| Magazine Feature |

Jewish Secret Code     

How Jews throughout history communicated in code


Throughout history, tyrannical regimes have tried to crush us. While they may have had huge armies and sophisticated weapons, they ultimately failed because Hashem has blessed us with three crucial weapons of our own: brains, chutzpah, and hope. And so when Jewish life had to go underground, either partially or entirely, our ancestors were able to devise secret codes that helped ensure their — and our — survival.

Psst! Dovid Hamelech Lives!

The time: the early 1960s. The place: Barney Goodman Camp, a day camp for Jewish kids living in the Kansas City metro area. Or to be more specific, the bus that took us from the camp’s rural grounds to the horseback riding stables or the lake with the rowboats. While the bus driver maneuvered past potholes and the occasional squirrel dashing across the road, dozens of excited girls sang at the top of their lungs a song that was also inspiring refuseniks in Soviet Russia: Dovid Melech Yisrael chai v’kayam!

I can’t speak for the refuseniks, but I’m pretty sure none of us “camperniks” knew the source of this easy-to-remember lyric. In fact, if someone had told us the song’s five words were once a secret code used during the time when the Roman Empire ruled over Eretz Yisrael, we probably would have answered with a collective “Huh?”

Our ignorance can be explained by the fact that none of us were Talmudic scholars, and the story is found in Rosh Hashanah 25a: “Rebbi said to Rabi Chiya, ‘Go to Ein Tav and sanctify the moon — and send me a sign: Dovid Melech Yisrael chai v’kayam [Dovid, king of Israel, lives and endures].’ ”

Why was a coded message necessary and why those words? Why couldn’t Rabi Chiya have simply reported that he sanctified the moon?

To give a little background, after the churban of Bayis Sheini and the defeat of Bar Kochva and his troops, Roman emperor Hadrian banned the teaching of Torah and the Jewish calendar, among other cruel edicts. The punishment for disobeying was horrific.

After Hadrian’s death, conditions became better; during this period of relative tranquility, Rebbi (Rabi Yehudah Hanasi) headed the Sanhedrin and compiled the Mishnah. But the Temple was still destroyed, the Jews were still barred from Jerusalem, and the Romans were still ruling the roost. And even though Rebbi had friends in high places, he knew it only took the death of one emperor and the rise to power of another for a return to tragic times.

Therefore, relative calm wasn’t good enough. What was needed was the return of Jewish autonomy and the restoration of Malchus Beis Dovid, the Davidic dynasty. But how to keep the embers of hope burning within the hearts of the Jewish People?

The waxing and waning of the moon was a powerful metaphor for Dovid Hamelech — and the Jewish People’s changing fortunes. As it says in Midrash Shemos Rabbah 15, when the moon’s light returns after the molad, it’s a sign Malchus Beis Dovid will return to its former glory.

But why did Rebbi choose the words “Dovid Melech Yisrael chai v’kayam,” which are not found in Tanach, to convey this message of hope? Why not choose a phrase from Navi or Tehillim, such as this quote from II Shmuel 7:16: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before you; your throne will be established forever.”

Rav Yitzchak Eizik HaKohein of Koretz, author of the kabbalistic sefer Bris Kehunas Olam, perhaps provided an answer when he discovered an additional “secret” connection between Rebbi’s phrase and sanctifying the moon. The gematria of Dovid Melech Yisrael chai v’kayam and Rosh Chodesh are the same: 819.

The Yerushalmi in Sanhedrin confirms that Rebbi’s phrase became the secret sign used to announce the moon had been sanctified. And from Eretz Yisrael the words have traveled through time and space as a sometimes secret and sometimes openly expressed message of hope and renewal.

The Chocolate Codes

If you’re not a chocolate lover, you would have felt out of place in 17th-century Mexico. Whether in a solid form or as a drink, chocolate was everywhere. It was how you started your day, served at social events, and could even be used as a bribe instead of money. Anusim, Jews who had converted to Christianity but secretly clung to their Jewish faith, earned a good living as cacao traders or as owners of chocolate shops. Women also set up businesses, in their homes, where they made and sold the drink.

In a country where wine was rare, the chocolate drink, which was pareve, was used for Kiddush or to drink a l’chayim at an eirusin. It was also used to break the Yom Kippur fast. And it was fasting that eventually got some of Mexico’s Anusim into trouble with the Inquisition, which had followed the crypto-Jews from Spain and Portugal to the New World.

In a world where the Anusim couldn’t perform most of the mitzvos, fasting became the way they showed their devotion to Hashem. Not only did they fast on Yom Kippur and Taanis Esther (although not always on the correct date, to fool the Inquisition’s agents), they would fast on ordinary days as well. Sometimes these fasts were acts of repentance, but the Anusim might also accompany a request for safe travel or a prayer to heal a sick person with a fast.

