After a lecture I recently delivered about the importance of a familiarity with traditional Jewish texts and religious practices to a proper understanding of Yiddish, I was beset by a number of doubters. Noticing that one of my interlocutors had a South African accent, I asked her if she was familiar with the term khateysim.

“Of course,” she replied, but couldn’t tell me where the term comes from.

Virtually any Jew of South African origin will tell you that Afrikaaners, the Boers who make up so large a part of the white population, are known as khateysim (singular, khatas). Khatas derives from the Hebrew khet, a sin, and means sin-offering, a meaning that it retains in Yiddish, where it acquires the additional–and more common–sense of sinner or rogue. There is a well-known line in the Mishnaic tractate Avos, which every orthodox male studies every Saturday between Passover and Rosh Hashana: “Eyn bor yerey khet , a bor [uncouth ignoramus] is not afraid of sin.” The coincidence of sound was too much to ignore, and since someone not afraid to sin must therefore be a sinner, South Africans of Dutch descent–Boers, that is–became known as khateysim, as if Boer (which is related to the Yiddish poyer and the German Bauer) were not only Hebrew, but a Hebrew word as defined in an authoritative Hebrew text.

And we owe it all to Hebrew school.

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week. Below are some items for sale from eBay for those of you with an interest in Yiddish.

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