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In Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party (1957), Goldberg (a Jewish character) wishes Stanley a happy birthday and says "well over the fast." What does he mean by it? I know that this expression is usually used by the Jewish people as a kind of holiday greetings! But how come Goldberg uses the expression at a birthday party?!!

GOLDBERG. Lift your glasses. Stanley—happy birthday.

MCCANN. Happy birthday.

LULU. Happy birthday.

MEG. Many happy returns of the day, Stan.

GOLDBERG. And well over the fast.

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    I don't understand the surprise shown here. Wikipedia quotes lines that indicate that a) it might not even be Stan's birthday, despite the title of the play and Meg organising a party, so the whole thing's a farce and b) Goldberg is ostensibly out on a holiday, so it might well be near Yom Kippur. What's so surprising about this?
    – muru
    Nov 27, 2017 at 23:36
  • If Goldberg is wishing Stanley "happy birthday" when it's not Stanley's birthday, why couldn't he be wishing people "well over the fast" when it's not near Yom Kippur? Pinter has been described as belonging to the movement "Theater of the Absurd"; it seems like this might qualify.
    – Peter Shor
    Sep 27, 2023 at 18:19

2 Answers 2

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Notwithstanding the 1953 Victor Gollancz reference above, "Well over the fast" has been a greeting among British Jews at the time of Yom Kippur certainly since the 19th century.

"Mr. and Mrs. M.H. HARRIS and FAMILY wish their friends a Bright and Happy New Year and well over the Fast." Jewish Chronicle, 24 September 1897, page II. Source - Jewish Chronicle Archive

[At Yom Kippur] "both men and women abstain totally from eating and drinking during the twenty-six hours to which the day is stretched. This fast is, however, bounded at each end by a feast, and "I wish you well over your fast" is a common greeting among the penitents." From an article headed "English Jews" in The Examiner, London, 23 September 1871. Source - British Newspaper Archive

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  • Do you care to explain what it actually means?
    – CDR
    Sep 24, 2023 at 14:23
  • @CDR I don't understand. The answer shows that "well over the fast" as a Jewish wish around the High Holidays dates back to at least the turn of the century. That Yom Kippur is a fasting holiday is amply explained both in this answer and the one by Valorum it references. (I also assumed it was common knowldege, but your comment leads me to think perhaps not.) Given that it builds on Valorum's answer, where the sense "I hope the fasting won't make you ill" is explicitly stated, why do you say this answer hasn't explained the phrase's meaning?
    – verbose
    Sep 24, 2023 at 23:26
  • @verbose - yes, you're right. I'd meant that the answerer should explicitly explain what the phrase meant outside of the quotations, but the post certainly stands on its own without it, too. (On second thought, my comment seems somewhat meanly worded, which wasn't intended.)
    – CDR
    Sep 25, 2023 at 0:47
  • I expect well over the fast is basically an English equivalent of the Hebrew tzom kal, which literally means easy fast. Another English equivalent is have an easy fast. So maybe a better interpretation might be I hope the fasting isn't too uncomfortable for you.
    – Peter Shor
    Sep 25, 2023 at 11:58
  • There is an old expression: ask two Jews, get three opinions..... but personally I support @PeterShor's interpretation, particularly bearing in mind that the sick and frail are specifically exempted from the fasting rule. Like him, I have little doubt that the expression was originally conceived as an anglicised approximation of tzom kal.
    – Peter L
    Sep 25, 2023 at 19:00
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The earliest use in literature that I could find of this now fairly common Jewish saying seems to be from Victor Gollantz's (1953) "My Dear Timothy" and which offers this explanation;

In the crowded lobby people, before they went in, wished one another "well over the Fast", meaning by it "I hope the fasting won't make you ill".

This being the case, it seems more likely than not that Stanley's birthday is near to a fasting day such as the Fast of Gedaliah or Yom Kippur, in which case the greeting is much the same way that you might wish someone whose birthday was on the 31st of December "a happy birthday and a Happy New Year"

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