The Vitality of the Hebrew Language

What are the secrets of its survival?

How was the Hebrew language able to exist and function as an effective instrument of creative self-expression and inter­communication for about 2,000 years, without such an essential ingredient for survival as a state or territory? How could Hebrew retain its vitality and elasticity over such a long period of time in the face of such adverse conditions?

Judaism’s Uniqueness

The answer to these questions may be discovered by consider­ing the unique character of Judaism and its relation to the Hebrew language. Hebrew has not been a denationalized uni­versal tongue, the medium of a specific religion, in the sense that Latin has been the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. Nor has it been merely a folk tongue like other living languages. As a matter of fact, it has persisted as a living language for many centuries after it had ceased to be a spoken vernacular in the accepted sense of the term.

Hebrew has been the sacred language of the Jewish people — the language of its re­ligion, culture and civilization. It has been, in sum, the language of Judaism and intimately identified with the national and re­ligious experiences of the Jewish people throughout the genera­tions. The Jewish people can no more be dissociated from Hebrew than they can be dissociated from their own spiritual identity — Judaism.

Relationship Between Language and Culture

An analysis of the nature of language and of Judaism may help to clarify this point.

Our ideas and experiences are not independent of language; they are all integral parts of the same pattern, the warp and woof of the same texture. We do not first have thoughts, ideas, feelings, and then put them into a verbal framework. We think in words, by means of words. Language and experience are inextricably interwoven, and the awareness of one awakens the other. Words and idioms are as indispensable to our thoughts and experiences as are colors and tints to a painting. Our per­sonality matures and develops through language and by our use ­of it. Defective linguistic growth is known to go hand in hand with stunted intellectual and emotional development.

What is true of language in relation to individual growth is equally true in the case of the cultural growth and development of a people. Indeed, students of language have come to recog­nize that the experiences of a group, its mental and emotional habits, its modes of thoughts and attitudes are registered and reflected in the words and idioms of the group’s language. Thus, for example, the word shalom, usually rendered as “peace,” has in effect little in common with its English equivalent. Shalom does not have the passive, even negative, connotation of the word “peace.” It does not mean merely the absence of strife. It is pregnant with positive, active, and energetic meaning and association. It connotes totality, health, wholesomeness, har­mony, success, the completeness and richness of living in an integrated social milieu. When people meet or part they wish each other shalom, or they inquire about each other’s shalom.

Similarly, the Hebrew words ruach (spirit) and nefesh (soul) do not have the implications of a disembodiment, such as are indicated by their English equivalents. There is no dichotomy in the Hebrew mind between body and spirit or soul. One is not the antithesis of the other. These Hebrew words have dynamic, life-giving, and motor-urgent connotations. Every living being has a ruach, even the beast possesses a ruach (Ecclesiastes 3: 21).

The same is true of the synonym nefesh, which is generally rendered by “soul.” But nefesh, too, is the property of all living beings (Job 12:10), including the beast (Proverbs 12:10). Even the netherworld has a nefesh (Isaiah 5:14). Furthermore, every living creature, man as well as animal, is designated as nefesh (Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, 12:5, 14:21, etc.). Both nefesh and ruach often signify strength and vigor, both in a material and a spiritual sense. Voracious dogs are said to possess a strong nefesh (Isaiah 56. 11); and the horses of Egypt, the prophet warns, are weak: they are “flesh and no ruach” (ibid., 31. 3).

Justice or Charity?

There is likewise a far cry between the Hebrew word tzedakah (from the stem tzadak, to be just or righteous), with its implications of social justice, and the English word “charity.” In the case of “charity” the recipient sees himself beholden to the donor, whose action is voluntary. Tzedakah, on the other hand, has to be performed as a matter of obligation and the recipient is in no way indebted to the donor. The needy have a right to tzedakah, while those possessing means have a duty to give it. Indeed, even a poor person who receives tzedakah must in turn give tzedakah (Gittin 7b).

There is, likewise, a wide semantic gulf between the Hebrew rahamimor rahmanut and the English equivalent “pity” or “mercy.” The Hebrew word connotes love, family feeling (see Genesis 43:30, etc.), even motherliness, since it is related to rehem (mother’s womb) of the same stem. None of these con­notations is implied in the English equivalents. Similarly, the richly meaningful and historically hallowed implications of the Hebrew Torah are totally absent in the English equivalent “law.” The Hebrew term Torah embraces the totality of Jewish creative labor throughout the ages. Just as inadequate is the English translation “commandment” for the Hebrew mitzvah.

Every language, including English, has a stock of words which are charged with the emotional and intellectual experiences of the people employing it. To illustrate, within our own experiences, the English word “fireside” came to assume a new connotation as a result of listening to the fireside chats inaugurated by the late president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Similarly, the word “filibuster,” originally signifying a freebooter or pirate, is now employed in the United States in the sense of hindering legislation by means of long speeches or other parliamentary tricks. One may also add, as examples, such expressions as “go to bat,” “strike out” and the like.

The richer and the more intense the historical experiences of a people, the greater is the number of such words in its language and the more emotionally charged they are. When translated into another language, they become devitalized and almost meaningless.

Such words are not mere linguistic units; they are cultural deposits. But they cannot be transmitted in isolation. They take on their meaning and gain in richness of association and connotation only through the context of experience. In the past some Hebrew words and expressions survived in the vernacular of the people long after the Hebrew language had ceased to be popularly spoken. They were kept alive by the intimate contact which the majority of the people continued to maintain with the Hebrew literary sources and by the persistence of Jewish forms of living and habits of thinking.

This article is excerpted from William Chomsky’s magnum opus Hebrew: The Eternal Language, first published in 1957. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.


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