Translatable but Debatable – להיטיב l'heyteev

by Mark L. Levinson

Long before we Israelis were promised a great boost to our economic well-being from offshore natural gas, and even before we were promised that the Oslo process would bring us a “peace dividend” thanks to plummeting defense expenditures, the Begin government promised that after decades of buying bread by the half-loaf, the citizenry would be allowed by the government to enjoy life a little more.  The government promised to reduce taxes and display an actively magnanimous attitude toward the people; and the phrase used was להיטיב עם העם l’heyteev eem ha’am.

The three-volume Alcalay dictionary translates l’heyteev as “do good, ameliorate, improve, better, trim (a lamp), amend, make cheerful, adjust.”  As a non-native speaker of Hebrew, I would have been inclined to say להטיב l’hateev, which sounds more ordinary.  Alcalay includes that version too, translating it as “to do good, to better, improve.” 

Is there a difference between l’heyteev and l’hateev?  Maybe someone who knows will take the time to explain it in the comment space at the bottom of the page here.  According to the old paperback dictionary by Ben-Yehuda and Weinstein, l’heyteev is “do good, improve” whereas l’hateev is “improve soil (field).” 

It’s a solid enough distinction, but I didn’t find it supported by other dictionaries.  And at the Shironet website, the lyrics of Yechiel Mohar’s “Hora Heachzut” say —

יודע חקלאי פיקח
והוא הנחיל זאת לצבא
שאת הזן יש לשבח
ולהיטיב בהרכבה.

which sings of agriculture but uses l’heyteev (albeit for produce rather than for soil).  Israel’s new music hero Netta sings l’heeteev, but I think she’s just lucky that Yechiel Mohar is deceased and can’t defend his vowels the way Shimrit Orr did when Eden Ben Zaken sang a wrong vowel in “Hallelujah” this year.

For Begin’s supply-side economic policies, which made then-luxury items such as TV sets more affordable, I find various translations on the web.  Science educator Haim Harari says “to make good to the people,” but I’m afraid that doesn’t say the right thing.  Begin did intend, in a sense, to “make good” on the government’s obligation to the people by paying them back for their steadfastness through the lean years, but l’heyteev isn’t about recompense, it’s about — let’s look at another dictionary.  Dov Ben Abba (Signet) says “do good, improve, do a favor, benefit.”  And indeed an article by Shlomo Fraenkel in Matzpen mentions “Begin's wish ‘to benefit the people.’”  If there’s anything wrong with “benefit,” it’s the drawing of attention to the thing itself rather than to the friendly bestowal of it.  L’hateev carries a rather abstract concept of causing the situation to be more positive.  It’s closely related to a word in the Fifth Commandment (or Fourth, depending on your religion).  As King James translates it, “Honour thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee.”  King James might have reported that the Begin administration promised to “make it go well” with the people.

Avram Schweitzer writes in Israel, The Changing National Agenda that “Menachem Begin coined the slogan, ‘To do well by the people.’”  David Dery, in Data and Policy Change: The Fragility of Data in the Policy Context, translates the phrase as “doing good for the people.”  But neither phrase captures the important connotation of bread and circuses — as opposed to, for example, doing the government’s job well for the people by improving law enforcement or foreign relations.

Marcelo Dascal, in Interpretation and Understanding, seems to offer a particularly daring translation. He writes:

The expression “to let the people enjoy”, coined by Mr. Begin, was often used by Aridor, and is generally associated with his personality and with his economic policy.

This all happened in the dream time before there was a World Wide Web.  Dascal is actually quoting a Maariv article by Yosef Lapid, and the online archive of Maariv is missing that day’s paper, so I can’t prove that “to let the people enjoy” is a translation of l’hateev eem ha’am, but I don’t find that Begin and Aridor were known for saying a closer Hebrew equivalent of “let the people enjoy.”

If I were going to translate as freely as that, I’d say “Give the people a break.”  Or the reference could be to “obliging” the people.  I think “pleasing” the people would be too blatant a term.

Of course l’heyteev also applies to many contexts that have nothing to do with governance. finds places where it can be translated simply as “be kind,” or vividly as “sweeten.” (In order to survive, organisms “sweeten” the environment they live in.)

Further ideas regarding l’heyteev  (and l’hateev, and the difference) are welcome in the space below.  If you’d like to suggest a different word or phrase for discussion, please write to me at  An index of words and phrases discussed so far is here.