Saba and savta

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, February 18, 2010

Grandpa and grandma, zeidy and bubby, opa and oma — grandparents have many names among Jews. In Hebrew, they are called saba and savta.

Leviticus (19:32) tells us, “You shall rise before sevah”. Sevah means aged or gray. Abraham was blessed to pass away b’sevah tovah­, “at a ripe old age” (Genesis 15:15).

In the Talmud sav and saba mean simply an old person. Genesis Rabbah (74) has Rachel speaking of her father, Laban, as saba. The same section of the Midrash calls Jacob, “Yisrael Saba”, Old Man Israel. In Kabbalah, Yisrael Saba is the name for the part of the sphere of wisdom (hochmah) that we can access. Just as Jacob had to make great spiritual strides to become Yisrael, we all can strive to reach the level of understanding of Yisrael Saba.

Jacob is the only biblical figure we see acting as a grandfather, blessing his grandchildren. Naomi is the only biblical grandmother, caring for Ruth’s son.

Rather than saba and savta, Ben Yehuda preferred the terms zaken and zekena (old man and old woman).

Last updated: 3:03pm, February 18 2010