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Mr. Right or Just 'The Guy'? Hebrew's Quandary Over Its Marriage Vocabulary

The Linguistic Tango: Seeking Sassy, Suitable Substitutes for the Traditional Term for 'Husband' in Hebrew

We often hear from our female students asking if there's an alternative to the word 'בעל' (husband). We understand that there are those who feel uncomfortable using it since its meaning also encompasses the owner of a store, not just a husband in the sense of a woman's partner. Therefore, we've decided to conduct a brief review of the alternatives.

Sometimes a question arises regarding the use of the Hebrew word 'בעל' to refer to a man's status in a marriage. The connection between 'בעל' and concepts of ownership and sexual relations may make some uncomfortable, and there are those calling for the Academy of the Hebrew Language to campaign against the use of this term, to ban it, or to "substitute" it.

Let's get one thing straight: we're not here to make moral judgments about which term is best when there are several synonyms available from different periods and in different styles. However, in response to students' questions about 'בעל,' we can clarify what's happening in the language. After all, language is, first and foremost, agreed upon by its speakers. So, it's you, the speakers, who need to make the final call. Whatever meaning becomes attached to a certain word in our times, will become accepted. Just like how the English language evolved to include politically correct terms, it’s the speakers who decide what's hot and what's not.

David Ben-Gurion also didn't really like the use of the word 'בעל'

For those not wanting to use 'בעל', Hebrew offers a variety of alternatives. Here are a few we've dug up from our linguistic treasure trove:

  1. One well-known option comes from the prophet Hosea: "On that day, says the Lord, you will call me 'My husband,' and no longer 'My Ba'al'" (Hosea 2:18). Anybody can adopt this prophetic pronouncement, as David Ben-Gurion suggested for official state documents. Since many modern Hebrew speakers aren't strict about pronunciation, a man might not easily introduce himself as 'Ishah' (her man), but we can say 'האיש שלה' (her guy). This is a biblical alternative to 'בעל.'

  2. The term 'רעיה' is found in the Song of Songs, though it doesn't necessarily refer to a married woman there. Nevertheless, it is commonly used in Modern Hebrew ('Ra’ayat HaSar,' the minister's wife, etc.). In the Song of Songs, there is also a male counterpart to 'רעיה', which is 'רע'. While 'רע' is used in literary Hebrew to mean friend or comrade, since it's not commonly used in spoken Hebrew, there's no reason it can't primarily refer to a marital relationship.

  3. Another term for a wife in biblical language is 'חברה' as stated in Malachi: "But she is your companion, and the wife of your covenant" (Malachi 2:14). Once upon a time, the words 'חבר' and 'חברה' were used for a couple, whether married or not. Nowadays, though, these words are used to mean boyfriend and girlfriend, so they're not an easy substitute for husband and wife.

  4. From the aforementioned verse in Malachi, we can suggest the phrases 'איש ברית' (covenant man) and 'אשת ברית' (covenant woman).

  5. From the language of the Talmud, we have 'בן זוג' and from medieval times, 'בת זוג'. These terms are already in use by some speakers who don't want to use 'בעל'. These terms even appear in legal language and on ID cards, referring to married couples.

  6. In Rabbinic language (influenced by Aramaic), we find that each person in a couple is called "זוג": the man is the "זוג" of the woman, and the woman is the "זוג" of the man. This term is similar to "spouse" in English, and you suggest that people who dislike the term "בעל" (husband/owner) could use this alternative. You also mention that "זוגה" has already been incorporated into Hebrew, specifically referring to a wife, and there's no reason why "זוג" couldn't also be used.

Lastly, you emphasize that language is shaped by its speakers, and while there is room for innovation, there's also much to draw from existing resources in the language. Regardless of the word chosen to denote the relationship between a married man and his wife, its meaning will eventually be clear through common usage.

In summary, you're advocating for a thoughtful approach to language use and development, taking into consideration both tradition and the need for language to evolve and reflect societal values. However, if the Hebrew-speaking public continues to use the word 'בעל', you question whether this could reflect underlying non-egalitarian views of marriage.

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