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You Wicked Son of a Wicked Man!

One can’t help but be tickled by the spectacle of the Satmar Hasidim tearing themselves apart these days in the battle between two brothers, Aaron and Zalman Teitelbaum, to inherit the title of grand rebbe from their father, the late Moses Teitelbaum. The Satmars, said to be the world’s largest Hasidic community, have a long and vile record of hatred for the State of Israel that any antisemite would be proud to call his own. It was with some satisfaction, therefore, that one read in an article about the Satmar wars of succession, in the May 8 issue of New York Magazine, that old Rabbi Moses, shortly before his death, called Aaron to his face, “Rushe ben rushe” — which, while translated in the article as “You evil person,” literally means “You wicked son of a wicked man!”

That the late rebbe, in his attitude toward Israel, was a wicked man indeed is beyond doubt. But did he really mean to call himself that? Or was he perhaps implying that Aaron, having rebelled against his father’s decision to appoint Zalman his heir, was not his biological offspring?

Alas, as delicious as either of these possibilities is to contemplate, neither of them is correct. The article’s translation is fairly accurate. Rushe ben rushe (or, as many Yiddish speakers would pronounce it, roshe ben roshe, from the Hebrew rasha, “wicked”) might best be rendered as “You very wicked man,” with the “son of” construction acting not as a statement of paternity but as an intensifier.

In classical Hebrew, this is good idiomatic usage. Rah.manim b’nei rah.manim, “the compassionate sons of compassionate men,” the rabbis call the Jewish people, meaning “a most compassionate people” — and there are other, similar combinations. One sometimes finds this in modern Hebrew, too. “You donkey son of a donkey, you dog son of a dog, you damned son of a damned father,” a character in Hayim Hazaz’s novel “Thou That Dwellest in the Gardens” says to someone at whom he is angry. Jews may descend matrilineally, but they always have sworn at each other patrilineally, which is why the Yiddish expression for “cussing someone out”” is to give it to him in zayn tatns tatn arayn, “in his father’s father.”

“You think I’m already kaleching?” Rabbi Moses was also quoted by New York magazine as having said to Aaron on the same occasion. (In Yiddish, presumably, this was “Du maynst az ikh kalekh shoyn?”) “Kaleching,” we are told by the article, means “mentally declining,” although I suppose that “senile” would be a bit more colloquial.

The Yiddish verb kalekhn is not, to the best of my knowledge, a common one in most circles. In fact, it’s not in the dictionaries or the thesauri at all. Where does it come from?

On the whole, when it comes to Yiddish etymologies there are three possibilities: Either a word has a Germanic derivation, a Slavic one or a Hebrew one. German in this case seems definitely out. There just aren’t any likely candidates. Yiddish kalekh, meaning “lime,” comes from German Kalk, but what does lime have to do with senility?

With Slavic, we do a bit better. There is a Slavic verb — kaleczyc in Polish, kalitset in Ukrainian — that means to cripple or disable. This verb gives us the Ukrainian noun kalika, “a cripple,” which has the same meaning in Yiddish. “Disabled” and “mentally declining” don’t seem too far apart. Can this be the source of kalekhn?

It’s not very likely. Apart from the fact that the Slavic verb is transitive and kalekhn is not, there is no phonetic reason that the Slavic “k” should have turned into a Yiddish “kh.” I can’t think of other Slavic words with which this happens.

That leaves Hebrew, which has only one word with the combination of consonants k-l-kh. This is the infrequently found rabbinic kalekh, a verb that exists in only one form — that of the second person, singular imperative, in which it has the meaning of “Quit it!” or “Get on with you!” That doesn’t sound as if it would give us kalekhn, either.

But hang on. Consider this passage from the talmudic tractate of Yebamot, which deals with levirate marriage, the biblical practice of marrying the widow of one’s deceased brother. In Chapter 4 of Yebamot we read: “He [the surviving brother] is given good advice, so that if he is a boy and she [the widow] is an old woman, or he is an old man and she is a young girl, he is told: ‘What do you want with a child? What do you want with an old woman? Get on with you [kalekh] to your own kind and don’t create for yourself a household full of trouble.’”

Can kalekhn derive from this passage, in which the elderly are advised that they are no longer fit company for the young and should be put out to pasture by themselves? This seems to me quite possible. It’s precisely the sort of rabbinic text from which words might enter the Yiddish of Hasidic or yeshiva-oriented communities without spreading much further. Anyway you look at it, it’s an odd word, though hardly any odder than the Satmars themselves.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].


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