Hebrew: Its History and Centrality

Hebrew has undergone many changes, but as the language of the sacred texts, it has always had a special place in Judaism.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Hebrew was the language spoken and written by the ancient Israelites and, in various forms, throughout the history of the Jewish religion. The Bible (the "Old Testament") is in Hebrew with the exception of parts of the books of Ezra and Daniel, a single verse in Jeremiah, and two words in the Pentateuch. These are in the sister language of Hebrew, Aramaic.

Both Hebrew and Aramaic belong to the Semitic branch of languages. Scholars have detected various forms of Hebrew in the Bible itself; the poetic portions, for example, preserve traces of archaic Hebrew case‑endings and have other distinguishing features.

Attempts have been made from time to time to read religious ideas into the very forms of biblical Hebrew. A good deal of [the 19th-century rabbi] Samson Raphael Hirsch's work is based on the supposed uniqueness of biblical Hebrew in conveying religious ideas by its structure and vocabulary. Such attempts are bound to fail once it is appreciated that Hebrew is only one among the Semitic languages, all of which have basically the same forms and structures.

Yet even a non‑Jewish scholar, A. B. Davidson (called by his colleagues "Rabbi" Davidson) can write, in his An Introductory Hebrew Grammar (Edinburgh, 1923; p.3) that there is a unique regularity in biblical Hebrew so that the student "will find its very phonetic and grammatical principles to be instinct with something of that sweet reasonableness, that sense of fair play, we might almost say that passion for justice, for which the Old Testament in the sphere of human life so persistently and eloquently pleads."

history of hebrewPost‑biblical Hebrew has developed forms of its own. This is the scholarly language used by the Tannaim, the teachers of the first two centuries C.E., while the language of the people was Aramaic. Since the Mishnah is in this form, it is known as Mishnaic Hebrew, although its use is attested before the actual Mishnaic period.

The two Talmuds, Babylonian and Palestinian, are largely in Aramaic but with portions and numerous quotations in Hebrew as well as loan words from Greek and Persian, and the same is true of the Midrashim [works that interpret the Bible], but with a greater preponderance of Hebrew in the latter works.

Post‑Talmudic Jewish literature, influenced by the Talmudic and Midrashic forms, is in Rabbinic Hebrew, an amalgam of Hebrew and Aramaic--that is, a Hebrew with many words and expressions taken from the Talmud. The Responsa literature [in which rabbis respond to specific queries about Jewish law] is in Rabbinic Hebrew, except for some of the earlier Responsa written in Arabic. For medieval Jewish philosophical writings, a new vocabulary had to be invented, since classical Hebrew is lacking in terms for the expression of abstract ideas such as "essence," "existence," and "categories."

A more or less successful attempt was made by the Haskalah [the Jewish Enlightenment] to produce poetry, novels, and other "secular" writings in Hebrew. This paved the way for the development of Hebrew as a modem language spoken now in the State of Israel and all over the Jewish world, and called Ivrit ("Hebrew").

This name, Ivrit, is not new. It is found in the Mishnah (Gittin 9:8) and has been described as "Hebrew reborn" but is, in many ways, a new language. In Ivrit, numerous new words and forms have been introduced into the language, many of them adaptations from earlier Hebrew forms and many based on European languages. In the context of religious discussion, Hebrew is not usually referred to as Ivrit but by the term found in the Talmud (Berakhot 13a; Sotah 49b): lashon hakodesh, "the sacred tongue."

Religious Aspects

The standard Jewish liturgy and the majority of the later additions to it are in Hebrew. The early Reformers introduced a new liturgy, a good deal of it in the vernacular. The Orthodox rabbis, while admitting that according to Jewish law prayers can be recited in any language, argued that this only applies to an individual worshipper who does not know Hebrew. To substitute German or other European languages for Hebrew in public worship involves a radical departure from tradition and cannot be tolerated. When a conference of Reform rabbis decided, on a majority vote, that the substitution was acceptable, Zechariah Frankel [the eventual founder of Positive Historical Judaism, the predecessor of Conservative Judaism] left the hall in protest.

Contemporary Reform congregations, however, have tended to reintroduce a good deal of Hebrew into the liturgy. Conversely, it has long been the practice among Orthodox people in Western countries to read some of the prayers in the vernacular as well as in Hebrew. The Yiddish‑speaking Jews preferred this language for ordinary purposes, reserving Hebrew for religious matters. Similarly, Sephardic Jews used Ladino for ordinary purposes and Hebrew for sacred purposes.

For this reason, a few ultra‑Orthodox Jews were opposed to the use of Ivrit, treating it as Hebrew and hence not to be used for secular discourse. But the opposition to Ivrit was, at times, advanced on the grounds that, on the contrary, Ivrit was a totally different language from "the sacred tongue" of Hebrew and was the invention of the Maskilim and the Zionists whose philosophy was taboo. Only a very few of the ultra‑Orthodox, nowadays, refuse to converse in Ivrit.

In mystical texts, Hebrew is the original language of mankind and is God's language, the language in which He "spoke" to Moses and the prophets. For the mystics, Hebrew letters are not mere conventions, as are the letters of other languages, but represent on Earth spiritual, cosmic forces.

Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 3:8) writes that Hebrew is called "the sacred tongue" because it contains no words with which to designate the male and female genitals, the sex act itself, sperm, urine, or excrement, for all of which euphemisms are used. Nahmanides (commentary to Exodus 30:13), as a Kabbalist, finds Maimonides' reason unconvincing. The reason why Hebrew is called "the sacred tongue," says Nahmanides, is because God spoke in this language to His prophets and created the world by means of the letters of this language.

One imagines that for the majority of Jews today, Hebrew is the "sacred tongue" because, whatever its origin, it is in this language that the classical works of the Jewish religion have been written. For Jews, the Hebrew language is not intrinsically sacred, as Nahmanides and the mystics would have it, nor is it sacred in the sense of "pure" as Maimonides would have it. It is sacred because of its association with all that Judaism holds sacred.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.