The Vitality of the Hebrew Language

What are the secrets of its survival?

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Similarly, the Hebrew words ruah (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 ruah, even the beast possesses a ruah (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 ruah 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 ruah" (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.

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Dr. William Chomsky (1896-1977) held an eminent place in the world of Jewish scholarship. He wrote in both academic and popular publications about various aspects of Hebrew, Jewish literature, and general education.