A Real Metsiya!


By Philologos

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Forward’s features editor, Erica Brody, tells me she knows a dedicated subscriber whose Yiddish-speaking family had a “hullabaloo” about the word metsiya. What precisely this “hullabaloo” was about I don’t know, but I can imagine. How many words are there that also mean their opposite and can be confused with their homonym in the title of a volume of which they are a main subject?

The Hebrew noun metsi’ah (pronounced “meh-tsee-AH”), from the verb matsa, “to find,” means something found and, by extension, a “find” or a bargain. As the Yiddish and Yinglish metsiya (pronounced “meh-TSEE-yeh”), it retains the latter two of these meanings. A metsiya can be an antique table bought at a used furniture store for $30, a ticket to a Broadway hit given to you by a friend down with the flu or the wealthy bachelor who has just gotten engaged to your cousin’s daughter. But it can also be a piece of junk bought in an antiques store for $750, a ticket to the opening night of the biggest flop in town or your cousin’s daughter’s fraud of a boyfriend turning out not to have a credit card to his name.

This is because when someone says “a metsiya,” he or she can mean one of two things: 1) It really is a metsiya; 2) It not only isn’t a metsiya, but also should never have happened to you.

In short, the word is often used sarcastically. But can one tell from the speaker’s tone of voice whether metsiya is sarcastic or not, or does this have to be guessed from the context?

Let us imagine the following two exchanges:

A: “Did you hear the news? Jennifer inherited her aunt’s apartment in London. She has to fly to England to sign the papers.”

B: “A metsiya!”


A: “Did you hear the news? Jennifer inherited the tatty old sofa in her aunt’s apartment in London. She has to fly to England to get it.”

B: “A metsiya!”

Does the second of these metsiyas sound any different from the first? Not necessarily. It might if the first is genuinely enthusiastic and the second dry and deadpan — but then again it might not: Metsiya 1 could be stated matter-of-factly enough to sound sarcastic, and Metsiya 2 could be colored by feigned enthusiasm. If there’s no danger of confusion in this particular case, it’s only because an apartment is obviously worth flying to England for and an old sofa isn’t. But how about the following:

A: “I just bought three packages of frozen drumsticks in the supermarket and was given a fourth for nothing.”

B: “A metsiya!”

In this case, you would have to have some idea of how B felt about supermarkets, frozen drumsticks and shopping specials in order to know whether metsiya was sarcastic or not. You might even think it was and say something nasty when it wasn’t. That could cause a hullabaloo indeed.

Just to confuse things more, although there is a tractate of the Gemara, the talmudic commentary on the Mishna, that is called Bava Metsiya and is all about metsiyas, this happens to be pure coincidence.

In fact, if you’ve ever studied any Gemara, Bava Metsiya is very likely what you studied, since it’s traditionally the tractate that new students are started on. Perhaps this is because it discusses many homey, everyday situations, such as what to do with lost-and-found objects. Its opening debate concerns a mishnaic text that begins:

If two men are holding a cloak, one saying “I found it” and the other saying “I found it,” or one saying “It’s all mine” and the other saying “It’s all mine,” let the first person swear that he owns at least half and the second person swear that he owns at least half and let them divide it.

You’ll have to read on to find out why the cloak should be divided when one of the men is obviously lying. Here I can only tell you that while the Mishna is written in Hebrew, the Gemara is largely in Aramaic, in which Bava Metsiya means “The Middle Gate” (from Aramaic bav, “gate,” and metsiya, “middle”), a name given it because it is the second part of the corpus of Nezikin or “Torts.” The part before it is called Bava Kama or “The First Gate,” and the part after it, Bava Batra or “The Last Gate.”

Moreover, the first chapter of the tractate of Bava Metsiya, the one beginning with the cloak, is known as Sh’nayim Okhazin, because it starts with the Hebrew words for “If two men are holding.” And the next chapter is called Elu Metsi’ot, or Elu Metsiyas in its Eastern-European pronunciation, meaning “Which are the things that are found,” because it starts with the Mishna’s question: “Which are the things that are found that must be declared [so that the loser of them may have a chance to claim them]?”

Thus it is that Chapter Two of Bava Metsiya is Elu Metsiyas. And yet despite all the metsiyas in Bava Metsiya, the two words are entirely unrelated. If that’s what the hullabaloo was about, I hope this settles it.

Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • 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."
  • 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.