Assur vs. forbidden

I like to notice and speculate upon the ways in which language reflects culture.

In Hebrew, it’s a fairly common phrase to say something is “forbidden” (assur), even when you’re not speaking in a religious context. In fact, I hear it for all kinds of small actions. The other day I heard a parent at gan telling a child: “It’s assur to stand in the doorway [letting all the cold air and rain in].” I started thinking about how I would express that idea to Rafi in English, and the first thing that came to mind was, “Don’t stand in the doorway, it lets the rain in,” followed by the closer but still not 100% exact translation, “You’re not allowed to stand in the doorway.” I would NEVER use the word forbidden in that context; it’s much too strong.

Of course Hebrew has a word that means “allow” (marsheh), and I hear it all the time. However, in Hebrew, the word marsheh has a very narrow usage: I don’t allow you to do something, or Mom doesn’t allow. It’s is never used as a blanket statement of general principles, and I’ve never heard it in the passive voice as “allowed.” (As a side note, the opposite of assur is mutar, permitted, which I don’t hear that often. It’s a polite word, the equivalent of “May I please go the bathroom?” vs. “Can I go to the bathroom?”)

In English you say “allowed” all the time because the word “forbidden” is a serious, heavy word. You wouldn’t use it for little everyday actions. Why is “forbidden” so heavy in English and so commonplace in Hebrew? I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that English is by and large a Christian language (especially when it comes to Latinate words), and the only things that are actually forbidden in Christianity are serious things like adultery and murder. In Judaism, on the other hand, all kinds of things are forbidden, from eating without saying a blessing to turning on the light on Shabbat, and those actions don’t have the moral weight of serious sins. So the word assur is a commonplace word that people say to their children every day to describe social norms and behaviors.

Now you know how I keep my brain busy on a rainy Shabbat during endless games of Chutes and Ladders.

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2 thoughts on “Assur vs. forbidden

  1. i would translate the sentence–as “you shouldn’t stand in the doorway”. I don’t think there’s a good Hebrew translation for “shouldn’t” in that sense.

    • I didn’t think of that one, and it’s a good way to put it in English. “Should” could be a strong word or a soft word depending on how conscientious you are, haha.

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