As is true of every close-knit cultural group that enjoys a history, traditions and habits particular and peculiar to it, conversations among Chabad Chasidim are typically peppered with terms that have meanings particular and peculiar to it.
For the eavesdropper, this sometimes results in a comical rendering of the conversation, leaving him or her mistaken or altogether clueless.
Tracing the Chasidic terms to its origins in early periods and places, we look at how the word evolved in the course of the travels and travails of the Jewish diaspora, to its current usage, opening a window to the rich lingo and cultural nuances of Chabad Chasidim.
Homonyms are a translator’s nightmare.
Because a homonym has multiple meanings (whether those meanings are similar or quite different), it is almost impossible to find a consistently perfect translation. The word the translator settles on will be an accurate translation in only certain contexts. Take the word ‘lie, for example. If the translator tells his friend that “sheker is the Hebrew word for lie,” he will be correct when describing an untruth. But hilarity (or mortification) will unfold if the friend then tries to use sheker to say that he is tired and will go lie down.
Homonyms’ resistance to translation hurts us all. Many fantastic puns are forever trapped in just one language. The insightful relationship between a word’s different meanings is lost (a glass in English describes not just a cup but also its material; a kos in Hebrew describes just a cup). Most tragically, it presents challenges to an English-language column dedicated to exploring Hebrew and Yiddish words.
But this column on the Hebrew word chiyut, phonetically pronounced in popular usage chayut, (chayus in Yiddish) presents no such challenges. This is because the subtly different meanings of the Hebrew word are also carried by the word’s English equivalent: energy.
On the one hand, energy is a word that belongs to the physicists. It is a technical term that describes capacity, whether it is potential, kinetic, thermal, electrical, chemical, or nuclear. When you hear the word “energy” in the laboratory, the conversation is more likely to be about heat transfer than how many hours of sleep the person got last night.
Moving along the technical-to-vernacular spectrum, “energy” is also used as a loose term to describe the things that power our homes, like gas and electricity. We have energy companies and energy bills and renewable energies and energy crises.
Finally, we arrive at “energy” in its most common usage: spirit, vigor, liveliness. A person is energetic, or has no energy, or will lie down (not in the sheker sense) and be energized. Like the home that glows with lights and hums with electricity thanks to its energy supply, our bodies grow animated and invigorated in line with our energy levels. In this context, “energy” is an unscientific and inexact term that nonetheless describes something quite specific: how alive we are.
Chayut is a cognate of the word chai. Chai is to be alive, to live. A chayah is a living creature. Chayut is the stuff of being alive. And like the word energy, it has technical and vernacular usages.
In Chasidic literature, chayut describes G-d’s “effluence” and “efflux” and “emanation” and other such words that should be locked away in the Prison for Pretentious Persons. In simpler language, chayut is the energy that G-d supplies our universe so that it can keep existing. A curiosity of the created world is that it is not self-sustaining; it requires a 24/7 pipeline of energy from G-d to continue functioning. We know that our planet is a living, breathing thing (think: Mother Earth). Chasidut teaches that what is keeping this living, breathing thing going is chayut.
If we venture a little further into the abstract, we stumble across the awesome scene that Ezekiel witnessed: chayot, living beings, dashing back and forth like lightning! The complete meaning of that vision is well beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say that the Chasidic twist on that verse (“life itself is a process of going back and forth”) links the Biblical use of the chai cognate to the other meanings we are discussing here.
Back to the present day, we are standing in a Chasidic yeshivah in Brooklyn where we overhear snatches of the conversations swirling around the raucous study hall. “Yankel, I’m sorry, I have no chayut,” says one bespectacled student who looks a little worse for wear. We hear another fellow say earnestly to his study partner, “Trust me, Berel is a great guy. Always full of chayut.” Before we turn to leave, we think we hear, “I love the chayut of this yeshivah.”
They are all using chayut in the way that it is used by most people today. Chayut in this sense (and I may as well dive into a thesaurus here) means a combination of verve, liveliness, spirit, enthusiasm, vigor. Pour all those words into a pot, stir on high until you get chayut, a useful new addition to your vocabulary that is ready to be used immediately in everyday conversation with your local Chasid.