We all know the phrase ‘mazel tov’ very well, it’s extremely familiar and just about anyone who’s Jewish will say it to a host of people every year, at weddings, bat and bar mitzvahs, wonderful news and sometimes just to support friends or family. As a very common phrase, it is even familiar to people outside the Jewish community.
We use it as a congratulatory phrase of encouragement, but what does it really mean? The translation of Mazel Tov means ‘good luck has occurred’, which makes sense as it is most often spoken after positive life events. In use, the meaning of ‘mazel tov’ is ‘good luck’ or ‘good fortune’. The words ‘mazel’ and ‘tov’ are Hebrew, and the phrase itself is actually Yiddish in origin, but as a combination they have been incorporated into Modern Hebrew.
At Jewish weddings, everyone will yell “Mazel tov!” after the glass is broken. It’s interesting to note that the chuppah ceremony will often include the sombre song “Eim Eshkachech Yerushalayim” (“If I Forget Jerusalem”), and after it is sung the glass is broken—the breaking of the glass is a reference to the destruction of the temple and mourns our loss, even during a happy occasion.
For this reason, some rabbis may request that there be a noticeable pause between the breaking of the glass and the chorus of “Mazel tov!” by guests, to distinguish that we’re not celebrating the breaking of the glass or congratulating a newly wedded couple about the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, or Holy Temple!
For further insights on the breaking of the glass, check out our blog on the traditions behind this ritual.
“Eim Eshkachech Yerushalayim” – If I Forget Jerusalem…
As a common phrase, it’s not surprising to hear mazel tov pronounced differently. For instance, the Israeli pronunciation sounds more like ‘mazal tov’, while the Hasidic version sounds more like ‘mazel tof’. In North America, ‘mazel tov’ is the predominant pronunciation—all three are equally correct, but show the effects of location and tradition on how we speak.
We launched a poll on Instagram to ask our audience how they pronounce it and the results turned out to be very interesting. Our winner with 58% of votes was ‘Mazel Tov’, while ‘Mazal Tov’ finished in second place with 39% of our followers believing this to be the correct spelling. In last place, with just under 3% of our votes was ‘Mazel Tof’!
You may wonder what the correct response is when someone congratulates you with ‘mazel tov’. Most often we answer out of reflex with ‘mazel tov’ as well, which when you think about it is kind of funny—after all, it’s your fortunate occasion being celebrated, not theirs! As previously discussed, the Mazel Tov meaning in English is ‘Good Luck’, so ‘Thank you’ is a more logical response, but it’s not quite as fun (or natural) as wishing mazel tov back!
Mazel tov, mazel tof, mazal tov—however you pronounce this wonderful phrase, you know it well as an important part of our heritage. It’s nearly as recognizable, even outside of Jewish circles, as ‘Hava Nagila’. Besides being permanently associated with joyful memories and happy occasions, mazel tov is a genuinely kind and positive saying—even if we sometimes use it sarcastically!