Word Smith: Mizpah
My grandmother, Millie Anderson Hooper, whom we called “Gran,” had a story to tell us during our engagement. One winter afternoon, while sitting in her library surrounded by her beloved books, Gran let Tracy and me in on a private story. Gran wanted to meet with us immediately after hearing of our engagement. When we arrived at her house, after welcoming niceties, she lowered her voice and said, “I have a Jewish word in my wedding ring from Granddad.”
Since Gran would not have known a Hebrew tradition, even if she were hit by a flying yarmulke, we were surprised at her revelation. What she meant was that she had the Anglicized version of a Hebrew word engraved on the underside of her ring. The lettering was small and nearly worn away, but we could just make it out: it read Mizpah.
We asked Gran what it meant. She said that the word means: “May God be with you, when we are apart, one from another…” She explained that whenever Granddad was on a business trip, she was comforted by his vow that God would be there to protect her. It felt like such a beautiful gesture of protection for a husband. He was placing a shield over his wife, while he was away. Granddad had been dead for about ten years, but his passing did not affect her feeling of matrimonial protection.
I looked for the word Mizpah in the Bible, but did not find it. I even consulted with some of my Jewish friends, David Nierenberg and Jon Aaron, but they did not know the word either. Granddad had engraved Gran’s ring during their engagement in 1919, so we gave greater credence to her version of the word’s meaning and we went with it.
Tracy and I decided right then and there to continue the family tradition. When we went to Smyth’s Jewelers to pick out our wedding rings, we instructed them to write the word “Mizpah” in Tracy’s ring. We spelled it out for the engraver. He also engraved our wedding date and the words “Love, Henry” inside the ring.
Over the last 35 years we have heard the word, Mizpah, several times from different sources. Yet, we had no clear recollection of where nor in what context we had heard it.
This past week (January, 2014), while reading a passage from the Book of Samuel, I came across the word Mizpah and it seemed to have a different meaning altogether from the notion of matrimonial protection. This Word Press is an effort to reconcile the different meanings I had uncovered for the word engraved on Gran’s and Tracy’s wedding rings.
In Samuel, Mizpah is a place in the city of Benjamin, which is about six miles from Jerusalem. Samuel is gathering the people of the town at the Mizpah to recognize that Saul had been chosen by Yahweh to be the ruler of Israel. In this way the word seems to be a specifically designated place in the city, like a town hall. In other sections of the Bible, the word Mizpah connotes a “watchtower,” which makes sense. A watchtower is a safe, high place of a walled city, from which invaders can be spotted. The town citizens can be forewarned of any danger and attack. It is a place of protection to safeguard the citizens inside the city.
Two other references to Mizpah showed up while searching of the internet. The first was the image of a coin-medallion with the word Mizpah on two halves of a pendant. It has a lightening bolt dividing the two halves. One half has MIZ across it’s top and the other half has PAH. The two halves, when placed together, say: “The Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent one from another.” This is a quotation from Genesis 30:149 and is very close to the wording that Gran Hooper had for the meaning.
I found a second humorous reference to an item of personal protection. The reference came in the form of a Philadelphia newspaper ad, circa 1922. The words Mizpah #44 appear with a graphic, which seems a precursor to the modern day Jock Strap, (athletic supporter). Not much has changed in that department over the past 90 years. Since my high school football jersey number was 44 and I indeed wore an athletic supporter at the time, there may be an eerie coincidence in the ether.
Joking aside, the word Mizpah has some great lessons for us all.
It is not always all about bold individualism. Life may be more about finding someone you love, whom, with God’s help, you can protect and be watchful over. I am ever so grateful to have found a spouse who loves me and for whom I would surrender my life. Now that we have children, the word is even more prescient, as I want to extend the shield of protection over them and the ones they love. I want a Watchtower in their towns, wherever they live, and in their hearts, which will undoubtedly be broken.
There is also the notion that there can be Mizpah protection for a loved one after the protector has died. Gran and Granddad were married for over 50 years. Even in death there are connections, an after life, that extend from one person to another.
Thank you, Granddad, for finding a word, rich in tradition and meaning, that reached beyond your narrow Episcopalian traditions. Thank you for the example of living Mizpah for and with our family. It is a gift of protection for all of us! Thank you, Gran, for extending the metaphor to us and sharing your strong faith in God. Your example was always to seek His help first when watching over our loved ones.