Years before the establishment of the State of Israel, a war of words broke out among stakeholders in the Technion, Israel’s oldest university, who were at odds over whether the language of instruction there should be German (with its well-established pedigree for scientific exploration) or Hebrew (then spoken only by a small, though determined, percentage of Jews). In the former camp was cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’Am, who believed Hebrew language instruction of technical matters was impossible. In the latter camp was the Hebrew Teachers’ Union, which held that “only the Hebrew language that can and should serve as the tongue for speech and instruction in our land.” This sprachenkampf (or “language war”) concluded in February 1914 with the pro-Hebrew camp’s victory.
Today’s daf contains a similar debate, only this time it’s over which language ought to be used in prayer. According to the mishnah on today’s daf, the Shema and the Amidah can both be recited in any language. Naturally, the Gemara wants to know how we know this.
From where do we derive Shema? As it is written: “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4). In any language that you hear.
From the actual text of the prayer, the Gemara determines that the Shema can be said in any language that someone can hear and understand. That seems entirely logical and in line with the mishnah. But an ancient sprachenkampf awaits in the next paragraph:
The sages taught (Tosefta 7:7): Shema as it is written. This is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. And the rabbis say: In any language.
According to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the Shema must be recited in the language in which it was written — i.e. Hebrew. What is his proof?
The verse states: “And these words, which I command you this day, will be upon your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6). As they are, so shall they be.
Relying on a few verses from elsewhere in the Shema, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi reasons that if the words of the prayer “will be upon your heart,” those words must be exactly as originally written. In contrast, the rabbis rely on the original rationale, that “hear” implies understanding, so any language will do.
The Gemara then poses an additional question, wondering if this linguistic broad mindedness applies to the Torah as a whole. And if it does, then why do we need the Shema’s specific instruction to hear?
Integrating the prooftexts of the rabbis and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the Gemara finds a compromise:
“Hear” is necessary, because “and these words, which I command you this day, will be” is written.
In other words, the Torah in general should be invoked in Hebrew, as per Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. The Shema, however, can be recited in a manner that enables comprehension.
The Zionist revival of Hebrew over a century ago is just the most recent example of a Jewish fight over language. As the Gemara reminds us, battles like these are part of our tradition. The linguistic requirements for prayer have been the subject of disagreement for far longer than the Technion has existed.
Read all of Sotah 32 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 30th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.