Translating the Hebrew להבדיל (l'havdil, lehavdil) into English

“Close to 20,000 people took part in a special prayer service at the Western Wall yesterday, asking for Heavenly mercies during these difficult times for Israel,” reports a news article from ten years ago, although last week or last year or last century would not have been inappropriate.  The headline is “Beseeching the Heavens and (l’havdil) the Politicians.”

I don’t find many dictionary definitions of להבדיל.  Dov Ben Abba’s dictionary in Signet paperback says “not to be mentioned together,” which makes sense — or at least reasonable partial sense, since whenever we say להבדיל we are indeed mentioning things together, while simultaneously we point out that they are not to be compared except in the narrow sense that we intend.  For example, singers like Joan Sutherland and Joan Jett, l’havdil. The Jewish Virtual Library says that the expression is used “to contrast, as a form of modesty, something great to something far less significant.”

It’s difficult to translate להבדיל into an English expression that’s similarly succinct and offhand.  Morfix goes for “But different!” and I suppose that would work in some contexts.  A fellow self-identified only as Fred responds to a description of a charming bright red Vespa by saying “l’havdil, reminds me of those fancy brightly colored walkers at the old age home in AZ where my parents are.”  I think that’s a case of “But different!” although it seems that some English speakers also use להבדיל at the beginning of a sentence as though it meant להיפך.

If I understand correctly, the expression goes back to the havdalah ceremony and the distinction “between sacred and secular, light and darkness, Israel and other peoples, the seventh day and the six days of labor.”  One website, laying claim to its intellectual property, remarks that “It is forbidden according to Torah Law to copy or use recordings without permission in all cases, and (l'havdil) is forbidden according to international copyright.”  Another website quotes the example “Did ... great rabbinic thinkers of the 1800s ... comment on American slavery and/or the Civil War? (As Dostoevsky did, lehavdil?) These writers seem to use the term reflexively when sacred and secular, or Israel and other peoples, come together, without necessarily belittling the latter.  There is even an opinion that it’s improper in any circumstances to separate two Jews with l’havdil.

But at other times the distancing seems emotional or even superstitious.  A charity soliciting a contribution may say “Here is a special way to wish someone ‘Mazal Tov’ or, lehavdil, express your condolences,” or a yeshiva may say “A special and unique way to commemorate a Yarhzeit or l'havdil, a simcha is through dedicating a day of learning.”  (Note that the sequence can be either happy-thing-l’havdil-sad or sad-thing-l’havdil-happy.)  In this spirit, I find in my three-volume Alcalay dictionary the surprising translation of l’havdil as “Save the mark!”  You may remember it from Shakespeare:  “I saw the wound, I saw it with mine eyes (God save the mark!) upon his manly breast” — an “ejaculated prayer to avert the ill omen of an observation” as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable interprets it. But as the phrase has aged out of common use, it has turned into an “ejaculation of derision and contempt” if used at all.  Brewer quotes Joseph Chamberlain on “The policy of this government, which calls itself (God save the mark!) an English government …”

To translate a להבדיל that means “leaving aside the obvious differences,” we can use the Latin mutatis mutandis, but to many readers that will be seem no less peculiar than “God save the mark!”

Do you have a good translation for להבדיל that means “different though they may otherwise be” without taking too much space?  Please comment below.  (You don’t need to sign up for anything.)  Or if you’d like to suggest another word for discussion, please write to 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.