Balagan is a word with a history, having come to Yiddish via the Slavic languages, where it was borrowed from the Persians. In common Yiddish (and, by extension, English and Hebrew) parlance, balagan is a state of chaos, disarray and confusion.

Related to the English word “balcony,” the original balagan was the wagon used by traveling performers. Harkavy’s 1928 Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary defines it as a “show booth” or “tent.”

In time, balagan came to refer to anything as wild and disorganized as the traveling stage—not unlike the English word “circus,” also used to describe a chaotic scene. This term was so popular among Yiddish speakers that it has even crept into Modern Hebrew and American English.

The scene of a balagan can be referred to as a chazer shtahl, the equivalent of the English term “pigsty.” Another term associated with a balagan is hekdesh (lit. “sacred [space]”), the public facilities that Jewish communities used to make available to traveling visitors. Since these places would often be left in dismal states of disarray, hekdesh came to refer to any place that appeared to be a balagan.

Whither the Balagan?

Anyone growing up in a Jewish home can tell you that on Friday afternoon, the entire household generally descends into a pulsating balagan. Children are bathing, someone is running the vacuum, all the shoes are lined up on the porch for the weekly polish, and the chicken soup is boiling over.

Then comes the magic moment.

It’s 18 minutes before sunset, and the time has come to light the Shabbat candles and welcome the Shabbat Queen. The house is quiet, the table is bedecked in with a pristine cloth, and the children are sparkling clean.

Out of the churning depths of the balagan comes the serenity of Shabbat.

Shabbat shalom!