Biblical Hebrew: A Story of Survival
A new book explores the unique nature and incredible survival of the world’s holiest language.
Even a superficial inquiry into the development of languages throughout the ages reveals one of the greatest marvels of history: the incredible survival of Lashon Hakodesh, literally the Holy Language, a reference to biblical Hebrew.
For most of Jewish history, the Jewish people lived in a vast diaspora scattered throughout the world. By historical standards, Lashon Hakodesh should have suffered the same fate as Latin, Old French, and so many other languages destined to gather dust in the basements of ivy covered libraries. But it survived.
As a community, the Jewish people typically used at least two languages. The first was always Lashon Hakodesh. The Book of Esther mentions the dispatch of a royal decree to the Jewish people “in their language and script.”1 Even though it says that the Jewish people lived in many countries that spoke other languages, the Medrash2 comments that “their language” is Lashon Hakodesh. Although it was rarely spoken in daily life, it remained the language of prayer and for most rabbinical literature. Even the Rambam’s works penned in Arabic were translated into Hebrew in his lifetime, and the Rambam’s magnum opus on Jewish law was originally written in Hebrew.
The second language was generally a Jewish vernacular and it varied according to time and culture. Throughout much of early history, perhaps as early Abraham himself, the Jewish people and its forefathers spoke Aramaic. Some 2,000 years ago, Jews living in Hellenist lands developed a Judeo-Greek language with Greek characters called Yevanit, and the language was widely spoken for centuries. Jews from Spanish lands spoke a Judeo Spanish Ladino which varied in dialect across the Iberian peninsula and it is still spoken today. Jews from the Caucuses spoke a Jewish Bucharian dialect. Yiddish developed in German lands and is still spoken across the globe by tens of thousands today.
Despite persecution, expulsion, and exile, Lashon Hakodesh somehow survived just as the Jewish people survived. Moreover, it remarkably prevailed even though in almost every instance throughout history it competed with another language which was the vernacular.
Its Unique Nature
The origin of language is one of the greatest mysteries of human existence and it has baffled scholars for centuries. We can explain words in many language through tools such as onomatopoeia, but an essential question always remains: one needs an existing form of communication, a language, in order to create any language. While numerous theories exist, there is no academic agreement as to its origin. In fact, in 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris found the question so futile that it banned future debate and discussion of the topic.3
One thing, however, is clear. Regardless of what one concludes about the source of language, there is formidable support for the proposition that many of the words we use today are the products of consensus. There are many examples of this in English. Some are patently obvious such as the words internet, telephone, and television – all devised to use existing words to describe new inventions. Others require some background information.
Sir Thomas Brown, a prominent 18th century scientist, coined the word electricity because he observed the phenomenon through static electricity produced by placing object in contact with amber. The word for amber in Greek is electra. What does that essentially have to do with electricity? Close to nothing.
The word vaccine stems from the Latin word vacca, meaning cow, due to the nature of the discovery that gave rise to the basis for creating vaccines. Edward Jenner, another 18th century scholar, observed that milkmaids largely escaped smallpox epidemics but they did occasionally contract a mild disorder called cowpox. Jenner discovered that injecting fluid from cowpox blisters into healthy people prevented them from succumbing to smallpox. Since the discovery (sort of) happened through cows, the word vaccine was coined to describe the solution. Does the word vaccine describe the concept of immunity through introducing a pathogen? Hardly.
These and many other words are the products of consensus. While they may have some logic, they are essentially arbitrary and don’t truly describe the thing they represent.
According to traditional Jewish sources, Lashon Hakodesh is complete different. The letters and words of Lashon Hakodesh are essential, not arbitrary. To the extent that it is possible, its words describe and express the physical thing or concept. Just as the elements on the periodic table each have unique properties and their various combinations create many types of molecules, according to Jewish tradition, each Hebrew letter has a particular implication, and different letter combinations are compounds comprised of those elements.
For example, the word for ear is ozen. In the 18th century, scientists discovered that in addition to enable us to hear, the ear also controls our balance. The word in Lashon Hakodesh for balance is and for thousands of years has been, izun which stems from the same root as ozen, alluding to a connection between the two. Contemplation of common words such as Adam meaning man, Ivrit meaning Hebrew and Yehudi, meaning Jew, reveals worlds of meaning . Biblical Hebrew is a language of mahut, essence.
Lashon Hakodesh: History, Holiness and Hebrew
Considering the miraculous survival and unprecedented (and controversial) revival of the language, Lashon Hakodesh and its derivatives such as modern Hebrew are worthy of study from a Torah perspective.
In his recent book “ Lashon Hakodesh : History, Holiness and Hebrew” (Mosaica Press 2014) Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein affords Lashon Hakodesh the attention it deserves. Of particular importance is Rabbi Klein’s use of the academic method to provide an impressive survey of rabbinical commentary throughout the ages.
The book addresses some basic and important questions concerning the language. Did Adam speak Lashon Hakodesh? What about our forefather Abraham? Did the letters of Lashon Hakodesh appear the same way throughout the centuries? How did the rabbis resolve Talmudic sources referring to the Ashuri script (which we use today) as the original with sources which indicate that the Ivri script (found in many archaeology sites and depicted on the State of Israel’s one shekel coin) came first?
The book also addresses the question of what distinguishes Lashon Hakodesh from other languages. Rabbi Klein cites prominent sources concerning the essential rather than arbitrary nature of the language as discussed above. He similarly provides a synopsis of the main interpretations as to why the language is called “holy.”
One of the book’s most impressive contributions to the literature on Lashon Hakodesh is its depiction of the rabbinic reaction to secular attempts to establish modern Hebrew as a spoken language.
Linguistically, modern Hebrew is far closer to biblical Hebrew than other languages which derive from an older source. “HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum, þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!”4 Not only is that eighth century English sentence indecipherable to us, a modern English speaker would have difficult recognizing it as a form of English. In contrast, were the prophet Isaiah to land at Ben Gurion airport and ask in Biblical Hebrew for directions to Jerusalem, he would be understood and speakers of modern Hebrew would be able to communicate an answer.
Among other things, it was that apparent similarity gave rise to some of the rabbinic concern in adopting modern Hebrew as an everyday language. They were suspicious or critical of some of the suggested modern innovations and some with uncomfortable with the use of a holy language for mundane matters. For example, the Hebrew term chashmal which, according to rabbinic interpretation is replete with kabbalistic meaning, was adopted as the modern Hebrew word for electricity. The symbolism in the word luach biblically used to describe a tablet or medium into which something is indelibly carved (as in the Ten Commandments which were carved into luchot) as the modern word for a blackboard which can be erased is a curious and suspicious secular adaptation of the original meaning.
Rabbi Klein’s summary of efforts for and against the use of modern Hebrew tracks the various opinions in a clear and balanced manner which adds a significant facet to an understanding of Lashon Hakodesh throughout Jewish history.
The history of Lashon Hakodesh is an intrinsic part of Jewish history, and “ Lashon Hakodesh : History, Holiness and Hebrew” provides us with an insightful overview of our historic and continuing connection to an eternal language.
1. Esther 8:9.
2. Yalkut Shimon Shmos Chapter 27 Remez 475.
3. Stam, J. H. 1976. Inquiries into the origins of language. New York: Harper and Row, p. 255.
4. These are the opening lines of Beofulf in the original http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/beowulf-oe.asp which when translated mean: LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped, we have heard, and what honor the athelings won! http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/beowulf.asp.