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“Oy Vey!” And Other Common Yiddish Expressions You Should Know

written by: Keren Perles • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/11/2012

Wondering how many Yiddish phrases you actually know? Even native English speakers may find this list of common Yiddish expressions mind-boggling, as they may surprise themselves by recognizing several of the expressions.

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    Oy Vey (Iz Mir)

    The phrase “oy vey” is probably one of the most common Yiddish expressions known today. Its meaning is probably most similar to the English “Oh no!” and it expresses despair or complaint. “Oy vey is mir” translates as “Oh woe is me,” and is simply an expansion of the expression.

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    Mazel tov!

    The greeting “mazel tov” is parallel to the English greeting “congratulations!” It literally means “good luck,” and is commonly used to greet people who have just had a child, become engaged, or gotten married.

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    Gesundheit

    Literally meaning “in good health,” the common Yiddish expression “gesundheit” is said after somebody sneezes.

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    Sholem Alayḥem

    The word “sholom” famously has three meanings in Hebrew: “hello,” “goodbye,” and “peace.” The Yiddish word “sholem” carries the same denotations. Therefore, the phrase “sholem alayem” can literally mean “peace to you” or “hello to you.” It is usually used as a formal greeting, especially upon meeting a close friend.

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    Yasher Koaḥ

    Although the literal translation of “yasher koaḥ” is “straight strength,” the expression is usually used to express respect and recognition to someone who has accomplished something. For example, you might say “yashar koaḥ” to someone who has just explained a difficult idea or to someone who has just won an award. The words may mean something like “May your strength go straight onward,” or something similar.

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    Yiddisher Kop

    Someone who has a “yiddisher kop” has a good head, or is smart. It often refers to someone who just understood something that he was not supposed to understand.

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    Gut Shabbes

    Practicing Jews refer to Saturday as “Shabbes,” which means “Sabbath.” The Torah explains that from Friday night through Saturday night, Jews should avoid certain constructive acts. Jews who pass each other in the street on Friday night or Saturday often greet each other with the expression “Gut Shabbes,” which literally means “Good Sabbath.”

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    Biz Hundert un Tzfunsik

    The expression “biz hundert un tzfunsik” means “until a hundred and twenty.” In the Jewish tradition, a hundred and twenty is the optimal number of years for a person to live. Moses, for example, lived until exactly 120, and he stayed healthy in mind and body until the day of his death. Therefore, many Yiddish-speaking Jews will end their ages with this common Yiddish expression: “I am seventy-six years old, biz hundert un tzfunsik.”

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