Drive Slow - Sa Le'at - Cover

Sa Le’at (Drive Slow) by Arik Einstein (1974) – The most Israeli song ever?

The song סַע לְאַט (sa le’at – go slow or drive slowly) by Arik Einstein came out in 1974, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. Not only is this song beautiful and melodic, but it is also considered by many (me included) to perhaps be the song that best captures the essence of Israeli life and culture.

Whether or not that is true is of course up for debate, but from a lyrical perspective there is no question it is one of the best songs to dive into for advanced Hebrew learners. The song is written in a very colloquial register, and it is filled with a tone of expressions and cultural references that only native speakers of Hebrew usually know and tend to use. Any non-native speaker of Hebrew who will casually throw one of them to the conversation is bound to score a lot of points and make a lasting impression – trust me.

I know I wrote a lot about politics and the conflict since the events of October 7th, so I think it will be nice to write about something else for a bit. Having said that, you should also know that it is no coincidence that the song has been on my mind a lot lately – and soon enough you will see why.

Sa Le’at – the song

The song’s name סַע לְאַט (sa le’at) was also the title of the entire album, which in English is officially called Slow Down, as seen on the cover right below the little car on the left.

Fun fact: When Galgalatz, one of Israel’s most popular radio stations was opened in 1993, the first song they ever broadcasted was Sa Le’at. It corresponded well with the targeted audience of the station – drivers on the road. Hence the name Galgalatz which is a combination of the word גַּלְגַּל (galgal) which means wheel, and the abbreviation גל”צ (Galatz) which stands for גלי צה”ל (galei Tzahal) – the IDF’s main radio station that Galgalatz branched out of.

Sa Le’at – lyrics in Hebrew

The song Sa Le’at is quite chaotic structure-wise. Evidently, Einstein was true to the lyrics he wrote and simply let his thoughts roam free. This makes it very hard to tell when a verse ends, and the chorus begins.

סע לאט

מילים: אריק איינשטיין
לחן: מיקי גבריאלוב

נוסעים במכונית הישנה
לתוך הלילה הרטוב
הגשם שוב נהיה כבד
ולא רואים ממטר
סע לאט

צבי אומר שגשמים כאלה מזיקים לחקלאות
ואני חושב כמה חם בבית
ואיזה מסכנים החיילים
ששוכבים עכשיו בבוץ
סע לאט, סע לאט

ברדיו החלפון של הגשש
פתאום התחילו חדשות
הלילה יירד ברד כבד
אצלי הלך הווישר

צבי אומר שקר לו בראש, תסגור איזה חלון
ואני חושב הפועל שוב הפסידה
ואיזה מסכנים האוהדים
שאוכלים להם ת’לב
סע לאט, סע לאט

תן למחשבות לרוץ לכל הכיוונים
לא יתחילו בלעדינו
סע לאט, סע לאט

נוסעים במכונית הישנה
לתוך הלילה הרטוב
מחר אני אקום מוקדם
תראה יהיה בסדר

צבי אומר שקשה לו לנשום ונגמרו לו הטיפות
ואני חושב, אני חושב עלייך
ואיך שאת יודעת לפנק
אני אוהב אותך
סע לאט, סע לאט

אתה זוכר שנסענו לאילת
ירדנו אל המים
כולם היו בראש אחד
שרנו ביטלס בקולות

נוסעים במכונית הישנה
לתוך הלילה הרטוב
הגשם שוב נהיה כבד
ולא רואים ממטר

צבי אומר שגילו כוכב שיש עליו חיים
ואני חושב עוד מעט זה עזה
ורק שלא יעוף איזה רימון
ונלך לעזאזל
סע לאט, סע לאט

תן למחשבות לרוץ לכל הכיוונים
לא יתחילו בלעדינו
סע לאט, סע לאט

נוסעים במכונית הישנה לתוך הלילה הרטוב

Sa Le’at – vocabulary

Since this song is for advanced Hebrew learners, this vocabulary table will include every word appearing in this song. For further explanations about the words נסע, מסכן, לב, פינק, כוכב, and עזאזל see the language points and cultural references sections after the translation of the song.

travel by vehiclenasaנסע
damage, be bad forheziqהזיק
poor, deserving pitymiskenמסכן
wiper bladevisherוישר
sympathetic, fan (sports)ohedאוהד
direction, bearingkivunכיוון
spoil, pamper, coddlepinekפינק
star, planetkokhavכוכב
hand grenade, pomegranaterimonרימון

Proper Nouns

There are many names of people, places, and more things mentioned throughout the song. Most of them are explained in greater detail in the Cultural References section further down.

