General Topics

The Hebrew Language


Where did the Hebrew language come from? When did it begin? What language does God speak? And for that matter what language did the snake use to converse with Eve in the Garden of Eden? Is Modern Hebrew a development out of Biblical Hebrew, or is it really a new and different language? Questions such as these have challenged us for years. Once upon a time, William Chomsky’s Hebrew: The Eternal Language was the source one would turn to (a world away from his son Noam, who has renounced Israel and Judaism).

Now William Chomsky’s mantle has passed to Lewis Glinert, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures at Dartmouth College. Also a former Brit and, briefly, a teaching colleague of mine. His new book, The Story of Hebrew, is a brilliant, informative, readable, and enjoyable romp through the history of Hebrew from its earliest beginnings to the present day. It is a must-have for any thinking person’s Jewish library.

There is no way we can trace the exact beginnings of the Hebrew language. Of course, the Bible tells as that God said, “Let there be light,” but who was God speaking to? And how does God speak? Are we to assume God has vocal cords and a mouth? And according to the story, Adam gave the animals names and then called his wife ISHA, which is a Hebrew word. He then decided to call her more personally “the mother of all life, Chavah” (or, as we call her in English, Eve). But again, we only have the Bible’s word for it, which will work for some but not everyone.

There is the story of the Tower of Babel, where one universal tongue split into a babble of different languages. But we aren’t told what the original one was or indeed what language Abraham spoke, except that he was able to communicate with the men of Ur and Haran, Pharaoh, Avimelech, Efron, and nine different kings all having, one assumes, different languages. What a polyglot! Or did he use translators or sign language?

When it comes to Hebrew writing, we can at least see the Gezer calendar, which is some 3,000 years old. Its script of course is not the square Assyrian script we have today, which goes back to the Babylonian exile. But it is still used by the Samaritans. Insofar as the Ten Commandments were carved they would certainly have been in this early Hebrew script. Even if the Talmud acknowledged that the Assyrian script as coming from Babylon, it still envisioned the carving being done in the more recent script (Megillah 2b).

But the written and the spoken, though obviously connected, are not the same. No average modern Israeli child would be able to read the early Hebrew script today. But he or she would certainly be able to understand much of the language of the Torah. Now how many Italians today can understand Latin, or English children Shakespeare, let alone Chaucer or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? The Hebrew language is unique in this respect. Even if no one can say for certain it is God’s language, no other one has a longer or better claim!

According to Glinert it is wrong to say that Hebrew has been reborn. Of course, such a claim is often heard from those who claim there were no Judeans, no Hebrew-speaking kings, no Temple in Jerusalem, and it’s all a Zionist myth. Hebrew never died. Not only did the Jews never give up using it in one function or another, but Hebrew as language of communication, as well as scholarship, has always played an important part in Jewish life, even when it was separated from the crucible of its homeland. And even when Jews spoke other languages.

It was the great contribution of the Babylonian scribes 2,500 years ago, who began the process of turning the Israelites from a localized, sanctuary-based religion into one that emphasized study, literacy, and language. Even as Aramaic, a language very similar to Hebrew, became the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishna in a beautiful pure Hebrew language which drew on biblical, colloquial and Greek influences. This in fact enabled Hebrew, as opposed to Aramaic, to remain the religious, literary, and spiritual language of Jewish communities in the West (where Aramaic played no part), as well as the East.

The compilers of the prayers 2,000 years ago also made Hebrew the core language of spiritual communication, even if Aramaic dominated the Talmud and indeed documents both commercial and religious in the East. The Kaddish is Aramaic and rivals the Hebrew Shema for the title of best known Jewish text.

Islam brought challenges. It claimed that Arabic was the divine language and superior to all others. The Jews of Medieval Spain responded with poetry just as beautiful and emotional and with grammar every bit as structured and systematic. Maimonides chose Arabic for philosophy, but used a powerfully simple and beautiful Hebrew for his books on Jewish law and much of his correspondence.

As Ashkenazi Jewry flourished and rivaled Eastern Jewry, Aramaic continued as the language of arcane mysticism. The Zohar is overwhelmingly an unusual kind of Aramaic. Even so, Hebrew was the method of internal and external Jewish communication and legal responsa. At no time throughout the medieval period was Hebrew lost as a living language, even as Yiddish or Ladino became the popular mediums.

All that modernity did was to add a range of new words and forms. But the grammatical structure and core vocabulary remained the same. And modern Hebrew literature dates back to a period long before Zionism. The link was continual.

Glinert deals with the valiant attempt by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) to make Hebrew the language of the Zionist enterprise against competition from German and English. But many of the words he introduced have simply failed to gain favor. He would have trouble understanding Ivrit today. Current Israeli Hebrew includes a ton of slang words that I certainly knew nothing of, living in Israel 50 years ago—as well as strange borrowings (like “pendel” for “penalty” in soccer), Arab words, and hi-tech! Glinert also recognizes the amazing success, in the early years of the State of Israel, in spreading the use of Hebrew amongst the very wide range of different languages spoken by the new immigrants. Conscription into the citizens’ army played a major part. Although in the process they tried very hard to suppress alternatives, including Yiddish. Ironically, Yiddish has grown exponentially with the birth rate of Charedi communities in Israel. Even so, Ivrit is the norm for social interaction.

No language stands still. The Oxford Dictionary adds new words each year. The successful survival of Hebrew, very much like the Jewish people, has defied the odds. As we celebrate Israel’s independence this week, we are celebrating Jewish national liberation from those who tried so hard to eradicate us from history. We are also reiterating our links to our ancient land, its language, its history, and the Bible itself.

3 thoughts on “The Hebrew Language

  1. The aspect of language not dealt with in your excellent article was "spelling". The big debate in Yiddish literature was whether to use the traditional Hebrew spelling for common words used in Yiddish, or whether to transliterate them all into the usual Yiddish spelling format so that even the ignorant will be able to read them. Now Ivrit, as used and taught in Israel, has the same debate – which is being won wholesale by the transliterationists. So, the national anthem is no longer called התקוה but rather התקווה with two Vavs. Likewise the sign on every electricity pylon warns of סכנת מוות with two Vavs. More pandering to the ignorant. Ben Yehudah would turn in his grave.

Comments are closed.