This being the week of Rosh Hashana, I took advantage of the occasion to ask the Israeli scholar Shmuel Gelbart, an expert on Jewish custom and Yiddish usage, a question that has been bothering me. Why is Yiddish the only language in the world whose speakers make a practice of wishing each other a good year every day of the year?
Just think of it. A Yiddish speaker gets up in the morning, goes out into the street, and sees an acquaintance. “ Gut morgn ,” he greets him — “Good morning.” What does the acquaintance answer? He could of course say “ Gut morgn ” in return, but the more traditional response is “ Gut yor ” — “Good year.”
Now let’s skip to the close of day. Our speaker runs into his acquaintance again. “ A gutn ovnt ,” he says to him — “Good evening.” What does the acquaintance answer? This time too it’s “ Gut yor .”
It’s too late for “Good morning” and too early for “Good evening,” and so the greeting is the middle-of-the-day “ A gutn tog ” — “Good day”? No problem: The correct answer is again “ Gut yor .”
The week is over. The Sabbath has arrived. Our two men meet after morning services in the synagogue. “ Gut Shabbes ,” one says to the other — “A good Sabbath.” The second man has several options for responding. One is “ Gut yor .”
Saturday night comes around. The Sabbath is over. “ Gut vokh ,” says our Jew to his friend — “A good week.” Now our friend has no choice. He must say “ Gut yor .”
The days go by. It’s Rosh Chodesh, the start of the new Hebrew month. “ A gutn khoydesh, ” says one of our friends — “A good month.” The other answers “ Gut yor .”
We’re up to Passover. Our couple meets again. “ Gut yuntif ,” one tells the other — “A good holiday.” Can the other answer “ Gut yor ” to this also? He certainly can.
“How do you explain it?” I asked Gelbart. “Where does it come from? It’s not from Hebrew, in which the only time you ever wish anyone a ‘ shana tova ,’ ‘A good year,’ is around Rosh Hashana time. It’s not from German, because you don’t say ‘ Gutes neues jahr ’ to anyone in Berlin in the middle of July. And it’s not from Slavic languages either. You don’t wish someone in Polish a ‘ dobrego rok ’ on Easter.”
Gelbart thought for a moment and said: “I can’t give you an authoritative answer offhand, but I can give you a probable one. I agree that the usage is indigenous to Yiddish. My hunch is that it goes back to a rabbinic maxim that whoever receives a greeting should respond with a greater one — ‘ yachpil et ha-bracha ’ is the way it’s put in Hebrew, ‘should double the blessing.’ Well, if someone wishes you a good morning, you can’t very well answer, ‘Have two good mornings,’ nor can you wish anyone two good weeks if they wish you only one. And if you were to say, ‘Have a good decade’ or ‘Have a good century,’ you might be suspected of hyperbole. ‘Have a good year’ is a good all-purpose answer that more than doubles any greeting you might receive.”
As an impromptu explanation, this strikes me as a good one. Indeed, although Hebrew has nothing in its repertoire like the “ gut yor ” response, it does have a habit of responding to certain greetings by upping the ante, as it were. Thus, the stock response to Hebrew “ Shabbat shalom ” or “Good Sabbath” is “ Shabbat shalom u’mevorach ,” “A good Sabbath and [may you be] blessed”; when a glass is raised with a toast of “ l’chaim ,” “To life,” the standard reply is “ l’chaim u’le-shalom ,” “To life and to peace”; and when you wish someone a “ shana tova ” or a “good new year,” it is common to answer with, “ Le-shana tova tikatevu ve’techatemu ,” “May you be written down and inscribed for a good year.” Even in daily Israeli usage, if you dial someone’s telephone and say to them “ Shalom ,” you will frequently be answered, “ Shalom u’veracha ” — “Shalom and a blessing.”
Responding with “ gut yor ” to “ gut morgn ” or “ a gutn ovnt ” would seem to fit the same pattern. Indeed you can’t go wrong in Yiddish with “ gut yor ,” even if you’re God — who, in a poem of Abraham Lesen’s, when greeted by the poet, “Good morning, Creator,” replies, “A good year, Avremele!”
I had one last question for Gelbart. “What do you answer in Yiddish,” I asked, “when it is Rosh Hashana and somebody wishes you ‘ a gut yor ’? Can you say ‘ a gut yor ’ to this too? Or is this the one time you can’t, since by answering ‘ a gut yor ’ to ‘ a gut yor ’ you are failing to respond to a greeting with a greater one?”
Gelbart needed two seconds to think about it. “If it is Rosh Hashana,” he said, “you answer ‘ a gut un gebentsht yor ’” — “A good and blessed year.”
A gut un gebentsht yor to you all!
Questions for Philologos can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.