What Is the Origin of the Word “Pushke”? Originally Published July 9-10, 2021.

The word pushke is Yiddish, פּושקע, and of course there is controversy about its origin.

The Polish word for “tin can” is puszka.  And a Slavic word for “box” is similar.

However, the Aramaic word pushka, spelled either פושקא or פושכא, means “palm” or “handsbreadth.”  How does one seek alms?  With an outstretched palm.  And we put our tsedaka donation into the outstretched palm holding the box.

Depending upon the dialect of Yiddish being spoken, the word may be pronounced “pushke,” “pishke,” “pushka,” “pishka,” “pushkey,” or “pishkey.”

We note that in Tamil the word for “box” is பெட்டி which is pronounced “peṭṭi” which is fairly close to “pushke.”  And “alms” — in Nepali भिक्षा, in Bengali ভিক্ষা, in Punjabi ਭੀਖ, in Marathi भिक्षा, in Gujarati ભિક્ષા, in Telugu భిక్ష, and in Kannada ಭಿಕ್ಷೆ, all of which are pronounced “bhikṣā” — is also close to pushke

Of course, in Turkish, Azerbaijani, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Indonesian, Malay, Hausa, Kurdish, Uzbek, and Tajik, “alms” transliterates to some variation of “sedaka.”

And there we are.  It shows (to your correspondent, anyway) that many nations produce both persons with need and persons with generosity, and our traditions do not radically diverge.

Most Jewish traditional pushkes were plain tin can boxes, with a slot in the top, a way to retrieve the money deposited to donate, and on home pushkes perhaps the logo of the organization which put it confidently into your hands.  Some, though, have been veritable tchotchkes on the shelf - beautiful and dear.  (“Tchotchke” is another word which comes from many places at once, and can mean a few different things in all those languages.)  Although we see them at shul each morning at minyan, we don’t use pushkes very much anymore, as nowadays folks want receipts for donations.  We suppose that is not a negative - giving a larger check is easier than returning a heavier pushke, since the check weighs generally the same amount no matter how many zeros are added.  Meanwhile, the fancier pushkes still sit on the shelves reminding us to give.