A Work in Progress

The next word on our list is עבודה which means ‘work’. Once again we see the influence of early Zionism on the composition of our word list. The word עבודה is much more frequent than the English word WORK. In the early days of the Zionist movement there were battles between different ideological streams. One of the prominent streams was ‘Labour Zionism’, represented by people such as Dov Ber Borochov. Borochov’s thought was all about ‘work’.

Borochov argued that a healthy society is built like a pyramid – at the bottom there is a broad base of workers, above them a smaller group of professionals and above them a still smaller group made up of intellectuals.

As a result of living in exile and being forced off the land, the Jewish people was not healthy. There were very few workers and too many intellectuals. The Jewish people would only be a healthy people when it returned to its land and started working it. For Borochov, the return to Zion was essential step in the return of the Jewish people to normality.

The shape of the ideal Jewish society was the hot subject of the day. It occupied a lot of space in written literature. So the word עבודה shot up in our frequency list.

We can find evidence of this in the poems of H.N Bialik. Consider the following poem:

 — Hayyim Nahman Bialik, “Shir Ha-Avodah ve-ha-Melakhah,” 1932

The word עבודה is still frequently used in many different areas. It is a central idea in Jewish religious thought, where the prohibition against work on the Sabbath day is a key concept. The words עבודה and מלאכה are frequently found together. The word עבודה is more general and encompasses any kind of work, whereas מלאכה is used to describe creative work.

Even in modern usage the word is common. It is hard to open a newspaper without finding an article about ‘work’. Society is changing and world is becoming more globalised. More jobs are being taken over by machines the very concept of work is changing. As the world discusses the shape of that new society the word עבודה will continue to play an important role. Not really that different from the debates of the 19th century!

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

My Hebrew Word thanks the World Zionist Organisation and Masorti Olami for their support of this Project.


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