Skip To Content

Oy, gevalt!

William Lasser writes from the political science department of Clemson University to ask where the expression “Oy, gevalt!” comes from.

This is a reasonable question, because the literal meaning of the Yiddish word gevalt (or gevald, as it is sometimes spelled) does not explain the expression. “Oy, gevalt!” (or just plain “Gevalt!”) has the sense of “Oh, my God!” or “Good grief!” as uttered when something unfortunate has happened — when you have just discovered, say, that you have locked your car keys in the car, or when your dinner partner has spilled wine all over you. Yet the word gevalt in itself means “force” or “violence”; to do something mit gevalt is to do it violently. What does the one thing have to do with the other?

Another Yiddish expression with gevalt in it provides a clue. This is shrayen gevalt, “to scream gevalt,” which means to call for help, although it can also have the semi-humorous sense of English’s “to scream bloody murder.” (Gey shray gevalt, “Go scream gevalt,” is the Yiddish equivalent of “Tell it to the judge” or “Go do something about it.”) And indeed, just as “bloody murder” is a phrase that originally had nothing comic about it, so the exclamation “Gevalt! once had in Yiddish — and sometimes still has — a darker tonality. When uttered in a tone of genuine alarm, “Gevalt!” is, like “Help!” in English, a cry for rescue in serious situations, as when you are being attacked, your house is on fire, you are in danger of drowning, etc.

Gevalt!” in the sense of “Good grief!” derives, then, from “Gevalt!” in the sense of “Help, I’m in trouble!” But why should gevalt in the latter sense come from a word meaning force or violence?

The answer, I suspect, lies in the biblical phrase lits’ok (“to cry”) or likro (“to call”) h.amas, of which shrayen gevalt is the exact Yiddish translation. The Hebrew word h.amas (any resemblance to the terrorist organization of that name is purely serendipitous) means “violence,” just like gevalt, and it occurs many times in the Bible, as in the verse in Genesis describing the age before the Flood in which va-timalei ha-aretz h.amas, “the earth filled with violence.” Yet other biblical passages suggest that the word h.amas was also a call for help when confronted with violence or lawbreaking, as in Jeremiah’s Hamas ve-shod ekra (“I call out ‘Robbery!’ and ‘Violence!’”) or Job’s “Hen ets’ak h.amas ve-lo e’aneh (“Lo, I cry ‘Violence!’ and am not answered.”). The early 20th-century Yiddish Bible translation of Yehoash, the pen name of the poet Solomon Bloomgarten, rendered the latter verse as “Ot shray ikh gevalt un ver nit geentfert.”

Since Yehoash’s translation is a modern one, however, we can’t automatically assume that shrayen gevalt was traditionally the way European Jews translated the biblical lits’ok h.amas. Martin Luther’s 16th-century German translation of the same verse from Job doesn’t use the German word Gewald at all; rather, Luther uses Frevel, as in “Siehe, ob ich schon schreie ueber Frevel, so werde ich doch nicht erhoert.” In addition, what is noteworthy about this is that unlike Yehoash, Luther did not interpret “to cry h.amas” as meaning to shout the word “Violence!” but rather to complain about (ueber) the existence of violence — an understanding that is also reflected not only in the English King James Version, which translates the line as, “Behold, I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard,” but also in the second-century C.E. Aramaic translation of Onkelos that was studied by Jews regularly. How do we know, then, that this is not the way that East-European Jews, too, once understood Job’s words and that Yehoash was not applying a Yiddish idiom originally unconnected to the words?

We don’t for sure, but this does raise an interesting question. Although no complete Yiddish translation of the Bible ever was produced in Eastern Europe, there was both a printed Yiddish translation of the Five Books of Moses, known as the taytsh-khumesh, and an oral tradition of translating or “taytsh-ing” the entire Bible into Yiddish as an aid to studying its Hebrew text. Was this oral translation a standardized one used by rabbis and melamdim everywhere, or was it improvised by each teacher as he went along? I asked this question of David Roskies, a professor of Yiddish and Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and my answer was that standardization was indeed the rule. The oral tradition of taytsh-ing was “inviolate,” he wrote me, “and was passed down in Ashkenaz from time immemorial.” Moreover, Yehoash himself, Roskies observed, made much use of this tradition and “walked a fine line” between it and “modern Yiddish aesthetics.”

It is highly probable, then, that Yehoash chose shrayen gevalt because it was indeed the traditional taytsh-translation of lits’ok h.amas and that this old Yiddish expression originated as a calque of the biblical idiom. “H.amas!” shouted a biblical shepherd as he saw a thief make off with a sheep. “Gevalt!” cried a Jew in the shtetl when a stronger Jew grabbed him by the beard. “Oy, gevalt!” said William Lasser as his car door slammed shut with the keys inside. It’s all part of one long, nearly 3,000-year-old chain of meaning.

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

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.