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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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.