Monday, October 12, 2015

Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew

Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (2nd Edition)
Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Mosaica Press / 320 pages

Rabbi Reuven Klein’s Lashon Hakodesh is an outstanding work that traces the history of the Hebrew language, and by extension, the many languages that Jews have used over the centuries. In addition to Hebrew, much attention is given to Aramaic, including discussions on the many prayers that are recited in Aramaic. The book is replete with reference to the entire body of Torah literature, such as Tanach, Talmud, rishonim, achronim, midrashim, along with halachic material where relevant. History, archaeology, and other sciences also make an appearance where relevant. At the end of every chapter is a summary of that chapter.

The book opens with a discussion on the earliest languages. We learn that Adam and Eve spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, followed by additional languages in the time of Noach and the Tower of Babel. Many important issues in the history of language and the Jewish people are addressed. For example, are Aramaic and Hebrew related? What about modern day ivrit and lashon hakodesh? What did the Jews speak in Egypt? How did God communicate with Moshe, Aaron, and Pharaoh? What did the Jews speak during the Temple periods? Why is Hebrew called lashon hakodesh? The list of topics that are dealt with in the book goes on and on.

The chapter on Modern Hebrew (ivrit) is an especially exciting chapter. We learn about Eliezer ben Yehuda’s attempts to revive Hebrew as the national language along with ultra-orthodox opposition to the idea. Nevertheless, I feel that in this chapter, the author slips slightly from the polished objectivity and scholarship that is characteristic of the rest of the book. The allegiance to the chareidi narrative on ivrit is a little too obvious. Rabbi Klein essentially preaches the position of the likes of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum and Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, along with other hard liners who argue that modern day ivrit has none of the holiness of lashon hakodesh. Although some alternative positions are cited, the bias is clear. Also missing are some of the more “moderate” chareidi positions on the matter, such as the Rebbes of Ger who have encouraged the switch from the Yiddish of Europe to ivrit in Israel.

Unlike Rabbi Klein, I take the position that modern day ivrit is a sanctified language and is essentially synonymous with “lashon hakodesh.” Indeed, the State of Israel has had a full time government agency since its creation whose entire purpose is to find similarities to Scriptural precedents when introducing new ivrit words to the vocabulary. Yes, the vast majority of the secular Jewish state’s language is intentionally based on Scriptural lashon hakodesh! Sure, there are plenty of words in ivrit that are as far from lashon hakodesh as humanly possible, such as “internet,” “magniv,” and “walla,” but even lashon hakodesh has been tainted with foreign words such as “Sanhedrin,” “Gematria,” “Afikoman,” “Totafot,” and others, as Rabbi Klein himself discusses at length in Chapter 7.

Furthermore, our sages teach us that even speaking languages that resemble lashon hakodesh, such as Aramaic and Arabic, has much merit.[1] The Rambam writes that one should be exceptionally careful with the mitzva of learning and speaking Hebrew.[2] In fact, a number of authorities emphasize that one should be sure to teach one's children Hebrew and to value it above the local vernacular language.[3] We are told that one should make an effort to at least speak Hebrew on Shabbat.[5] In fact, it is often permitted to read secular materials on Shabbat if they are written in Hebrew owing to the holiness of the Hebrew language![6] Hebrew should be used when speaking about even the most secular of topics.[7] Although Hebrew may even be spoken in the bathroom,[8] some authorities suggest not doing so out of respect for its holiness.[9] We are taught that one who makes the effort to speak Hebrew as much as possible is assured a special place in the World to Come.[10]

Yiddish, Ladino, and even Aramaic[11] are not Jewish languages! They are languages that were created and used by specific groups of Jews, in specific geographical areas, at specific times in history. For example, since the Talmud was written in Babylonia, where the Jews spoke Aramaic, it was written in that language. If the Talmud would have been written in England, it would likely have been written in English. Hebrew, especially modern day ivrit, is the only national Jewish language that we have. In fact, we are taught that in the Messianic era, Hebrew will become the spoken language of the entire world.[12]

Back to Lashon Hakodesh. Make no mistake, although I have what to rant about on the chareidi view of my language (and my army and my country!), the book as a whole is exceptionally well done. It is impressively researched and full of fascinating information. It is a one-stop-shop covering everything and anything most people will ever need to know about the Hebrew language. It is one of the few works reviewed here that have my highest recommendations.

To order the book:

[1] Maharsha, Shabbat 77b; Shu"t Harama 127-130.
[2] Rambam, Pirush Hamishnayot, Avot 2:1.
[3] Kav Hayashar 2.
[5] Kaf Hachaim (Palagi) 29:6.
[6] Tosfot, Shabbat 116b; Rema, OC 307:16.
[7] OC 85:2.
[8] Sheilat Yaavetz 1:10, Tashbetz 1:5
[9] Sefer Chassidim 994.
[10] Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:3, 9.
[11] It is interesting to note that angels in Heaven don’t understand Aramaic; Tosafot, Shabbat 12b. Some say that Aramaic is actually a corrupted form of Hebrew; Rosh, Berachot 2:2.
[12] Ibn Ezra to Devarim 6:3; Radak to Tzefania 3:9.