Hebrew's Theological Significance

According to Jewish tradition, Hebrew is the original language of humanity and the language spoken by God.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

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.hebrew

 

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.

Hebrew in Traditional Sources

To understand the significance of language in Judaism, we must begin with Scripture and, in particular, the creation narrative. Nine of the acts of creation described in Genesis 1:1‑2:4a are introduced by the words, “and God said.” Turning the very first word of the Bible, Bereshit (“in the beginning”), into a divine utterance, Mishnah Avot 5:1 determined that the cosmos came into being as a result of 10 divine utterances. The later exegetical tradition found in this assertion of Mishnah Avot is a restatement of Psalm 33:6, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,” or of Psalm 33:9,  “He said [a word], and it was [so].”

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Dr. Mayer Gruber

Dr. Mayer Gruber is Associate Professor in the Department of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University.