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Hebrew is Magic: A Slave to Our Past

Dear friends,

Pesach is upon us, and as you may know, it’s the holiday of fours: four names, four cups of wine, four children, four questions.

In that same spirit, we’re going to examine four words from the Haggadah and discover how they make our lives more meaningful.


Jewish holidays and biblical language are notorious for using words that didn’t make it into modern Hebrew, but the other day I overheard a familiar word that did.

Bedi’avad (בדיעבד) is the everyday Hebrew word for “hindsight”.

Take a close look at the word, particularly the last part. Do you see another word you recognize, straight out of the Haggadah?

Indeed, those final three letters, ayin-bet-dalet, form the word  עבד (eved), which means slave.

It’s also the shoresh (root) of numerous words related to the idea of work, everything from a 9-5 job to worshiping God.

What does this have to do with “hindsight”?

Although it can be painful to admit, Hebrew knows that as Jews, we are slaves to our past simply by existing and surviving one enemy after another. Coping with an irreversible, and often tragic history has a way of enslaving us to it.

But even so, reflecting in retrospect enables us to prevent undesirable parts of history from repeating themselves. In this way, looking in hindsight and confronting our history is also the very thing that helps us free ourselves from it.


Of course many of our  traditions are worth repeating. The fourth question at the Seder asks why we recline at the table instead of sitting regularly.

At least, that’s how the question is typically translated.

But as it turns out, mesubin (מסובין) is Hebrew for “sitting around the table”

based on the shoresh samech-bet-bet (סבב).

At first glance, this three-letter root might not look so familiar, but it appears in all things that turn or turn around, including a toy from another favorite holiday, the sevivon (dreidel).

In other words, what the child is actually asking in question number four is, “On all other nights we sit at the table wherever and however we want, but on this night we sit around the table, facing one another.”

This word makes another appearance on Passover when we sing the song “Betzet Yisrael.”

Ha-Yarden tisov l’achor

The song describes how the Jordan River turned backward as it paved a path for us to cross into Israel!

The takeaway?

Sometimes making positive changes in life demands that we turn our back on something else in order to pave the path forward.


As we move forward with the Seder, we reach the “sandwich stage” korech (כורך). Similarly, the shoresh kaf-resh-chaf (כרכ)

gets packed into multiple Hebrew words.

This same root appears in kricha (כריכה)

which means “book cover” and can also refer to the act of binding pages or ideas together.

And then there’s karuch (כרוך)

which means “to be contingent upon something else.” So, this year when you reach korech, I invite you to ask yourselves What is real freedom contingent on?


And for the cherry on top, we have the tastiest dessert of all: Matzah! Except that at this stage of the Seder, we call it tzafun (צפון)

where we hide a piece and make our children look for it, aka, the Greek afikomen.

It’s worth asking, Why don’t we just call this “dessert” like the Greeks do?

To answer that, we’ll decode the root – in this case tzadi-peh-nun (צפנ)

In the nature of the root, there is so much meaning to unpack – if you look for it. One pairing of the word is kod tzofen (קוד צופן), which literally means encrypted code.

On a more amorphic level, the word matzpun (מצפון)

is a variation of a code that’s hard to ignore – our conscience. It’s no wonder that the Hebrew word for compass is matzpen (מצפן).

How sweet of a metaphor! Hebrew is telling us that some codes are hard to decipher, but we can find the answers within (or under the sofa).

Whether a moral compass or a literal one, they can both point us north or tzafon (צפון)

and provide us guidance like the North Star.


Who Knows 133?

With 133 hostages still in Gaza, celebrating a holiday that’s symbolic of freedom is paradoxical at best. So to help you bear this burden and remain mindful of why this year is different from all other years, Benji and I created a Passover supplement that integrates what the Jewish people have been enduring for the past six months with traditions that originated thousands of years ago. It includes new takes on the Four Questions, suggestions for ways to keep the hostages in mind at your Seder table, and some relevant Hebrew is Magic. We invite you to incorporate it at the relevant stages of the Seder.

Download Passover Supplement


Sending wishes for a Seder filled with hidden meanings and a chag sameach,


Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian, podcast host, and co-author of Israel 201, winner of the 2023 National Jewish Book Award. You can find out more about his comedy, books, and upcoming tour at, and sign up for his weekly newsletter, Hebrew Is Magic, to learn more about the hidden life lessons in Hebrew words.  

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