First name for man (means deer)tsviצבי
Last name of Mizrahi descentchalfonחלפון
Famous radio skits trioHaGashashהגשש
Israeli sports association HaPoelהפועל
A city in south IsraelEilatאילת
The BeatlesBitelzביטלס
A rough place, hellazazelעזאזל

Sa Le’at – Translation

Drive Slow

Lyrics: Arik Einstein
Melody: Miki Gavrielov

We are taking the old car
Driving into the wet night
The rain becomes heavy again
And you can’t see three feet in front of you
Drive slow

Tzvi says rains like these are bad for agriculture
And I think how warm it is at home
And how poor are the soldiers
lying now in the mud
Drive slow – drive slow

Chalfon by HaGashash is on the radio
Suddenly the news started
Heavy hail will fall tonight
My wiper blade is as good as gone

Tzvi says his head is cold
Close a window will you
And I find myself thinking HaPoel lost again
And those poor fans eating their heart out
Drive slow drive slow

Let your thoughts run free in all directions
They won’t start without us
Drive slow – drive slow

We are taking the old car
Driving into the wet night
Tomorrow I will wake early
You will see it will be fine

Tzvi says he can hardly breathe
And he is out of drops
And I find myself thinking,
Thinking about you
And how you really know how to spoil me
I love you

Do you remember when we went to Eilat
Walk down to the water
We were all of the same mind
We sang Beatles with harmonies

We are taking the old car
Driving into the wet night
The rain becomes heavy again
And you can’t see three feet in front of you

Tzvi says they discovered a planet with life on it
And I think, soon it will be Gaza
And let’s hope no grenade will fly
And we will all go to hell
Drive slow – drive slow

Let your thoughts run free in all directions
They won’t start without us
Drive slow – drive slow

We are taking the old car
Driving into the wet night

Language Notes

There are a lot of common Hebrew sayings and interesting expression throughout the song. Here are the main ones.

The verb נסע

Even though I chose to translate the title of the song to ‘Drive Slow’, it is worth noting that the basic meaning of the Hebrew verb נָסַע (nasa) is to travel by vehicle as a passenger. In fact,the word ‘passengers’ in Hebrew is נוֹסְעִים (nos’im) which is this verb in the Benoni form. The verb for ‘drive’ in Hebrew in נָהַג (nahag) and with a subtle change in the nikud of the word we get the word נַהָג (nahag) which means driver.

Even though it is technically inaccurate, it is still very common in Hebrew to use the verb נסע (nasa) when speaking or commenting on people’s driving. I chose to translate the title to ‘Drive Slow’ because in Hebrew it is very clear the singer is speaking to a driver, and I wanted to preserve that meaning in English. I went with ‘slow’ rather than ‘slowly’ to keep the same colloquial register and technically inaccurate language.

Dangerously Poor

In the second verse there’s a line about the poor soldiers lying in the mud. Soldiers are putting their lives in danger, and it is interesting to note that in Hebrew the word מִסְכֵּן (misken) which means poor, the word מְסֻכָּן (mesukan) which means dangerous, and the word סִכּוּן (sikun) which means risk, all stem from the shoresh ס-כ-ן (Samekh-Kaf-Nun).

Another word that is based on this shoresh is סַכִּין (sakin), and actually the word מְסֻכָּן (mesukan) originally mean a person carrying a knife. It reflects an interesting dichotomy of how a person who is certainly worth your pity can also be dangerous to you, no?

Gone beyond repair

The verb הָלַךְ (halakh) mean to walk, but here it is used to express something is broken beyond repair or to indicate a total loss which cannot be fixed. It is commonly used by mechanics before they say they give you an estimate for the work on your car, so it makes sense to use it in a song about taking a road trip.

Don’t ask me which one

Twice in the song, the speaker uses the word אֵיזֶה (eiza), meaning ‘which’, but no to form a question:

Close a windowtisgor eiza chalonתסגור איזה חלון
A grenade will flyya’uf eize rimonיעוף איזה רימון

Both of these sentences could easily stand even without the word אֵיזֶה (eiza), and the meaning wouldn’t change significantly. What the word אֵיזֶה (eize) does here to signal us that the speaker doesn’t know or doesn’t care which one.

