The word mazel is a fabulous word that has been used vehr vais (who knows) how long! Mazel means luck, or good fortune – and mazel tov means good luck or, more commonly, congratulations.
Interestingly, mazel is not just for Jews any more. It has become a universal expression. But that must have happened in recent times, because when someone said “mazel tov” in the presence of the late Jackie Kennedy (wife of the late President Kennedy), her response was a shrug of the shoulders. If she had spoken Yiddish, she would have uttered, “Voss meint ess – what does that mean?” But the matter never got that far, so to speak.
“Zoll zine miht mazel” – it should be with mazel” is an interesting but incomplete wish. What should be said is “Zoll zine miht AH GUTEH mazel – it should be with GOOD mazel, or Zoll zine miht mazel and GLICK – it should be with mazel and good fortune. Glick, too, is an interesting word, because it can have two meanings. If you went fishing and netted a beautiful trout, you would utter “What a fish: ah glick!” If, instead of a fish, you caught a fahrshimilt (rotten) shoe, you would utter, “Ah glick hawt mihr getrofehn – I had some luck!” Like many other Yiddish words, the meaning is conveyed by the tone of your voice and by your facial expression.
Many moons ago there was a choral group called the Ravens (not to be confused with the football team). They sang various songs, and their harmonious version of the tune was interesting. You can google the tune (The Ravens:“You Gotta Have a Little Mazel.” It has some catchy lines, and one of the stanzas mentions someone who had a relative who was a millionaire. The relative was a shlepper who had as much knowledge about finance as a malpeh (monkey)! However, he had one important asset: He had MAZEL! What else?!
Incidentally, Baltimore’s baseball team, the Orioles at times has good mazel, until the end of the baseball season when they often take a nosedive, so to speak. Nu, maybe their mazel will change!
Shlomazel means without luck, but the word shlomazel can also mean clumsy behavior. Case in point: Although there was a severe storm, which included a barrage of hail, Heinrich (Henry) Zimmelstein decided to drive his car to the local shopping center. Pieces of ice were on the ground. While driving, he noticed a car in front of his vehicle. Instead of driving a car-length or two behind the other car, he remained close to the car ahead. The front vehicle suddenly came to a halt, and Heinrich rammed into it. That he was a true shlomazel became apparent when it was revealed that the other vehicle was a police car! Next, Heinrich got out of his car and began shouting at the officer. Of course, his goose was cooked, so to speak, and telling it to the judge only damaged his case. His bad mazel was self-inflicted.
Another example of a shlomazel is the case of Cindy Haimish, who decided to apply for a job at the Vunder Tepple Factory. She entered the building and waited for a chance to present her credentials to Ben Fehrfel, the manager of the plant. While waiting, she could not control her smoking addiction, so she lit up her cigarette and caused a commotion among the others, who protested vehemently. Deciding that smoking was not a good idea, Cindy tossed her cigarette into the trash can. Did it burn? you may ask. Frag nisht – don’t ask! The place lit up, and as a result, the entire Vunder Tepple Factory was teef ihn drerd (deep in the ground) and burned out of business! Cindy had created her own negative mazel.
Indeed, negative mazel is often self-inflicted. For example there was a U.S. president named Richard Milhaus Nixon, who after having fabulous mazel in winning the election, became a carrier of bad mazel due to illegal recordings at a place called Watergate. He resigned rather than face impeachment, and his motto became, “Never look back.” But in fact, he often looked back and gave a loud krechts (sigh). If he had been a Yid, he surely would have exclaimed, “Oy vey!”
Another U.S. president, William Jefferson (Bill) Clinton, was not exactly a behavioral tzadik. He was impeached but apparently had Congress teef in bawd, meaning that he continued his presidency after admitting that he was ah bissel tsumisht (slightly confused). Clinton had mazel. He had many admirers and was even lauded by some of the clergy! Ah broch tsu America (woe to America). Regarding his wife Hillary, time will tell whether she has mazel or is a shlomazel.
A Torah reference to mazel can be found in the story of Joseph. Although Joseph had big-time tsoress (troubles) – such as being kidnapped by his brothers at a young age and sold to foreigners and ending up a slave – he managed to overcome the tsoress when he became a macher (big shot) in Egypt. His mazel – like that of most folks – changed directions, meaning that, ah mawl ahroff (sometimes up) and ah mawl ahropp (sometimes down).
Joseph was jailed because of a false charge by the wife of his new boss. Did Joseph surrender to fate? you may ask. He could have muttered, “Genug iz genug – enough is enough!” and become a permanent jail bird. However, this was not the personality of Joseph, whose natural tendency was to make the best of every situation. Ihn kurtzen (in summary), Joseph eventually became the second most important macher in Egypt. Was his elevation to such an important position due to having good mazel? Perhaps. But without personal effort and without the will of the Ribono Shel Olom (G-d), his life story could have been very different. The moral of the story is that, if we want to aim for good mazel, we need to work for it. Ah mohl gayt ess (sometimes, things move along) und ah mohl shtayt ess (and sometimes things freeze).
Of course, there are instances when we are under the impression that something that occured is an omen of bad mazel, while in reality it turns out to be good. For example, Berl Feivish missed his flight to Pumpedisa. Nu, thought he, I’m a real shlomazel! He returned home, turned on the radio, and heard that the flight to Pumpedisa was interrupted by a severe lightning storm, and the plane had to land in Mahlagana, located in aleh giteh yohr (in the boondocks), so to speak. He then realized that what appeared to be fahrzetsteh (terrible) mazel was actually good mazel! You often read of such occurences in Jewish newspapers, with persons kvelling about the miracle of missing a flight.
Then there are the occasional happenings in life that are just the opposite – doss hayst (that means) that, instead of a good omen, they are fahrzetst (bad). A typical example is that of Mendel Smith, who made a “killing” on purchasing a house. He believed that it was a terrific mehtseeuh (bargain), and was in such a rush to buy the property that he neglected to have it fully inspected.
One evening, a storm that shook the premises. Before you could utter “Ashrei…” it began raining cats and dogs, so to speak! Mendel began to sing a tune, which went, “Don’t let the rain come down; my roof’s got a hole in it and I might drown.” (Anyone remember that one?) However, ess hawn nit gehawlfun (it did not help), because water was entering the house fuhn ahleh ziten (on all sides). Mendel called his cousin Yussel Zitser and lamented, “Oy hobb ich mazel – Oh, do I have luck!” and he blamed the rain for his terrible mazel. Had he checked the house carefully prior to purchase, good mazel would have been his lot.
There are several Yiddish leeder (songs) with the word mazel. Here are a few:
1) “Siman Tov Umazel Tov” is for happy occasions. It is sometimes sung in shul after the announcement of a wedding or birth. It is quite popular with yeshiva circles as they dance around the chassan and kallah (groom and bride).
2) “Vee Nemt Mehn Ahbisseleh Mazel?” This song asks, where and how do you get some mazel? It is the lament of a shlomazel who believes that he or she needs some mazel for things to improve.
3) “Dos Radle Fuhn Mazel” expresses the hope of getting some good mazel. The song considers mazel to be like the winning number on a spinning wheel of fortune. Hint: Keep spinning.
4) "Mazel Di Shinst Ah Mohl Fahr Yedemen” poses the question, since everyone gets lucky now and then, why not me? This song appears to be that of a shlomazel. Most likely, it originated in Europe, where good mazel was a rare commodity.
Mazel is like a seesaw. Gedenkst (remember) how that worked? One side went up, and the other side went down. When it went down, you had to give a gezunter (healthy) shove to move it back up. So it is with life: When things are down, it is important to work on getting back up.
Wishing all a shana tova with ah gezunter und a guhter mazel (a healthy and good mazel)!