The Hebrew phrase mazel tov (also spelled mazal tov, or mazel tof) literally translated means “good luck.” In practice, mazel tov is usually said to mean “Congratulations!”
One can expect to hear people shout “mazel tov” at Jewish weddings just after the groom breaks the glass, at brit milah (bris) ceremonies, and bar/bat mitzvahs. Mazel tov is an appropriate response to any good news, from engagement to graduation, a new job, a new house, or any other honour or milestone.
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.
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Table of Contents
- 1 Mazel tov
- 2 Mazel Tov at Weddings
- 3 How We Pronounce It
- 4 How to Respond
- 5 Mazal Tov: Stars Above! Good Luck With That
- 6 Other Jewish Greetings
- 7 Times of Day
- 8 Holidays
[Pronounced mah-zel tohv]
Though this expression means literally good luck (or “a good sign”), it’s always used to mean congratulations. It’s something to say to couples getting married, parents of children becoming bar or bat mitzvah and new parents (but not to be said to expecting parents). It’s also a nice thing to say to someone who has a birthday or gets a new job or a new car.
One thing that makes Jewish subculture a little different from the dominant culture is that it’s typical to congratulate the parents, siblings and friends of people getting married, having a baby or watching their relative become bar or bat mitzvah. If someone says “Congratulations!” to you when you say you are going to a friend’s wedding, say, “Thanks,” not, “It’s not my wedding, you goofball.”
You might also hear some wise guy yell “Mazel tov” in a Jewish delicatessen when someone drops dishes. That’s because, at Jewish weddings, it’s traditional to break a glass and sometimes also a plate.
Mazel Tov at Weddings
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…
Your confusion is understandable. The Talmud—the ancient encyclopedia of Jewish wisdom—seems to contradict itself on the issue. In one place it states, “On your birthday, your mazel is strong.” Elsewhere the Talmud reports, “The Jewish people are not subject to mazel”!
The word mazel literally means “a drip from above.” Mazel can have different connotations depending on its context, but they are all connected to this basic definition—something trickling down from above.
The signs of the zodiac are called mazalot. Jewish tradition sees the constellations on high as directing the destiny of individuals and nations down below. Thus mazel is the influence dripping down from the stars. (Over the years, bad or good mazel came to mean “luck” more than “destiny.”) When the Talmud says that we are not subject to mazel, it means that we are not limited to our destiny; instead, our own actions determine our fate.
There is another meaning of the word mazel that is more relevant to the phrase Mazel Tov. Mazel is the term used in Jewish mysticism to describe the root of the soul. The mystics say that only a ray of our soul actually inhabits our body. The main part of the soul, our mazel, remains above, shining down on us from a distance.
Have you ever experienced a sense of spontaneous intuition, where out of the blue you suddenly feel at peace with yourself and the universe? Or a sudden flash of inspiration that makes you see life in a new light? Occasionally we may receive an extra flux of energy from our soul above. It can happen at any time but is most common at a time of celebration—a birth, birthday, brit, bar/bat mitzvah or wedding. It is especially at these times of joy that we are able to see beyond the mundane and the petty and to sense the deeper truths of life.
How We Pronounce It
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 the last place, with just under 3% of our votes was ‘Mazel Tof’!
How to Respond
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!
Mazal Tov: Stars Above! Good Luck With That
Whether you prefer a more Israeli-sounding ma-ZAL tov or a more Yiddishy MA-zel tov, these two congratulatory words are one of the most high-profile Hebrew phrases there is. Jews and non-Jews alike know this is the thing to say when people tell you their good news or at a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding. And in Israel, it’s also what you say on someone’s birthday.
And now for a horoscope break.
The mazalot (to use the plural) are the signs of the zodiac, and galgal hamazalot is the wheel of the zodiac (or wheel of fortune, Vanna White not included). This often has a negative context in Judaism, but not always.
The Talmud uses the acronym akum, which stands for “worshipers of stars and constellations [mazalot],” to refer to idol worshipers. And the book of 2 Kings states: “And he put down the idolatrous priests… them also that offered unto Baal, to the sun, and the moon, and to the constellations [mazalot] and all the host of heaven” (23:5).
Despite the fact that the association with idol worship, one of the biggest Jewish no-nos, the idea of mazal has not been erased from Judaism. Zodiac signs have been found in the mosaics of ancient synagogues in the Galilee. And the Talmud tells an exegetical story that has God saying “I created 12 mazalot in the sky,” as well as hundreds of thousands of stars, “and I created all of them for you” (Brachot 32b).
Jewish sources also refer to mazal as fate or as an entity that affects something else’s fate. The homiletic collection Bereshit Rabba states that “There is no blade of grass that doesn’t have a mazal in the heavens that strikes it and tells it: ‘Grow!’” (10). And the Jewish mystical work the Zohar states that “everything depends on mazal, even a Torah scroll in the synagogue.”
In addition, the prevalent phrase meshane makom meshane mazal, meaning that changing your place of residence changes your fate, is an adaptation of a passage in the Talmud. Tractate Rosh Hashannah 16b lists four types of things people can do to change their fate (such as charity and changing one’s actions) and adds that some say moving to a different location can be a fifth luck-changer. For renters, this means that changing your lease gives you a new lease on life.
As luck would have it, we’ve now established that “congratulations” actually means “good luck.” But in that case, what should you say if someone’s about to face a tough day and you want to wish the person well?
Forget about mazal tov; that’s already taken. To wish someone good luck, the word you need is behatzlaha, which means “with success.” And if that seems confusing or counterintuitive, well, what can I say but tough luck.
