Q&A: What does “Havah” in “Havah Nagilah” mean?


Havah means “Let us”; nagilah is a rather old-fashioned and literary way of saying “we shall rejoice”—together, they mean “Let us rejoice.”

Like most native Hebrew words, both date back to biblical times. In the King James translation, havah is rendered “Go to, let us”, as in Gen. 11:4, 7:

ויאמרו הבה נבנה-לנו עיר, ומגדל וראשו בשמים, ונעשה-לנו, שם: פן-נפוץ, על-פני כל-הארץ… ויאמר יהוה … הבה, נרדה, ונבלה שם, שפתם–אשר לא ישמעו, איש שפת רעהו

In SimHebrew:

[viamru hbh nbnh-lnu yir, umgdl vrawo bwmim, vnywh-lnu, wm: pn-npux, yl-pni cl-harx… viamr ihvh … hbh, nrdh, vnblh wm, wptm–awr la iwmyu, aiw wpt ryhu]


vayomru, Havah nivneh-lanu ir, umigdal verosho bashamayim—vena’aseh lanu shem; pen-nafutz al-pnei khol-haaretz […] vayomer Adonai […] Havah, nerdah, venavlah sham sfatam—asher lo yishma’u ish sfat rééhu. 

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.[…] And the Lord said, […] Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’ speech

The verb root is יהב [ihb]—meaning give, or put—and appears a few other times in the Hebrew Bible, e.g. II Sam. 11:16:

וַיִּכְתֹּב בַּסֵּפֶר לֵאמֹר: הָבוּ אֶת־אוּרִיָּה אֶל־מוּל פְּנֵי הַמִּלְחָמָה הַחֲזָקָה וְשַׁבְתֶּם מֵאַחֲרָיו וְנִכָּה וָמֵת

[victb bspr lamr: hbu at aurih al-mul pni hmlkmh hkzqh, vwbtm makriv, vnch vmt]

vayikhtov basefer lemor: havu at Uriah el-mul pnei hamilḥamah haḥazaqah, veshavtem méa hhorav, vanikah, vamet

—which, in the KJV, is rendered “Set ye”:

And he wrote in the letter, saying, Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die.

As you can see, it appears almost invariably in the imperative form—where it isn’t, it’s because of Aramaic influences, during or after the Babylonian exile, e.g. Daniel 2:33:

אַנְתְּ מַלְכָּא מֶלֶךְ מַלְכַיָּא דִּי אֱלָהּ שְׁמַיָּא מַלְכוּתָא חִסְנָא וְתָקְפָּא וִיקָרָא יְהַב-לָךְ

[ant mlca mlç mlcia di alh wmia mlcuta ksna vtqpa viqra ihb–lç]

Anta malka melekh malkhaya di elah, shmaya malkhuta ḥisna vetaqpa viqara yehav-lakh

Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory.

So there you, er, hava it.


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