When I arrived in Israel almost 13 years ago, the word “baal” bothered me. Although the word “baal” in Modern Hebrew refers to husband, the traditional definition is master or owner. I asked a Hebrew ulpan teacher who was about to be married if she was going to use the term “baal” to refer to her husband. She said that she had no problem with the word “baal,” which in her mind was the Modern Hebrew word for husband.
I don’t have a problem with the English word “husband,” which in Old English means master of the house, since today the word husband is defined as a married man. I can therefore see where the teacher was coming from. However, there are women today who prefer not to use the word, “husband” due to the Old English definition, and prefer to use a different word, such as “spouse.”
Despite her answer, there are many men and women in Israel who are uncomfortable with using the term “baal.”
The relationship between God and the Jewish people is often compared in the Tanach to the relationship between a husband and wife, this week’s haftarah (Hoshea 2:18-19) is no exception. We read: “It shall be on that day — the word of God — you will say ‘ishi’ (my Husband) and you will no longer say ‘baali’ (my Master).
Rashi explains that “ishi” is an expression of marital relationship and young love, while “baali” is an expression of lordship and fear.
Radak points out that the word “baal” also refers to the heathen idol.
In 1953, David Ben Gurion wrote a letter stating that on government documents and forms the word “ishi” should be used, as opposed to the word “baali,” since “baali” conjures up images of the husband being the master as well as a god of idol worship and does not show respect for women. Ben Gurion then quoted our verse from Hoshea to prove his point.
David Ben Gurion took the Tanach and Biblical Hebrew seriously. Today, unfortunately, many Israelis are not as well educated in Biblical Hebrew and are only familiar with Modern and Spoken Hebrew.
If more women used the word “ishi” to describe their husbands, the word might eventually become standard. From looking at our haftarah, it is clear that “ishi” is the word that God prefers.