by Jordan Finkin

It’s that time of year again: “Páskhe” (Easter). Or as some wag once called it, “kéysekh” (that is, “krístlekher péysekh”, or in other words, Christian Passover). And if you’re anything like me, a sucker for furry wee critters, your thoughts will turn to bunnies. Yiddish has several words for lagomorphs. One word for rabbit is the common Slavic-derived “królik” or “krúlik.” If one wanted to derive bunny from this, it would be a “królikl.” In a related vein, a rabbit warren would be a “krolikárnye,” and a rabbit hole would be a “króliklókh.” (In a literary vein, “Ális iz gefáln in a króliklókh”—Alice fell down a rabbit hole.)

Another word for rabbit, though less common, also comes from the Slavic: “záyets.” Its bunny equivalent would be “záytshik.” More common, however, would be the Germanic-derived “kínigl.” This, of course, should not be confused with the word “kínig,” which means king and has a completely different etymology. While I suppose the word “kínigl” could refer to a small king, I believe we are far more likely to encounter it as meaning rabbit. Ultimately it is related to Latin “cuniculus,” whence English gets its word “coney.” From the same root, German derives its “Kaninchen” as well as one dialectal variant “Karnickel,” which itself stems from an earlier form “Kanickel.” Yiddish’s “kínigl” seems to have followed a similar trajectory.

By far the most common Yiddish leporid, however, is the “hoz” (hare). A female hare is a “hézikhe”; a leveret is a “hezl”; and a hare “bunny,” so to speak, would be a “hézele.” Yiddish hares have many of the same idiomatic qualities as their counterparts in other languages: “shpríngen vi a hoz”—to jump like a hare, that is, to be fleet of foot; “tsítern vi a hoz”—to tremble like a hare, that is, to be fearful and squirrely; “bleykh vi a hoz”—to be as pale as a hare, that is, to blanch in fear; “zayn gikh vi a hoz”—to be as quick as a hare; “loyfn vi a hoz barg aróp”—run like a hare downhill, that is, to skedaddle; and finally, in a related sense, simply “vern a hoz”—literally, “to become a hare,” meaning: to vamoose.

The noun on its own also has several different senses. Aside from referring to the mammal itself, the word can mean a stowaway, as on a ship. It can also mean a deserter, in the military sense. (Interestingly, the German “Karnickel” has the idiomatic sense of a scapegoat, which is one meaning the Yiddish does not have.) The word “hoz” is also the name for the game of tag. (Another name for the game is “yógerlekh,” echoing the sense of hunting “yogn”.) A “mázldiker hoz,” though literally meaning a lucky hare, ironically actually means an unlucky person. And we have the phrase “shisn tsvey hozn mit eyn shos.” Literally this means to kill two hares with one shot. The idiomatic meaning is the same as in English, except English substitutes a bird for the hare and a stone for the bullet.

Speaking of hunting, there is one final idiomatic resonance of the hare that is particularly relevant at this time of year. A little background: When Passover falls on a Saturday night, the Sabbath has to be concluded before the festival can begin. To do so, the following prayers are to be said in the following order: Yayin, Kiddush, Ner, Havdalah, Zeman. Given Rabbinic Judaism’s penchant for acronyms, in the appropriate place in the Haggadah one will therefore sometimes encounter the following formula: YKNHZ, usually pronounced “yáknehoz” or “yáknehaz.” It turns out that at that spot in some medieval German manuscript Haggadot (including the 15th-century First Cincinnati Haggadah at Cincinnati’s own Klau Library), we find images of a hare hunt. Why? Because “yáknehaz” sounds rather like “jag’ den Has’” (or whatever precisely the medieval Judeo-German equivalent would have been) meaning “hunt the hare.” It is a visual pun, an interlinguistic mnemonic device, and a crowning achievement of Yiddish cultural wordplay. But once a word exists, Yiddish can’t help tinkering. The word “yáknehoz” can mean poppycock or something fanciful, presumably because of the flight of fancy it takes to go from an order of prayers to a hare hunt. The other meaning of “yáknehoz” is a fool. The derivation of that particular idiomatic sense is rather more obscure, so I won’t belabor the point. But if it helps, one mnemonic for this meaning is that a “yáknehoz” is particularly harebrained.

As always, “léyent gezúnterhéyt”—read it in good health.

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