Against any misfortune—may it not come

I was recently asked: What is something about your language that you’ve never noticed until a foreign learner pointed it out?

I recalled that only the night before, my good friend Bob Macdonald, who has undertaken a mammoth task of making a musically-oriented English translation of the Hebrew Bible, asked me why in the Hebrew, Zephaniah (2:2) says:

 בטרם לדת חוק, כמוץ עבר יום; בטרם לא-יבוא עליכם, חרון אף-יהוה

(Beterem ledet ḥoq, kamotz avar yom; beterem lo-yavo aleikhem ḥaron af-Adonai)

which literally reads, ‘before God’s wrath doesn’t come down on you

when he clearly meant ‘before God’s wrath comes down on you

The reason, I explained to him, is that Jewish fear of the ‘evil eye’ is so deeply rooted in the culture, that to keep it at bay, one never speaks about a future adversity as coming, but only as ‘not-coming’. Thus the common Hebrew expression:

על כל צרה שלא תבוא

(al kol tzarah shelo tavo)

which means ‘as a safety precaution’, or ‘just in case—you never know’, literally says: ‘against any misfortune—may it not come’…

This is so ingrained, that native Hebrew and Yiddish speakers use this negative form of speech without noticing it. So next time you hear Murphy’s Law

If anything can go wrong—it will.

remember Goldberg’s Corollary:

If anything can go wrong—God forbid—it won’t.


2 thoughts on “Against any misfortune—may it not come

  1. I guess a question I have here is whether the double negative is common in other semitic languages, so that the Hebrew and Yiddish default to this double negative might be explained linguistically (i.e., structurally or historically) rather than as a folk custom.


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