Hebrew's Theological Significance

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

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In Proverbs 8:22, personified Wisdom declares that she was created at the very beginning of God’s dominion, even before the watery abyss whose preexistence is taken for granted in Genesis 1:2. Moreover, personified Wisdom declares (Proverbs 8:22‑31) that, at the time of the creation of the cosmos, she accompanied God as a confidant. Already in Psalm 119 this personified Wisdom of Proverbs is identified with Torah, the same Torah that, in Psalm 119, as already in Deuteronomy 17 and Nehemiah 9, comprises a God‑given book of instructions concerning human behavior.

Simple logic suggests that if Wisdom is Torah and Wisdom is God’s companion at Creation, then it was the Torah that accompanied God at Creation. It is a short step from this logical inference to the idea, first attested in the writings of the first-century C.E. Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, later in Genesis Rabbah 1:1 [ a work of midrash, biblical interpretation], and still later among medieval Kabbalists, that the Torah was the blueprint used by God in creating the cosmos.

It is, further, only a small step from this notion to the conclusion that the language of the Hebrew Scripture--and with it, the language of the Mishnah, the liturgy, most of the midrashic literature, and the language in which the rabbis of the two Talmuds express their definitive statements--is also the language of Creation. This means, ultimately, that the 22 letters of Hebrew’s alphabet are the alphabet of Creation. [Sefer Yetzirah--The Book of Creation, a mystical work written around the second century--develops this idea in detail.]

In keeping with this idea, Berakhot 55a [of the Babylonian Talmud] informs us that Judah had a tradition from Rab (a late third-century C.E. rabbi) that Bezalel, who was called upon to fashion the vessels of the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:1‑11) and implicitly, therefore, to build the Tabernacle itself, was able to do so because he knew how to combine the letters by which the world was created.

Under Kabbalistic influence, this same theory of the power of the Hebrew alphabet comes to suggest even to some adherents of late 20th-century popular Judaism, especially in the State of Israel, that faulty‑worded prayers and faulty‑written mezuzot [door hangings, containing the Shema prayer] and tefillin [straps and small boxes containing scriptural passages and worn during prayer] can and do directly and adversely affect the health and well‑being of persons and the cosmos.

Megillah 1:9 [of the Jerusalem Talmud] notes that Eleazar and Yohanan--both late third-century C.E. Palestinian Amoraim--disagreed regarding the meaning of Genesis 11:1: “The whole world  was of one language and few words.” One of these two rabbis (the Talmud seems neither to remember nor to care which) held that “and few words” means that from the beginning people spoke different languages but understood each other. The other rabbi holds that it means that prior to the confusion of tongues (Genesis 11:7‑9) all people spoke God’s language that is, Hebrew.

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Dr. Mayer Gruber

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