Translatable but Debatable – ספר עיון ויום עיון sefer iyun and yom iyun

by Mark L. Levinson

Although he sent all his three sons to Harvard, apparently my Grandpa Levinson never quite learned to read silently.  He didn’t pronounce the words; he read far too fast for that.  Grandma complained, though, that as he read he hummed. 

An early sense of the Hebrew word עיון (iyun), according to the Even Shoshan dictionary, is “silent reading.”  The Even Shoshan dictionary finds that sense appearing in Ibn Gvirol’s תיקון מידות הנפש (Tikun midot hanefesh, “Improvement of the Moral Qualities”).  But usually these days — and no less reasonably, being an inflection of the word for “eye” — iyun bears meanings associated with looking matters over.  Sivan and Levenston’s multi-volume Galil dictionary lists “reading, perusing; study, meditation, consideration; careful weighing, balancing.”  Additional translations from my dictionaries of forty or fifty years ago include “deliberation,” “theorizing,” “meditation,” “reflection,” “speculation,” and “inspection” (from Alcalay); and “contemplation” (from M.H. Segal’s Dvir dictionary).  On line, Babylon says “Scrutinizing, perusing, reference, browse; consideration, speculation” and Morfix says “Study; consideration; nonfiction.”

Babylon with its “reference” and Morfix with its “nonfiction” are obviously thinking of the phrase ספר עיון (sefer iyun), which refers to a category of books with no neat definition in English.  If you look up sefer iyun in Wikipedia and click for the corresponding page in English, you find that it’s “nonfiction.”  But you don’t find that it’s a translation of the same article.  I think every sefer iyun is nonfiction, but not every book of nonfiction is a sefer iyun.  And not every sefer iyun is what we’d usually call a reference book — a book that you generally consult for a couple of minutes at a time rather than reading sequentially for hours.

Wikipedia in Hebrew explains that a sefer iyun is used for in-depth learning or research purposes and is based on thorough professional labor, generally on collection and evaluation of research.  It could be a book of theory, personal experience, close observation, philosophy, or biography.  An encyclopedia, or professional literature, or a coursebook.  With a detailed index.  But it can be addressed either to academe or to the general public. shows one instance where the sefer iyun is a coffee-table book and another where it is simply an “essay.”

The Even Shoshan dictionary defines the sefer iyun from the reader’s point of view.  It explains in Hebrew that such books cover topics that demand concentration: philosophy, science, etc.  Making a try at conciseness, Alcalay says in English “books of study, philosophical literature.”  Sivan & Levenston say “books requiring study; reference books.” 

I’d say “scholarly books” is a fairly close translation, but I think that if you check the shelves of iyun at the library or bookstore, you’ll find that the bar isn’t quite as high as the strictest definitions set it.

Another phrase that English seems unable to mirror exactly is יום עיון (yom iyun), several hours of sessions you attend in order to broaden your knowledge or understanding in a particular field.  Morfix defines it as “seminar, day of study on a specified topic.”  But although yom means “day,” Even Shoshan points out (in Hebrew) that even part of a day is enough for a yom iyun if it’s devoted to study and hishtalmut regarding a specific topic or profession — thus raising the additional question of how to say hishtalmut in English.  “Supplementary learning” or “enrichment” or something.

Yaacov Levy’s Oxford dictionary says a yom iyun is a “study day, seminar.”  But both “study day” and “seminar” could be misleading. 

Is sitting at lectures “study”?  Even if it is, activities at a yom iyun can include yet less demanding sessions, depending on the topic and the participants.  There could be demonstrations, simulations, exhibits, or even dramatizations, role-playing, and films.  Learning but without studying very hard, and often without being tested in any way.  But if there is some rather specific skill or knowledge you’re supposed to emerge with, the yom iyun could also be called a “one-day course” or “half-day course” as appropriate.

A seminar, says Wikipedia, “has the function of bringing together small groups for recurring meetings, focusing each time on some particular subject, in which everyone present is requested to participate,” but that definition doesn’t fit everything that’s casually called a seminar.  A yom iyun is often announced as a seminar if it doesn’t fit a more specific definition (such as a conference, symposium, colloquium). 

A term that sounds reasonable to me is “educational day.”  It doesn’t seem to have much currency, but it is used by a fifty-year-old multinational company that caters to 140,000 participants a year from two dozen offices around the world.  The company calls itself by the openly Hebrew name The Kenes Group.

If you have an additional translation for sefer iyun or yom iyun, or a comment or correction related to those terms, by all means use the comment space below.   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.