Leshon Ima, The Mother Tongue, with Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
Even though summer is here and the flu season is hopefully behind us, sneezing and coughing are probably here to stay.
In many cultures around the world, sneezing is perceived as either a symptom of illness or a deed of the devil. Therefore, it is customary to wish one well after sneezing in order to avert the evil eye.
In the American culture, for example, the correct social etiquette is to say “Bless you” or “Gesundheit” after one sneezes.
Saying God bless you after a sneeze originated in the sixth century C.E. to protect one from the ills of sneezing, perceived to be a symptom of the Bubonic plague.
The German gesundheit, which means health or wholeness, entered American culture in the the 20th century, influenced by German immigration to the United States.
In Jewish culture, the custom of saying a blessing for protection from the ills of sneezing goes as far back as the Second Temple era and possibly even earlier.
In those days, the word to avert the ills of sneezing and assure good health was marpeh, meaning healing or soothing (B’rachot 53:1).
Later, in the eighth century, we find that it was customary after sneezing to bless one with chayim, meaning life (Pirke de R. Elazar 52).
In the days in which Aramaic influenced the Hebrew language, the word assuta, meaning health, was the expression of politeness after a sneeze.
Today, Assuta is the name of a hospital in Tel Aviv. The modern way of wishing one health after sneezing is either labriut, to the health, or livriut, to health, as in the Yiddish tzu gesunt.
The word b’riut, health, is a post-biblical word derived from the verb lehavri, meaning to become healthy (Shabbat 19:5) and refers to b’riut haguf, physical health; b’riut hanefesh, mental health; and b’riut hasekhel, healthy intellect.
In the Bible, the adjective bari appears 14 times, and although derived from the same root, it means fat (Gen. 41:2; Judges 3:17).
Later, influenced by Aramaic, we find the noun bori (Yerushalmi Nida 49:2) and the adverb bari (Baba Kama 118), used not only to mean health but also certainty, clarity, truthfulness and completeness.
Phrases such as heemid davar al booryo, meaning he made the matter certain and clear (Gitin 89); and bari li, meaning certainly, it is clear to me (Hulin 2), are two examples.
And so, to reiterate the words al booryam, to say it clearly, it is fascinating that already in the days of old, the Hebrew mind viewed b’riut holistically.
From this perspective true b’riut is the combined health of body, soul and intellect. I wish all our readers nefesh b’riah beguf bari, complete health.
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida.