Language – Cocktails, Constellations, and Congratulations

By Mordechai Schiller

The 2024 national delirium tremens (aka election campaigns) actually began in 2016. Into that volatile atmosphere, a pro-Trump commentator — Scottie Nell Hughes — tossed an explosive comment. A celebrity associated with the Clinton campaign, Hughes said, released a video featuring “a crowd throwing mazel tov cocktails at the police.”

Of course, what Hughes had meant to say was Molotov cocktails. In case you’re not up on your guerrilla warfare, Molotov cocktails are homemade incendiary bombs. The ingredients vary, but at its simplest, the recipe calls for filling a glass bottle with gasoline, stuffing the neck with a rag, then lighting and throwing it. A favorite target has been Russian tanks — from Finland 1939 to Ukraine 2022.

According to National Geographic, the Molotov cocktail’s name comes from the Soviet bombing of Finland in 1939, when “Vyacheslav Mikhaylovich Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, claimed the warplanes were airlifting food to the country, not dropping bombs. Finns responded by dubbing the bombs ‘Molotov’s bread baskets’ and offered to provide drinks — or cocktails — to go with them.”

Not to let a good meshugas go to waste, someone actually came up with a drink called a “mazel tov cocktail.” But I’ll pass. The recipe is a hyperglycemic sugar bomb. I’ll take my liquor straight, thank you.

In his Dictionary of Jewish Usage, Sol Steinmetz (whom William Safire dubbed a “lexicographic supermaven”) defined mazel as “The common Jewish word for ‘fortune, luck,’ from Yiddish mazl and Hebrew mazzal. The word is often used informally in the sense of ‘good luck’ as in such phrases as … ‘It should go with mazel. …’”

The phrase mazel tov! is usually translated as “congratulations” — for glad tidings of good fortune.

“The basic meaning of the word,” Steinmetz wrote, “is ‘a group of stars, a constellation.’ It relates to the influence of the stars or zodiac. And it is believed to control destiny. The word (in plural — mazalos) is only mentioned once in Tanach (Melachim II 23:5) when King Yoshiah ‘got rid of the idolatrous priests … and also those that offered to Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the constellations, and to all the hosts of heaven.’”

Based on its roots in astrology, mazel “came to be associated with a person’s fate, and hence his good or bad fortune.”

The question of the influence of mazel is debated in the Talmud and by later Sages. The Gemara (Moed Kattan 28a) says, “A person’s lifespan, children and livelihood depend on mazel.” However, the Gemara (Shabbos 156a) says, “Ein mazel l’Yisraelmazel has no influence over the destiny of the Jewish people.”

(Any translation of ein mazel l’Yisrael as “Jews have no luck” is a malicious rumor spread by shlemiels and shlimazels — and believed only by nebbishes.)

So what gives? Does mazel influence our lives or not? The answer is, yes. On the other hand, no.

The astrological forces do determine fate. However, Tosafos explains, through great merit, we can override mazel.

A perfect example of overriding mazel is the origin of the Jewish nation. Avraham saw in the stars that he would have no children. G-d told him to step outside and see the stars — He lifted Avraham above the stars, signifying that Avraham’s destiny would rise above the influence of the stars.

The expression mazel tov goes back to ancient times. When Leah’s maidservant Zilpah bore Yaakov a son, “Leah said, ‘Ba gad — Good fortune has come,’ and she named him Gad.” Rashi explains, “Mazel tov — good luck — has come, to me”; citing sources where the word gad refers to luck (Bereishis 30:11).

The Maharam of Mintz (15th century), in his responsa, explains the marriage service. “And after the kiddushin ceremony,” he says, “everybody around them says, ‘Mazel tov!’”

Dr. Ido Noy, a historian of Jewish art, cited another response of the Maharam of Mintz regarding a question of the ownership of an ornate gold wedding ring which had been pawned and never redeemed. The ring had the words “mazel tov engraved on the top of a miniature architectural structure at the top of the ring’s bezel.”

There’s another usage of mazel tov — an ironic “congratulations.” It’s most effectively intoned with a sarcastic edge that cuts to the bone. A dull English counterpart would be, “Oh, great!”

Another usage is actually an ironic twist on negativity. When a waiter drops a tray of glass, you might hear everybody in the room yell, “Mazel tov!”

No, that’s not to razz the waiter. Rabbi Yehuda Shirpin of Chabad in St. Louis, Minn., cites several reasons for this practice — including an expression of gratitude when a decree of Heavenly judgment is carried out on objects rather than on people.

Despite the standard translation, the common usage of mazel tov is not “good luck.” It’s more of a hearty “congratulations.”

Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, raises some subtleties … and some cautions:

“Don’t say mazel tov to someone going into the hospital: say mazel tov when they come out.”

It is OK to “say mazel tov to an Israeli ship captain when he first takes command: this congratulates him on his promotion; don’t say mazel tov when the ship reaches port: this suggests you’re surprised he got you there.”

Rosten told the story of the playwright Samson Raphaelson, who made it big and bought himself a yacht … complete with a cap that said, “Captain.”

When Raphaelson’s mother came to see him on the yacht, she might have said “Mazel tov!” Instead, she said, “By you you’re a captain, and by me you’re a captain; but tell me, Sammy, by a captain are you a captain?” n

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