The first sentence implies that any window will do fine (just open one of them), and in the second sentence implies that speaker doesn’t know how it will happen, or what grenade will fly (could even be an IDF grenade just as well), but somehow it will.

Hebrew doesn’t have indefinite articles like a or an in English, but we can certainly view this use of אֵיזֶה (eize) as an improvised indefinite article. It is a very colloquial and unformal way of speech, and it also adds to the casual manner of the song.

Eat your heart

In Hebrew, just like in English one can ‘eat one’s heart’ and it means he or she are experiencing negative emotions. While in English these negative emotions are usually grief, worry, envy or jealousy, in Hebrew it is mostly associated with regret.

The fans of the sports team mentioned in the song are very sad that their team lost again, and maybe they also regret their choice of supporting this particular team.

Finicky and Spoiled

The verb פִּנֵּק (pinek) is very common verb in Spoken Hebrew. Its basic meaning is to spoil or to pamper in the context of bringing up children, but nowadays it is mostly used to describe an excellent treatment that goes above and beyond with a lot of complimentary stuff.

The letter פ (Peh) in Hebrew is also pronounced f, and the Hebrew word which describes a spoiled person is מְפֻנָּק (mefunaq), which reminds me of the English word ‘finicky’. Admittedly, they do not describe the same thing exactly, but they do have a similar meaning in the context of people, and it’s a good way to remember that word.

Go see Azazel

The common Hebrew word for hell is גֵּיהִנּוֹם (gehenom). However, when telling someone to go to Hell, another word comes into play – the word עֲזָאזֵל (Azazel). The exact origin and meaning of this word are unclear, but it is believed the word refers to a rough cursed place people were banished to, the person or thing that got sent to that place, or a kind of demon or evil spirit – possibly even a corrupted fallen angel.

There are three common expressions in Modern Hebrew which makes use of this word:

Damn it! To Hell!la’azazelלעזאזל
Go to hell!lekh la’azazelלך לעזאזל
Scapegoatsa’ir la’azazelשעיר לעזאזל

In the song the word עֲזָאזֵל (azazel) appears slight after the mention of the city of Gaza or עזה (aza) in Hebrew. Though the words עֲזָאזֵל (Azazel) and עַזָּה (aza – Gaza) are probably unrelated, it still has a nice alliteration to it, and it is likely it was a deliberate choice to put them together in the same verse.

One thing worth noting about the word עֲזָאזֵל (azazel) is that it contains the shoresh letters ע-ז-ז (Ain-Zain-Zain), which is associated with strength and intensity, and the words אֵל (el) which means god. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to explain its etymology as ‘the strength of God’ or ‘the fierceness of God’.

Ram Skull

From the shoresh ע-ז-ז (Ayn-Zain-Zain) we also get the word עַז (az) which means potent, fierce, or intense, and the word עֵז (ez) which means goat (though not the goat part in ‘scapegoat – that’s the first word שָׂעִיר). This connection between goat and potency is akin to the connection between the animal אַיִל (a’il) which means ram, and the ancient idea of power encapsulated in the word אֵל (el) which means ‘god’.

Cultural References

There are also many cultural references throughout the song and knowing them really provides another layer to the understanding and the appreciation of the piece. This section is mostly based on this excellent article by the National Library of Israel, and that is also where I got most of the images.

Tsvi who?

There are three instances in the song where the singer and the songwriter Arik Einstein mentions a guy named Tzvi saying something. He is referring to Tzvi Shissel – his agent and a fellow actor, writer, producer, director, as well as one of his best friends. Here is a shot of both of them together from the movie סע לאט (Sa Le’at) they coproduced and started in together following the success of the album.

Sa Leat (Drive Slow)- car scene
Arik Einstein (left) and Tzvi Shissel (right)

During the seventies, Arik Einstein, Tzvi Shissel and many other artists used to drive around Israel and perform together for the troops, especially at the frontlines. Arik once said in an interview that these long car rides with Tzvi and the rest were the inspiration for this song. He added that people were discussing this and that, arguing about the window, and every time the driver went too fast, they had to tell him to slow down and remind him that the show wouldn’t start without them.