Their Catholic neighbors were also enthusiastic fasters, so one might think fasting wouldn’t pose a problem for the Anusim. But it did because of — you guessed it — chocolate. Catholics were allowed to drink when they fasted, so the burning question of the day concerned the chocolate drink, which was hearty and nourishing. Was it a drink or a food? The Church in Mexico was undecided. The general opinion was that it was a food and therefore forbidden on fast days. But there many others who opined it was a drink, like water, and therefore permitted.

The Anusim went by the opinion the drink was forbidden, because this of course agreed with Jewish laws of fasting. But their uniform adoption of one side of the argument, when other families were heatedly debating the issue at the dinner table, itself raised suspicion. The Anusim therefore still had to hide their fasts from their non-Jewish servants, neighbors, and business associates. And they couldn’t just pretend to be sick, because chocolate was considered a healer of almost all ailments. Saying there was no chocolate in the larder also didn’t work, because no one in Mexico would ever let that happen.

So, what did they do? According to the records of the Inquisition, they might try to spill out the contents of their cup when the servants weren’t looking. Or family members would pretend to have a fight at the breakfast table, get up before a sip of chocolate was taken, and refuse to leave their room and make up until the fast was over. Or when cacao prices were high, they would tell the servants the family needed to cut back on consumption for a while.

But while hiding their lack of chocolate consumption on a fast day could be a problem, it also became a secret way of discovering who else was a secret Jew. According to the testimony of Isabel Duarte, who was arrested in July 1642, when someone she didn’t know well paid her a visit on a known Jewish fast day, she offered them a cup of chocolate. When the person refused, she asked why.

“It’s stupid to ask,” the person replied. And so she knew her visitor was kosher.

Khurban Yiddish

In her article “A Rubric of Pain Words: Mapping Atrocity with Holocaust Yiddish Glossaries,” Hannah Pollin- Galay, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University, describes an incident experienced by the poet Avraham Sutzkever in the winter of 1941. After hiding outside the Vilna Ghetto’s walls for several months, Sutzkever returned to the ghetto. He was surprised by the changes. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry, he noted. And they were speaking a new kind of Yiddish, a Yiddish “that does not want to surrender to death.”

One word that took on a second life in the Vilna Ghetto was “malina.” Before the war, it was criminal slang for a hiding place. In the ghetto, it still meant a hiding place, but it was for those unfortunate Jews who had neither the all-important pass allowing them to stay in Vilna or the ability to become a “dependent” of someone who did. Therefore, finding a malina — which could be as small as a cupboard or several rooms — became a top priority.

And the word entered the ghetto jargon, as Sutzkever wrote after the war in his book The Vilna Ghetto: “The malina became so well known that it began to be used in all kinds of ways: ‘We must malina (ourselves),’ ‘you’re a good maliner.’ ‘I lay malina’ed.’ When the teacher, Stolicki’s, wife bore a child in a malina, she named him ‘malina.’ ”

Sutzkever was not the only one to notice, and later write about, the new vocabulary that sprang up during the war and reflected the daily fight for survival. Yisrael Kaplan — an educator and author from Kovno who survived the Kovno Ghetto, slave labor camps in Riga and Kaiserwald, and the Dachau concentration camp — observed that despite the attempts of the Nazis yemach shemam to debase and depress the Jews before destroying them, “the Jews never despaired or gave up.… In order to give expression to their innermost desires and thoughts, they created a secret way of talking, a sort of code” (Jewish Folk-Expressions under the Nazi Yoke).

Pollin-Galay recently invented a name for this “secret code” observed by Kaplan, Sutzkever, and others, calling it “Khurban Yiddish” (Holocaust Yiddish). What follows is a small sample of words and phrases culled from a book Kaplan wrote after the war and which was recently translated into English by Yad Vashem Publications, The Jewish Voice in the Ghettos and Concentration Camps: Verbal Expression Under Nazi Oppression.

Red Alert!

Kaplan begins his lexicon by pointing out that although Jews were forced to perform backbreaking slave labor, none of them had any interest in helping the Nazis win the war and every interest in conserving their own dwindling strength. They therefore found ways to do little or nothing — until someone spotted a Nazi big shot approaching.

When that happened in the Kovno Ghetto, the coded signal was “Yayleh v’yavo! [He is coming!]” Those with a yeshivish background would shout “Koyrim! [Bow!]” Polish chassidim in Majdanek would yell “Davenen! [Pray!]” These were all signals to start making movements to show you were hard at work.

When someone in Kovno spotted an SS officer in the distance, he gave a different signal: “Fir un fertzig [forty-four].” This alluded to the double lightning flashes on the uniforms of SS officers, which looked a bit like 44. The Lithuanian signal for an approaching SS officer was dam (blood), which has a gematria of 44. Polish and Czech Jews shouted “Malechamoves [the Angel of Death],” while in the regions of Bialystok-Grodno the signal was “Tishebov [Tishah B’Av].”

In Kovno, when the danger was over, someone would shout, quoting from the Pesach Seder: “Nirtzeh [All done/completed].” Some Hungarian Jews, investing a little humor into a grim situation, liked to say “Oileh gevein [He has emigrated).”

