Alt+SHIFT: Why Speak Hebrew?

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | March 16, 2023

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew.

Asael Abelman and Chanoch Gamliel, MiKol HaLeshonot: Lama Anahnu Medabrim Ivrit (Kinneret, 2002), 331 pages

Revival of the Hebrew language in the modern Jewish state rivals the miraculous nature of the rise of the state itself as a language that had not been a national tongue for millennia returned to prominence. The Welsh and Basques have not succeeded in similar projects and no significant parallels exist in the history of language. To appreciate how surprising this result was, realize that the early Zionists debated if the national language of the emerging state should be a European one (German or French), Yiddish, or Hebrew. In fact, the first Zionist Congress (Basel, 1897) was fully conducted in German.

This volume, on the history of Hebrew, helps us understand how this linguistic miracle came about. It surveys the state of Hebrew from the Biblical period through modernity and combines the strength of the two authors, Abelman the historian and Gamliel the linguist. Every chapter begins with a brief historical overview of what occurred to the Jewish people in a given time period before focusing in on the linguistic implications. 

In truth, Hebrew never completely died as it remained the prevailing language of prayer throughout the centuries with few exceptions such as kaddish in Aramaic. Even piyutim written in medieval France or Spain tended to be in Hebrew. Scholars mostly penned Torah volumes in Hebrew as well although that realm had more counterexamples of works in other languages. The ethical and philosophical books of R. Sadiah Gaon, Rambam, R. Yehuda Halevi and R. Bahya Ibn Pekuda were all written in Arabic. Rambam even wrote his commentary on the Mishnah and his Sefer HaMitzvot in Arabic though he later stated that he regretted not writing the Sefer HaMitzvot in Hebrew. Nonetheless, Hebrew remained the norm as evident in the contributions of Rashi, Tosafot, Ramban, Rashba, Ran, Seforno, Abravanel, and many others. 

Survival into Jewish posterity depended on either writing in Hebrew or having one’s work translated into Hebrew. Our authors use examples from the Greco-Roman period to illustrate this point. The Jewish community of Alexandria produced impressive contributions but it functioned fully in Greek and left almost no enduring influence on Am Yisrael. Scholars even suggest that Philo may not have understood Hebrew. The community in Jerusalem of the same time period experienced a good deal of Greek influence (think about words such as Sanhedrin and pulmus) but it did not displace Hebrew and the words of the Tannaim are lovingly cherished to this day. 

Encountering other cultures and languages always left some kind of impact. Returnees from the Babylonian exile brought with them Babylonian month names as well as a new font for the Hebrew alphabet. While our ancestors switched from ketav Ivri to ketav Ashuri, the Samaritans stuck with the older script. So too after the rise of Islam, Arabic grammar and poetry exerted significant influence on Hebrew writing. For the first time, learned Jews wrote secular poetry including poems about wine and women. Realizing the ubiquitous nature of this phenomenon should calm purists who become upset when English words enter Modern Hebrew. Only dead languages remain static; live ones change and develop. Note how Mishnaic Hebrew differs in major ways from Biblical Hebrew. 

In one instance, copying another culture may have ironically strengthened the usage of Hebrew. Islamic writers contended that the Koran was the most beautiful book and they modeled their poetic endeavors after the Koranic style. Their Jewish contemporaries emulated their poetic ambitions but argued for the superiority of the Hebrew Bible; therefore, they composed Hebrew poetry with Tanakh as their model.

Abelman and Gamliel apply their keen knowledge of each historical period to explain linguistic historical developments. In contrast to Spain where some rabbis penned Torah literature in Spanish, the French and German rabbis wrote almost exclusively in Hebrew. Our authors explain that since Spanish was both spoken in the street and used for literature, it could be appropriated easily for various Jewish purposes. In France, scholars produced serious intellectual tomes in Latin and the local Jews did not have a model of advanced works in French.

Our authors also survey the history of other Jewish languages such as Yiddish and Ladino. Amazingly, German Jews brought Yiddish with them to Poland and Spanish Jews brought Ladino (or Judesimo) from Spain to Morocco rather than simply adopting the new area’s language. Abelman and Gamliel explain that Jews expelled from their countries of origin were looking to preserve some sense of continuity and stability. Furthermore, both the Spanish and German Jewish communities saw their traditions as culturally superior and would not simply adopt the norms or languages of their new locales.

Yiddish and Ladino also contributed to the revival of Hebrew since both include a good deal of Hebrew phraseology. Jews wanting to learn Hebrew began with the basics they already knew from prayer, Torah study, and their knowledge of these other Jewish tongues.

In our contemporary globalized world, the dominance of English presents a new threat manifest in Hebrew University apparently recently considering changing the language of instruction to English for certain departments. This volume should inspire its readers to resist the English temptation. In the concluding section, Abelman and Gamliel note how the modern ascendancy of Hebrew was not only due to a few zealots such as Eliezer ben Yehuda but rather depended on grassroots efforts below from all sorts of common people. Jews in the diaspora today can spearhead a similar campaign as they realize the immense importance of Hebrew literacy for Jewish knowledge and identity. 

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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