first invented the expression and under what circumstances. The one thing that’s certain is that while “It’s not written in stone” and “Where is it written?” mean the same thing, the first is declarative and the second interrogative. One doesn’t ask, “Where is it written in stone that I have to retire?” and one doesn’t state, “It isn’t written that I have to.” Why not? Probably because, as is known, Jews like to ask questions. Can you think of a better reason?

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



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