Other Jewish Greetings
This means good luck!
[Pronounced be-sha-ah toe-vah]
Don’t say mazel tov when someone says they are pregnant. They don’t have the baby yet. Instead, say “b’sha’ah tovah,” or “in a good hour”—meaning something like, I hope this works out perfectly. If you feel uncomfortable pronouncing that, say, “I’m so happy for you.”
Tithadesh or tithadshi
[Pronounced Teet-ha-desh or Teet-had-she]
When your friend gets new clothes, a new house or a new car, there is a special way to congratulate them—“Tithadesh,” may it renew you. (The feminine form of this word is “tithadshi.”) There isn’t a really a good English equivalent, because there’s no specific way of congratulating people on getting new things—but you can always say, “Congratulations, enjoy it!”
[Pronounced Ya-shair Ko-akh]
When someone has an aliyah (is called up to the Torah during a service) or reads from the Torah, or does some public ritual in the synagogue, one traditional thing to say is “Yasher koach,” may your strength increase. If you feel uncomfortable pronouncing that, you can say, “Good job” and shake their hand. If someone says that to you, reply, “Baruch tihiyeh”—or just, “Thanks!”
Next time, at a simchah
When you see someone you love at a sad occasion like a funeral, what do you say? There is a Yiddish expression, “Oyf simches” which means, “Let’s only meet at happy occasions.” A good substitute is, “Glad you could make it,” or “Hope the next time we meet is at a happier occasion.”
Ha-Makom yinachem etchem…
[Pronounced Ha-ma-comb yin-ahem et-hem]
There is a traditional Hebrew phrase to say at funerals and houses of mourning, “Ha-Makom hu yinachem et chem b’toch avlei tsiyon v’yerushalayim.” It means, “May the Merciful One comfort you among the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem.” It seems unlikely you will need to say this, but it’s good to be in the know. You don’t really have to say anything, just be there and listen. Or say, “I’m sorry.”
May their memory be a blessing
When expressing condolences, a common Jewish saying is “May his/her memory be a blessing.” This can go along with “Sorry for your loss.”
For more about what to say when you visit a house of mourning, see “How to Pay a Shiva Call,” and our booket, Mourning the loss of a Jewish loved one.
Times of Day
[Pronounced bo-ker Tohv]
Literally, “good morning.” Nice replies are “boker tov” right back, or “boker or,” meaning “morning light.”
[Pronounced air-ev Tohv]
Literally, “good evening.” You can reply “erev tov” right back.
[Pronounced Lie-Lah Tohv]
Literally, “good night.” An appropriate response is to say “lilah tov” back.
[Pronounced CHAHG sah-MAY-ach]
(Happy holiday) with a heavy guttural at the beginning of the first word and the end of the second. Or if you are really sophisticated, Moadim l’simcha, which means “festivals for joy.” You may also hear “gut yuntuv,” which is Yiddish for a happy holiday. This is typically said on Sukkot and Simchat Torah, Purim and Shavuot. It can really be said for any holiday, however.
[Pronounced sha-baht sha-loam]
The most traditional greeting on Shabbat is the easiest: “Shabbat Shalom,” good Sabbath! You might also hear Gut Shabbes, which is Yiddish for good Sabbath. Saying Good Sabbath or Good Shabbes is a great way of greeting someone on Shabbat without speaking Hebrew. We say this to welcome one another or say goodbye on Shabbat.
[Pronounced Sha-voo-ah Tohv]
Shabbat officially ends when there are three stars in the sky on Saturday night. Some close Shabbat with the short ceremony of Havdalah, meaning “separation,” to mark the separation of Shabbat from the rest of the week. Starting on Saturday night, people often wish each other “shavua tov,” meaning “a good week,” as a wish for the coming week. You might even hear people saying this through Sunday. You can repeat, “shavua tov!” to them right back.
[Prounounced Shaa-nah Toh-vah]
Traditional greetings on Rosh Hashanah include, “L’Shana Tovah tikatevu,” which means, May you be inscribed for a good year, or just “Shana Tovah,” which means “a good year.” Some say “Happy New Year!” or “a happy and healthy New Year.” You might also hear people greet in Yiddish, “Gut yomtev,” which means happy holiday.
Gamar hatimah tova
[Pronounced ga-mar ha-ti-mah toh-vah]
A traditional greeting for Yom Kippur is “Gamar hatimah tovah:” a good completion to your inscription (in the book of life). Some say “Gamar tov,” a good completion. Some say “Shanah tovah” or Happy New Year, and some say “Tzom kal” or have an easy fast.
The big challenge here for many English-speakers is that initial heavy H sound, like the J in Jose or the ch in Loch Ness. (That’s why the holiday is sometimes spelled Chanukah.) Say Happy Hanukkah, do your best with the initial guttural h, smile and don’t worry.
The best greeting is Happy Purim! Some say Chag Sameach, which means Happy Holiday or Purim Sameach, which means Happy Purim! This is a very fun, festive holiday and it’s all about the happy.
Happy Pesach or Passover
On Passover, some people say “Hag Sameah v’ Kasher”—have a happy and kosher holiday. Or try Happy Pesach (Hebrew for Passover) or Happy Passover.
All in all, the Mazel Tov usually said during happy occasions. When we tell someone Mazel Tov, we are giving them a blessing: May this drip of inspiration from your soul above not dissipate, but rather have a positive and lasting effect, that from this event onwards you should live your life with higher consciousness. You should be aware of the blessings in your life, and be ready to receive more and more.