Language, especially Hebrew, has a theological significance in Judaism not commonly associated with language in any other religion. Three reasons account for this: (1) the Hebrew Scripture’s depiction of the world’s being called into being through divine utterance, suggesting that Hebrew is the very language of creation, (2) the presence in Scripture of verbatim quotations of God, again in Hebrew, and (3) the many acts of piety prescribed in Scripture and Rabbinic documents that require writing out and/or reciting a text, again, usually in Hebrew, sometimes in Aramaic.
Thus, while part of the legacy Judaism inherited from its ancient Near Eastern and Hellenistic antecedents is multilingualism, Hebrew, as the language of creation and revelation has remained central.
This centrality of language continued even as, over a period of centuries, Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language and was supplanted in daily Jewish life by other languages specific to Jews, the most famous and widely spoken of which were Yiddish and Ladino. Like Hebrew, these languages became part and parcel of Jewish religious identity, employed in the study of Torah and in private, and even some public, prayers.
The fact that Judaism is a religion of sacred languages is underscored by the realization that, in the modern period, the abandonment of these languages in favor of the languages of the Jews’ host cultures was symptomatic of secularization over all. This was the case even in the State of Israel, where traditional Jewish languages were abandoned in favor of a new secular language, modern Hebrew.
And yet, the Hebrew of modern Israel has come to provide for probably the greatest number of Jews in history a direct access to the spiritual treasures of the Hebrew Scripture and Rabbinic literature, as well as a feeling of association with the entire history of the Jews, their religion, and culture. The revival of Hebrew thus is perceived by many as part and parcel of the unfolding drama of God’s messianic redemption, and Hebrew has retained its place not only as a language Jews speak but as a Jewish language, significant in the theology and, most important, eschatology, of Judaism.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.