Tsuris means “problems” in Yiddish. It is a direct adaptation of the plural form of the Hebrew word for “narrow” or “constriction,” tsar.

When a person is beset by troubles you can say that they are af tsuris, “on troubles.” And when they are getting a real walloping, you can describe their situation as gehakte tsuris, “chopped troubles.”

The Evolution of a Yiddish Word

Tsar is Hebrew for narrow. An example is found in the story of Balaam and Balak, where the angel of G‑d stands before Balam’s donkey “in a narrow (tsar) place, where there is no way to turn either right or left.”1

This term is often expanded to include situations where a person is constricted, confined, or troubled. For example, Jephthah complains to the elders who request his help after scorning him: “You hate me and you chased me away from my father’s home. Why do you come to me now when it is difficult (tsar) for you?”2

Tsaros (or tsarot in Modern Hebrew) is the plural form of tsar “troubles,” as used by King David in Psalms, “The troubles (tsaros) of my heart have increased; deliver me from my straits.”3

Like English speakers, when talking quickly Yiddish speakers contract the “os” at the end of the word into “is.”4 Depending on the provenance of said speaker, tsuris is thus pronounced TZOOR-iss, or TZOR-iss.

Do You Have Tzuris?

When I lived in the old Jewish quarter in Budapest for a short time around the turn of the Millenium, I came to know an elderly gentleman known to all as Tsuris Bácsi, “Uncle Tsuris.” This is because he would wander the neighborhood, which had also been the site of the Budapest Ghetto, mumbling, “Tsuris, oy tsuris.” And who could blame him? Having lived through the horrors of the Holocaust, the troubles of the Jewish people were foremost on his aging mind, pushing aside all other aspects of what may have been a rich, multifaceted personality.

Yet, there is something deeply empowering about the word “tsuris.” You see, a narrow space is not a roadblock. You can pass through, it just takes a bit more wiggling and maneuvering. And when you do emerge, the resistance you had to push through will catapult you forward.

In the words of King David: “From the narrows,5 I have called G‑d; He answered me with the vast expanse.”6