Translatable but Debatable – There Is No Zero

Translatable but Debatable – אין אפס (There Is No Zero)

Pardon me for quoting at length.  This was a “Passing Phrase,” dated June 2002, at the Jewish Agency’s site:

Ein Efes                אין אפס

Literally:  There is no zero

Idiomatically:  No way, not a chance

Now this is an unusual phrase.  Efes is zero or nothing. As such, the phrase can be used when one wishes to emphasize that there is no state of actual nothing — even what we call nothing is something (get it?).  But the phrase can also be used as its diametric opposite.  I put in a bid on Ebay — there is less than 1 minute to go and it is a sure thing that I will win my 1958 Bobby Richardson baseball card for only $25.  “Are you going to win?” my wife asks (hoping that this is my last bid of the day).  Betach (of course), I answer, Ein efes.  Then I sneeze while someone else puts in a bid.  I quickly rush to bid again but my fingers fumble, the line is slow, and I lose the bid by fifty cents.  Oh well — there is always tomorrow.

A couple of years later on a Ynet forum, the question of what ein efes means came up.  One answer was בליינד = 100%= בטוח שיצליח (that is, “sure to succeed,” “100%,” “with eyes closed”).  Another answer was “’There’s no other possibility, it’s self-evident.’  The expression indicates complete certainty about something and rejects the existence of any other possibility.  ‘The stronger side wins.  Ein efes.’

A similar example was offered by someone else:  “The Israeli all-star soccer team wins every game.  Ein Efes.  They never lose.”

The idea of “no way, not a chance” seems to have tilted toward “no other possibility.”

The people at agree; they say that ein efes means there’s no doubt, it’s obvious, it’s self-evident.

Back on Ynet, a fellow named Yehuda Katz — I wish I could consult him, but half the country is named Yehuda Katz — speculated that the origin of the expression might be כל מספר זוכה, אין אפס (“Every number’s a winner!  There’s no zero!”).  It sounds like something a carnival barker at the wheel of fortune might proclaim.  You pay your money, he spins the wheel, and you always get something even if it’s only a smiley-face keychain.

I asked around and my sister-in-law, a Sabra of a certain age, told me the slogan was used years ago by the Payis lottery.  On the Internet, all I found was a single hit, in which Shlomo Hillel (of all people), serving as Speaker of the Knesset in 1988, refers to the phrase as if it’s familiar.  In the Knesset transcript, he says “I have the honor to call on MK Haim Ramon to present before us the proposal for insurance against vaccination mishaps.  As I said, today every number’s a winner.  Ein efes.”

My guess is that Hillel meant all the bills are passing their readings, or everyone is getting a chance to speak.

Of course if every number’s a winner in the lottery, necessarily some prizes are bigger and some are smaller or the lottery can’t survive.  I get the feeling that ein efes doesn’t mean “no other possibility” as much as it means no zero on a scale of possibilities.  “Maybe more so, maybe less so, but always so to some degree.”

The website of Brit-Am, although largely concerned with identifying the Ten Lost Tribes, also includes this counsel:

Do good and good will come to you.  Do bad and the opposite.  In colloquial Hebrew there is an expression, “Ayn Efes,” literally “There is no Zero”.  Everything has a consequence.

There’s no blank slate.  There’s always something.  It seems there’s always something, for that matter, behind local rumors of wrongdoing; or so writes one Michael Sharon in the Eretz HaZvi forum:  “Of course it may be claimed that at this stage it’s a matter of suspicions, innocence is still to be assumed, etc.  But what can you do when in Israel ein efes; in all these affairs (aside from a few that are based on smears) the “suspicions” and the information the police give the press in the course of the investigation turn out to be only the tip of the iceberg…”

The term ein efes brought me to another contemporary phrase, מרחיקת לחם, a pun that I suppose you could translate “breadcotters” — girls who shun bread for the sake of their figures.  A little glossary of slang gives the example “Believe me, Sigi, this high school is ruled by the breadcotters.  Ein efes.  Take Sandy, from class 12E.  She’s so thin you can see her boobs from the back.”

The skinny girls are in charge and ein efes; maybe you can compete but you can’t reduce their dominance to nothing.

As a translation into English, “There’s no way around it” might often do; but as the context varies, so of course do the translation options.  And if people want to give ein efes the simple meaning of “That’s a fact,” no one can stop them.  There's no Hebrew Slang Academy to hear appeals.

Please feel free to use the space below to continue the discussion.  But if you’d like to start the consideration of a different word or phrase, please write me at instead so that I can give 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.