3

What is the correct translation of "Ashrei"? For ages every siddur translated it as "happy". But in recent decades, Artscroll decided it was "praiseworthy" and Chabad decided it was "fortunate".

The implications are very different for each of the three words.

'Praiseworthy' implies 'Who cares about your happiness? It's doing the mitzvot correctly that counts. Your feelings are irrelevant.'

'Fortunate' implies 'You have no merit in this. It's pure luck. What you do or don't do is irrelevant, free will or not.'

So which is it?

8
  • 1
    In modern Hebrew אשרי indeed means happy. But I’m not sure I agree with your analysis of fortunate; that sounds to me like “such a person deserves good fortune,” which could absolutely take the other terms into account.
    – DonielF
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 20:22
  • I disagree with your analysis of "fortune". I'm working on a more thorough answer to your entire question, now that would address this from a Tanac"h definition. But, certainly in modern times, people absolutely create and influence their fortune. Successful people work hard at doing so and they frequently analyze and strategize how they accomplish their good fortune. Some luck is involved, but it is definitely NOT "pure luck".
    – DanF
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 20:39
  • Since when does "praiseworthy" not imply "happiness"? Have you or someone you know been honored at a dinner or some other ceremony? People "sing" the honoree's "praises". Look at the Oscar ceremony as an example. Have you seen any honoree sitting with a scowl on his face while people are praising him?
    – DanF
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 20:42
  • These quotes imply 'ashrei' can only mean 'happy': -When Leah had a son through her maid Zilpa, she said 'Be-ashri! -- I am happy!' ... and she called his name Asher. (Gen. 30:13) -Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects; therefore do not despise the chastening of the Almighty [Job 5:17] הִנֵּה אַשְׁרֵי אֱנוֹשׁ יוֹכִחֶנּוּ אֱלוֹהַּ וּמוּסַר שַׁדַּי אַל-תִּמְאָס: Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 22:02
  • Here ashrei could mean 'happy' or 'praiseworthy' but not 'fortunate': Prov. 3:18-It is a tree of life to those who hold it fast, and its supporters are happy Prov. 8:32. Happy are they who keep my ways. Ps. 128:1. Happy is every one who ... walks in [the] ways [of the Lord]. Prov. 20:7. The just man walks in his integrity; happy are his children after him. Prov. 3:13. Happy is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding. Prov. 14:21. Happy is he who is kind to the humble Ps. 128:2. [If you] eat the labor of your hands; happy shall you be, and it shall be well with you. Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 22:05

3 Answers 3

2

It seems that classic commentators on Tehillim have different explanations of the word.

The word אַשְׁרֵי first appears in the first chapter of Tehillim - as the first word - so I took some explanations from there, since on the verse you refer to nobody explains its meaning.

Rashi: The Ashrei (circular reference) and Tehiloth - praiseworthiness - of a person.

אשוריו של איש ותהלותיו של אדם אלו הם אשר לא הלך כי מתוך שלא הלך לא עמד ומתוך שלא עמד לא ישב : ‏

Metzudoth Dovid: The praises one says about a person...

אשרי האיש. ספורי תהלות האיש המה לומר עליו בשבחו זהו אשר לא הלך בעצת רשעי‏

Metzudoth Zion: The fortune and praise of a person - as Leah said כִּי אִשְּׁרוּנִי בָּנוֹת.

אשרי. ענין שבח ותהלה כמו כי אשרוני בנות (בראשית ל')‏

Malbim: Spiritual success.

באור הענין אשרי האיש, בא לבאר התנאים שבעבורם יהיה האיש מאושר, ויש הבדל בין מאושר ובין מצליח, ההצלחה הוא בענינים עולמיים בחיי העולם הזה, והאושר הוא בענינים הנפשיים בחיי העולם הבא, והנה השלמות יהיה בשלשה ענינים, שלמות הקנין, שלמות הגוף, שלמות הנפש, לכן באר שמדבר פה מאשרי האיש, האושר המיוחד אל האיש והאדם מצד שהוא אדם, לא האושר שישתתף בו עם סוגו מצד שהוא חי, רצה לומר כי שלמות הקנין ושלמות הגוף ימצא גם בשאר בע''ח, כי מצאנו כמה בע''ח שמשיגים מחייתם ומזונם ביתר נקל וביתר שאת מן האדם ולית דעתיר מחזירי, וכן יתעצמו בכח גופם יותר מן האדם, כמו הפיל והאריה, וכן בחושיהם הנשר והאיה בחוש הראות וכדומה, ואין זה אושר המיוחד אל האיש והאדם, רק שלמות המדות ותכונת הנפשיים הם המיוחדים אל האיש לבדו, ומבאר כי אשרו תלוי בראשונה במה שיזהר מחטוא,‏

It's fair to assume that other commentators have other opinions - as there are 70 ways to interpret the Torah.

4
  • See both Metzudot on Tehillim 144:15 -- hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14255&pgnum=522 -- where Ashrei is explained to mean "praiseworthy". See Metzudot David on 84:5, which can easily be translated as fortunate, and definitely not happy: hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14255&pgnum=315
    – Menachem
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 22:32
  • I'm not sure that your translation of Metzudot Tzion is accurate. שבח means "praise" but תהלה does not mean "fortune". I don't think you would translate the first two words of Tehillim 145, *Tehilla Ledavid" as meaning "David's fortune".
    – DanF
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 22:52
  • @DanF - good point; what is a better translation? Commented Sep 17, 2017 at 9:20
  • It seems to me that, of all translations, only "happy" fits ALL occurrences of "ashrei" in the sources. So I am happy with "happy". Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 8:26
2

The English word "happy" derives from the word "hap," which originally meant chance, fortune, or luck, and came to mean any sort of event. We still have this meaning in words like happen, happening, happenstance.

Over time "happy" came to mean only good luck, not bad. "Luck" and "fortune" had the same evolution - you can have bad luck or misfortune, but lucky and fortunate mean only good things. So happy came to mean "fortunate."

It took many centuries for "happy" to change from meaning "fortunate" to meaning a person's positive internal emotional state, often but not always caused by external fortunate events.

Nowadays the "fortunate" meaning of "happy" is mostly obsolete, and "happy" refers mostly to the emotional state - the opposite of sad, but less emphatic than joyful.

For several hundred years, though, both meanings of "happy" existed side by side. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the very earliest "emotional state" meaning use as being in 1525, while the "fortunate" meaning was still in use at the end of the 19th century.

When you read translations of Biblical texts - such as the quote from Job ("happy is the man whom God corrects") and the the others in the comments above - keep in mind you are reading material that was either written a century or more ago, or modern material that is strongly influenced by prior translations. So the fact that a translation of Job uses "happy" doesn't necessarily imply that someone corrected by God is experiencing an emotionally pleasurable feeling.

Even though there's still a bit of "good fortune" lingering around the word "happy," that meaning is mostly gone from ordinary use. Yet it seems to me that the translations of "ashrei" as "happy" are more focussed on the "fortunate" meaning of the original texts. So I would vote for translating ashrei as "fortunate" over "happy" unless it's clear that a specific person's inner emotional feelings are intended.

1

Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch translates ashrei as "striding forward", both in Tehillim and in Chumash. See in Chumash where he gives his reasons.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .