By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 6, 2009

To shteig is yeshivah-speak for learning Torah. You might point admiringly to a friend immersed in study and say, Look at him, shteiging away, mamash shtark [truly devotedly], in his corner as usual.

Shteig is Yiddish, derived from the German meaning to rise or ascend. It comes to refer to studying Torah as this is the main Jewish path to spiritual ascent. One could say, Just remember, youre shteiging with every moment of learning.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (1908-84) points out an anomaly in this use of shteig, which seems to be pervade Yiddish. Rabbi Hutner notes that the talmudic rabbis, wherever possible, applied different words to the domains of the holy and the secular, even when the word ostensibly means the same. (He gives the example of the two words, haramah and hagbaah, which both mean to raise up: the former refers to spiritual elevation, the latter to the physical acquisition of something.)

We, he writes meaning Yiddish-speakers have no such distinction. Shteig means to rise in both areas. In a secular sense, it means to accumulate wealth and possessions; in the realm of spirituality, it is to grow in wisdom. The applications are very different but its the same word.

It seems to be characteristic of Yiddish in general that the holy and profane meet in its expressions,evoking the Jewish world of Eastern Europe, where the spiritual and the everyday were so intertwined.

Last updated: 12:31pm, March 6 2009