In honor of Tu B’Av, Israel’s holiday of love, which this year falls on the night of August 18, following are some thoughts about the differences between how my native and adopted tongues speak of “the holiness of the heart’s affections” (John Keats, 1795-1821).
In Hebrew “love” is also a 4-lettered word. Indeed, if you go to the Israel Museum’s sculpture garden, you can see a Hebrew version (1977) of Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE design (1964). The two words, however, have a completely different feel because in Hebrew “love” is three syllables and comes out: a-ha-va.
I have nothing against ahava, but I must say that I am partial to love. If I write a note to someone in my family, even if I am writing in Hebrew, I will always sign off with “Love.” I typically want my short notes to my family to express my love without being too heavy-handed, and for my (native English) sensibilities, “love” does that much better than the tri-syllabled ahava. Actually, if I wanted to sign off a note with the Hebrew word for “love,” correct Hebrew usage would force me to add yet another syllable, and write down the four-syllabled word “be-a-ha-vah (“with love”). What ever happened to love being simple?
To round out this survey of Hebrew’s syllabic love woes, I should mention that when you “make love” in Hebrew, you do it in six, rather than in two syllables: “la-a-sot a-ha-va.” The expression in Hebrew seems to make the whole process much more physically challenging.
If ahava the noun leaves something to be desired, ahava the verb has some distinct advantages over its English equivalent. Hebrew’s use of the self-reflexive, provides a wonderful alternative to falling in love—a phrase that can be criticized for not adequately describing the process of what happens (typically, no one does any actual falling). In Hebrew, when you speak of falling in love, you use the self-reflexive “le-hit-a-hev,” so that if, for example, you say that a man “hitahev” with a particular woman, you are saying that the man was filled with love which was then directed toward the woman. It seems to me that this is a much more accurate description (if perhaps less romantic) of what goes on when we are in love: Another person may be the object of one’s love, but the emotion of love begins within you and then gets expressed outwardly.
Ultimately, I think that The Beatles were right when they said “All you need is love.” The most important thing is to fill one’s life, and the lives of those you love, be-a-ha-va.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.