Bread Lines

Food was on everyone’s mind. As the situation worsened, people’s thoughts were concentrated on just one item: bread. The general term was the Hebrew word: lechem. A whole loaf was sometimes affectionately called a mametshke (a little mother).

The Germans used small open wagons to transport sand, peat, and such, which the Jews had to load and unload. This wagon was called a lore. Because its shape resembled that of a loaf of bread, in Auschwitz a lore became the name for an entire loaf.

Therefore, a common question was, “How many people have to share a lore [a loaf] today?”

Smuggling in Goods and News

Smuggling food, medicine, and other things into a ghetto was part of life — and part of the perks for Jews assigned to external work teams. But it was dangerous, and if the smuggler was caught, it meant death. When there was a strict inspection going on up ahead, Warsaw Jews would warn each other to make sure their packages were hidden well by whispering fayer (fire), bier-chometz (burning of unleavened bread), or just Peisech (Passover).

In the Kovno Ghetto, enterprising smugglers were called parashutisten (parachutists). Some cut through the barbed wire fence at night with pliers to smuggle in food and other goods — including live cows — and then quickly repaired the fence, in a maneuver known as desant durkhn reys-farshlus (the [troop landing] through the zipper).

News from outside the ghettos and camps was in short supply and therefore eagerly sought after. A newspaper that told of a German defeat was known as a leibedige Megilleh (a happy megillah scroll). A British radio station was a mechuten (a relation by marriage), because at the time the British ruled Eretz Yisrael, so they were “related” to the Jews. Someone who managed to conceal a radio had an afikoymen, and when you pleaded with him for some news, you asked for “a k’zayis afikoymen” (a piece of the afikomen).

The sweetest music in the ghettos was the air raid siren. People would go out to watch the feigelech (“birds,” Allied airplanes) or roite hiner (“red hens,” Soviet planes) drop their knaidelach (“matzah balls,” bombs). And while they watched they wondered when “Feter Reuven un Momme Mere” (a.k.a. President Roosevelt and “Aunt” America) and the other Allies would win the war already.

Sadly, for most, the Allied victory came too late.

Hidden in Plain Sight

There have been many instances of Jews using secret codes throughout our history — too many to mention in one article. But to conclude, I’d like to return to the bus filled with Barney Goodman campers screaming our song about King David enduring forever. It was no accident our camp counselors taught us the song and encouraged us to sing it. Because in the early 1960s, a new pharaoh arose in the Soviet Union and — the chutzpah! — he was forbidding Jewish kids from eating matzah on Passover!

Or something like that. Actually, the history of matzos in the Soviet Union is complicated. After the Soviet takeover of Russia, Jews could bake matzos in their homes, and often several families would organize a temporary bakery together. In larger cities and towns, the synagogue also sometimes set up a temporary bakery. Importing matzah was usually forbidden.

After Joseph Stalin died in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev replaced him as the Soviet Union’s leader, not much changed in the battle to stamp out Yiddishkeit — except in one area. In 1956, a law was passed explicitly forbidding the baking of matzos inside synagogues. Then, in March 1962 and 1963, laws were passed prohibiting the baking and distributing of any matzos for Passover.

The Jewish world took note. In 1962, in the United States, Jewish college students organized a silent protest in front of the Soviet UN Mission in Manhattan. Senator Jacob Javits offered to send matzos from the United States. The Soviet Union ignored the protest and the offer.

In 1963, Jewish protests broadened and intensified. The Soviet Union seemed to relent. Then the news leaked out the Soviets were arresting and jailing Jews caught baking matzos. In some instances, the equipment was confiscated, too. The protests intensified. But the Soviet Union still refused to let its Jews bake matzos.

In 1964, the world outcry grew even stronger. Finally, the Soviets budged, a little. The Moscow community was permitted to rent a small bakery to bake matzos. During the next few years, the restrictions were eased even further, and by 1969 matzos were readily available.

As for the Jews living in the Soviet Union, the regime’s attempt to stamp out matzos backfired. Many of these Jews no longer had much of a connection to Yiddishkeit. On Pesach, many didn’t even have a Seder. But one thing they did do, to secretly protest their government’s policy, was eat matzah!

How did they transport this now-forbidden food from the clandestine matzah bakery to their homes? According to the oral testimony of several Jews who remembered this time, the community called into service a humble item found in every home: a white pillowcase.

According to Daniel Staetsky, who grew up in the Soviet Union, people shouldn’t romanticize the white pillowcase and turn it into a symbol of refusenik resistance. In his “An Ode to Matza” blog post, he writes that in a society where cardboard boxes and plastic bags weren’t readily available, people used what they had: a pillowcase.

But for others, those matzos hidden in a freshly laundered white pillowcase and carried secretly through the watchful Soviet streets did become a symbol of sorts — a shared secret that engendered a sense of pride and connection to a people and a religion that, like them, still lives and endures.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 877)

Oops! We could not locate your form.