Translatable but Debatable - Nidbakh

Encouraging eleventh-graders to enroll for an educational trip to Poland, a Hebrew letter quoted in Wiktionary says that the trip will surely add an important נדבך (nidbakh) to them personally as citizens of the sovereign state of Israel.

The word nidbakh goes back to the Book of Ezra, where King James translates it as “row”:  “Let the house be builded, the place where they offered sacrifices, and let the foundations thereof be strongly laid; the height thereof threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof threescore cubits; with three rows of great stones, and a row of new timber...”

In everyday street Hebrew, a row of stones or timber would be a shura, like a row of anything else, but nidbakh is still used as a special and handsome word for a constituent row of stones, timber, bricks, ice, or whatever else you're making your walls from.

It's a word that can be pluralized either way:  nidbakhim or nidbakhot.

Nidbakh is also a family name, and one of the second generation of amoraim was Ashiyan Bar Nidbakh.

The word derives from Aramaic — the dictionary mentions Akkadian as well — and as far as I know, it came down to us as the only word in its family.  No other traditional Hebrew words seem to share the same root.  However, quotes poet Uri Zvi Greenberg using the root in a reflexive verb:

מהרוגי מלכות ללא ספור מתנדבך ועולה מגדל הגויות העברי

“From innumerable martyrs, the tower of Hebrew peoplehood rises as it mitnadbekh.”  The dictionary interprets mitnadbekh as to mount up tier by tier.

In English too, there’s a handsome word for a row or tier of stones in a wall; it’s called a “course.”

But the usage that can complicate a translation is the figurative one, as in the trip to Poland.  You couldn’t say that the trip adds a course to the students’ self-image as Israelis, or adds a row.  As a metaphor there, a tier might barely pass and a layer (which is also listed in dictionaries for nidbakh) might pass more easily although the image of a person acquiring layers might invoke unwanted connotations of protection or concealment where what’s meant is enhancement.

Departing from literal translations, it might come more naturally in English to say that a trip to Poland adds a “dimension” to the student's identity.  Or simply that the identity is “reinforced,” but a nidbakh likely involves new content whereas reinforcement doesn’t necessarily.  Completely reversing the metaphor, you could say that the trip adds depth, or a layer of depth, while literally a new nidbakh would normally add height.

Thanks to Perry Zamek for raising the word as a topic.  I certainly haven’t covered all its aspects, so please feel free to use the space below to add a nidbakh to the discussion.  But if there’s another word you’d like discussed, please write to me at and we’ll see about giving it a page of its own.

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.