Translatable but Debatable – לזכות lizkot

by Mark L. Levinson

Following the massacre at the Pulse club in Orlando, Ben Hartman remarked in The Jerusalem Post that “gun ownership in Israel still remains a privilege – not a right as in the United States.”  (At least that’s what it said in the printed paper.  On the website, I find that it says “not a right like in the United States,” but that’s a topic for a different column.) 

The United States is very big on rights, having founded itself on the axiom that people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” and so those who want something from the US government tend to define it as a right if they possibly can.  The right to education, the right to medical care, reproductive rights.  The Right of Return.  The World Health Organization says that all couples and individuals have the basic right “to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health.”  But whereas freedom of speech and freedom of religion are natural rights because they’re ours unless someone goes the trouble of taking them away from us, education and medical care aren’t ours unless someone goes to the trouble of giving them to us.  How can everyone have the right to “the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health” unless enough people are willing to be doctors and enough others can train and pay them?  Even then, you could chase “the highest standard” for a long time without getting close.  Universal care at the highest standard is more like an impossible dream than like a natural human right.

Privileges are called rights even in everyday English.  The film rights to a book, the logging rights on a tract of land, the right of first refusal as a contractor are all privileges rather than natural rights.

The labelling of privileges as rights is very much at home in Hebrew too, perhaps less because Israelis love the idea of rights than because as egalitarians they shun the idea of privilege.  The word privilegia in Hebrew does not have an egalitarian connotation.  In English, if you Google for “everybody’s privilege” you get well over a thousand hits.  In Hebrew, almost none.  Besides privilegia, the dictionaries translate “privilege” as זכות יתר (zchut yeter) or זכות מיוחדת  (zchut meyukhedet), terms that also court resentment, as they literally mean “excess right” and “special right.”

But Alcalay and other Hebrew-to-English dictionaries are perfectly willing to allow that זכות (zchut) by itself can mean either “right” or “privilege.”  Or “prerogative.”  It’s up to the context and the translator.

As of this month, it has been my privilege to write on the Elephant website for ten years.  In Hebrew, for “it has been my privilege” I would say זכיתי (zachiti), from the same root as the zchut word mentioned above.  But the verb zachiti also means “I won.”  It has a connotation of enjoying good fortune granted, like a privilege, by a governing power.  Indeed, implicitly, by a divine power.

A news item mentions that before dying of cancer, Shmulik Rada, the father of murder victim Tair Rada, זכה – zacha, was privileged — to see a synagogue dedicated in her memory.  In English we could say simply that he lived to see it, but the element of providence would be missing.  We could say “it was given to him” to see it, but the Biblical sound of that phrase may (or may not) be weightier than the original writer intended.  Somewhere at the edge of agnostic territory we could say “he had the chance” to see it. provides “lived to see” and “was around to see” but is dominated by “got to see.”  The last two aren’t exactly elegant English, and “got” in particular is a good word to avoid when possible because it means everything and nothing.

I’d be happy to read other suggestions, or other remarks regarding zacha in the sense of “was granted the good fortune, by whatever gods may be” in the space below.  If you’d like to bring up an unrelated topic for discussion on these pages, you’re welcome to write me at .


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.