Gurdjieff International Review

A Big Tzimus (Tsimmes)

By Marvin Grossman

As a person in the Work who speaks some Yiddish, I was quite chagrined to read Gurdjieff say, on page 19 of Beelzebub’s Tales, that “contemporary pure-blooded Jewish businessmen” would call the “salt” of a story, which I took to mean its pith, or essence, its “Tzimus.”1 In Yiddish, tzimus, more properly transliterated as tsimmes, doesn’t mean salt, pith, or essence. It denotes a pudding made by boiling thinly sliced carrots (or, rarely, sweet potatoes) until they are very soft, and then sweetening them with sugar or honey. Some recipes call for the inclusion of raisins or prunes, and still others for chunks of meat, with or without the fruits. Tsimmes is derived from the words zum ess, which translate literally to the awkward phrase “to food,” but in actual usage to “side dish.”

The Yiddish word for “salt” is zaltz (broad ‘a’), and the synonyms listed in an unabridged Yiddish-English dictionary for pith or essence are hertz (heart), iker, mamoshes, and tamtzis, which is taken, unchanged, from Hebrew. I found it difficult to believe that Gurdjieff had written tzimus when he meant tamtzis.

Tsimmes also has a colloquial meaning: it is an unnecessarily magnified brouhaha. The popular expression “don’t make a tsimmes out of it” is fully analogous to the English “don’t make a big deal out of it” because both are colloquial and mean exactly the same thing.

I spoke to some acquaintances in the Work about what I called Gurdjieff’s “error” and was treated to an interesting variety of reactions. One older and respected member said it was “wonderful that Gurdjieff had created a new use for the word.” Another older member, an otherwise intelligent enough person, said that “when you boiled carrots until they were very soft you were getting to their essence.” These statements annoyed me, as did all inventions whose aim was to shield Gurdjieff from the charge that he had made a mistake or done something he shouldn’t have. Hadn’t he done enough for us to earn our eternal gratitude without our having to bend the truth in order to paint him as perfect?

Another reaction, of a very different kind, was “tzimus sounds as if it ought to mean essence.” It came from a professional writer and editor with, presumably, a real feeling for words. As a sometime writer myself, I sensed something of substance in what he said, but this “something” was hardly sufficient to contravene all the evidence that pointed another way. Finally, I spoke to a member of my group whose Yiddish was better than mine, and he concurred that Gurdjieff had made a mistake. “But let’s keep it under our hats,” he concluded. A victim of esprit d’escalier, as usual, when I got home I said to myself, “Okay; we’ll keep it under our yarmulkas.”

However, I did not remain satisfied with this resolve very long. Something kept gnawing at me, and after a while I realized what it was: I had not conducted a truly exhaustive investigation. Gurdjieff never claimed tzimus was Yiddish. Maybe it was Russian. So I paid a visit to the New York Public Library System’s huge research facility on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street and asked a librarian there if tzimus was a Russian word meaning pith or essence. She said it wasn’t, but handed me a Xerox copy of the Cyrillic alphabet with English equivalents and invited me to check for myself in an unabridged Russian-English dictionary. First I looked at the Russian entries. There wasn’t any word there even remotely resembling tzimus. Then I checked the English entries. Salt was sol, pith was serdtseieins, and essence was cyshehnost. Convinced, at last, that Gurdjieff had indeed made an error, I glumly took my leave of the Slavonic room. I was already in the hallway when I heard the librarian calling to me urgently: “Sir! Sir!” I turned back and, as I approached her desk, she said breathlessly, “We don’t have a slang dictionary, so I wasn’t able to refer you to one. But I just spoke to another librarian and according to her tzimus is Russian slang, means pith or essence, and is especially favored by Russian Jews.”

So rest easy, my fellow Yiddish-speaking Gurdjieffians, and pass the word on to all future questioners.

~ • ~

1 The word Tzimus appears on pages 19, 515, 599 and 923 of Beelzebub’s Tales, 1950 edition.

Copyright © 2003 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2003 Issue, Vol. VI (1)
Revision: April 1, 2003