By the way, according to another interview, many times the driver was Tzvi himself because they took his car. The drops he ran out of were apparently nasal drops, as he was often congested.

HaGashash HaHiver

Halfon by Hagashash which was playing on the radio right before the news started, refers to the show Cassius Clay versus Halfon (1971) by the comedic trio HaGashash Hahiver, which also had a skit with the same name.

HaGashash HaHiver - Clay vs Halfon - Show Poster

HaGashash Hahiver, or הַגַּשָּׁש הָחִיוֵור in Hebrew (the name means the pale tracker or the pale scout), is early Israeli culture most famous comedy trio. They are considered a classic to this day and are commonly referred to as הַגַּשָּׁש or הַגַּשָּׁשִׁים (HaGashashim – the scouts) for short.

HaPoel – The Working Man’s Team

HaPoel is one of the two largest sports clubs in Israel (the other one being Macabi). There are many cities and towns in Israel with an HaPoel sports team, but when people say just HaPoel without specifying the city, it usually means HaPoel Tel Aviv – which was also Arik Einstein favorite football team. In the early seventies the team had a rough patch and didn’t play very well. In fact, it almost dropped out of the Primary League of Israel and the fans were certainly unhappy. Here is a headline from March 17th, 1974, about the fans booing their team.

HaPoel Tel Aviv losing streak - Headline

The name HaPoel in Hebrew is הפועל and it means the (ה) worker (פועל). It started as a sport association for Workers Union in the Land of Isarel during the 1920s. The association’s crest is a boxer framed by the Sickle and Hammer.

HaPoel Sport's Association - Crest
HaPoel Crest

Many of the teams that belong to the HaPoel association play with red uniforms, and I am embarrassed to say I just now realized why…

Star Vs Planet in Hebrew

The common Hebrew word for star is כּוֹכָב (kokhav) and just like English, it is used not only in astronomy but also in entertainment. Hebrew doesn’t have a separate word for ‘planet’ and instead we got the compound כּוֹכָב-לֶכֶת (kokhav-lekhet) which literally means a marching star. The full term for a star in Hebrew is כּוֹכָב-שֶׁבֶת (kokhav-shevet) which means a sitting star, though it is rarely used outside of academia.

Life in The Solae System - Hebrew Headline

Therefore, when Tzvi says they discovered a star with life on it, it can certainly also mean planet. In the early seventies NASA sent probes to our two neighboring planets Mars and Venus (the Mariner Program), and it made it to the headlines in Israel.

The Grenade from Gaza

The line about the grenade flying from Gaza refers to a real incident. In the seventies there was a sequence of terror attacks the were carried out by people from Gaza. The most heinous and shocking one was the murder of the children Marc-Daniel (7) and Abigail (4) Aroyo on January 2nd, 1971. The two had died after a 15-year-old terrorist threw a grenade into the family car while they were on a trip with their parents. Here is the headline from the paper Davar about the tragedy:

Aroyo family tragedy - headline

The grenade landed in the backseat. Little Abigail’s body absorbed most of the shrapnel and she died minutes after the explosion. Marc suffered a critical chest injury and died on the way to the hospital. Their mother, Preeti Aroyo, was also badly injured but survived. The father of the family, Robert Aroyo, miraculously didn’t sustain a serious injury and managed to turn the car around. He collapsed immediately after he drove it to safety.

Go Slow – Live

Here is a live performance of the song from YouTube. Apparently, it was recorded in 1980, about a year before I was born. The man playing the guitar next to Arik Einstein is Miki Gavrielov – the composer of the song.

Fun fact: since the lyrics of the song are very causal and with no solid meter or rhythmic structure, it was considered pretty much to be “uncomposable”. In fact, the first guy Eistein asked to compose this song, singer-songwriter Shalom Hanoch, turned him down. Miki Gavrielov, another artist who was also part of Eistein crew and even took part in some of these long car rides, eventually decided to give it a shot because he really liked it. He said it was the most challenging work he has ever done.

Someone you know might also like this

Someone you know might also like this

Stay in Touch!

Get the next post from Hebrew Monk directly to you inbox!

Don't like emails? Subscribe to Heberw Monk's Telegram Channel instead.

2 thoughts on “Sa Le’at (Drive Slow) by Arik Einstein (1974) – The most Israeli song ever?”

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top