Translatable But Debatable - לוותר¨ (l'vater)

Rudy Gireyev has written in asking for some discussion of the verb לוותר.  How could I pass that up? — איך אוותר?

לוותר covers a broad spectrum of meaning, and Even-Shoshan’s Hebrew dictionary provides two Talmudic examples.  One involves charitably leaving out of account something that might have been included — הקב"ה ויתר לשראל על עבודה זרה meaning that the Holy One waved away the sin of idol worship (in order to concentrate on a more dangerous sin).  The other involves charitably including something that might have been excluded נוותר לו עוד יום אחד או שני ימים meaning we will allow him an extra day or two.  In both cases, the decision is to refrain from insisting about something that can be viewed as extra — יתר, or מיותר, or in a fancier word something that’s a ותרה.

You might even think avatar could be related, since an avatar is an extra presence in addition to fundamental existence, but that seems to be a stretch.  Merriam-Webster derives avatar from the Sanskrit for a descent.

Alcalay’s big Hebrew-to-English dictionary says that לוותר is to “give up, give way, surrender, withdraw, yield, concede, cede, relinquish, forgo, waive, indulge; increase, extend,” to “renounce” a nationality, “not to stand on” one’s dignity, or to “abdicate” a throne.  That covers most of what I find in other dictionaries, but the pocket Ben Yehuda adds “forgive” and the New Galil dictionary adds “desist” and “give in.”

By the way, the New Galil dictionary also lists “forego,” which is a bad choice.  Traditionally to “forego” is to go before, while to “forgo,” without the E, is to do without.

The “increase, extend” meaning goes with the second Talmudic example — allowing a little extra — and in the Talmud it’s transitive whereas the other meaning, the only one used commonly today, is intransitive.  We don’t say that ויתרנו something, we say that ויתרנו על something or ויתרנו ל somebody or simply ויתרנו.

Back in 1974 at the national song festival, Michal Tal sang a song called לא אוותר.  Today our establishment is not so assertive as to feature a song like that at the national song festival — or even, for that matter, to hold a national song festival.  But notice that the lyrics, by Avi Koren, first say “”אבל על מימי הכנרת לעולם לא אהיה מוותרת and then repeat לא, לא אוותר.  In English, unfortunately, it wouldn’t be so easy because these words don’t mean quite the same with and without the object.  Giving something up is not exactly the same as giving up.  Conceding something is not exactly the same as conceding.  Yielding something is not exactly the same as yielding.  Without the object, the meaning for those verbs is more extreme.

The other day I walked into the post office, I took a number, and I found there were forty people ahead of me.  So… ויתרתי.  I suppose “desist,” from the New Galil dictionary, would be appropriate there, but it’s not exactly an everyday word.  Colloquially, you might say “I passed.”  Or “I gave up,” “I gave it up,” or “I gave up on it.”  The first seems to emphasize your hopeless feeling, the last seems more to blame the impossible situation, and I suppose the one in the middle is in the middle.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to say about לוותר.  Please feel free to add comments in the space below.  You don’t need to identify yourself.  No salesman will call.  Just please don’t go off-topic.  If there’s a different word you’d like to see discussed, please write me at and your idea will not be used without credit.

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.