Translatable but Debatable – השתלשלות hishtalshelut

by Mark L. Levinson

A couple of weeks ago the news from Los Angeles “highlighted the shortcomings of the increasingly common semi-autonomous systems that let cars drive themselves in limited conditions” when a Tesla Model S hit a stopped fire truck at 100 kph.  The welcome fact that no one was hurt may only have added to the public curiosity over how the crash happened.  What was the השתלשלות (hishtalshelut)?

From the Morfix and Babylon online dictionaries, we can learn that the hishtalshelut of something is its evolution, progression, development (of a situation, event), chain of events, or sequence.  Some of those terms in English are fine for a more lengthy happening, like the development of an ideology or the progression of a relationship, but I’m not sure there’s room for them in a startling incident that may have taken a couple of seconds maximum.  It seems that a car travelling in front of the Tesla moved out of the way, the Tesla assumed the stationary fire truck was not an object of safety interest (since most stationary objects you see as you travel are not) and therefore it didn’t stop automatically.  Is that a chain of events?  Not much of a chain.  Is it a sequence?  I suppose you could call it a sequence, but a sequence of what?

The hashtalshelut of the word hishtalshelut apparently stretches back to the Bible.  Moses is told של־נעליך מעל רגליך, “put off thy shoes from off thy feet,” and Deuteronomy says  כי ישל זיתך, “for thine olive shall cast his fruit.”  The word’s half-size version, shal, has to do with letting something down.

Marcus Jastrow's Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli, Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature already shows a well-developed family of meanings for the double שלשל root, based on the idea of hanging down, letting down, falling, and descending.  A line of descent — a lineage, a family tree — is of course a shalshelet. 

While the English words for a sequence tended to imply upward progress (evolution, progression), here in Hebrew we have a downward tumbling or a lowering by chain, rope, or cable.  Unforgettably, HaGashash HaHiver sang shilshalti asimon, “I dropped a token into the telephone,” and the repetitiousness of the word seems to embody the click-clack of the token falling through the phone’s interior — although we no less legitimately use the same verb for inserting a letter into the mailbox or even a twenty-shekel note into a vending machine (where we don’t know whether it goes down, up, or sideways).

Obviously it is no great leap to the phenomenon of shilshul, diarrhea, although some of the more modern dictionaries prefer to separate that meaning out into an independent entry.

When I was a youngster in the sixties, one fashionable way of asking what happened was “what went down.”  The citations at provide a few other modern English expressions.  In the Law & Order TV series, one of the characters, asking for a recapitulation of what happened, says “Take us through it, Kelly.”  When renegade Romulans from the future appear in the TV series Fringe, they are accused of being “here to change the timeline.” 

The Ngram Viewer at Google provides a timeline for the word “timeline.”  It starts out as two words at the end of the 19th century, a one-word version appears around 1970, and in 1995, although the two-word version is still gaining in popularity, the one-word version rushes past it to rapidly become more than three times a popular.

The thing about time is that it can be short or long.  I think that even the collision of a Tesla with a fire truck could be thought of in terms of a timeline.  Or maybe you have another good way, or a better way, of translating hishtalshelut in that context?  Feel free to use the comment space below for anything closely related to the שלשל family of words.  If there’s an unrelated word or phrase you’d like to see discussed, please write to me at .  An index of words and phrases discussed so far is here.

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.