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Reflections on the Hebrew Language

 

BibleTo me, part of the thrill of living in Israel is the language. Until I moved here, Hebrew was the language of my prayer book, the language in which the Torah Portion of the Week was read aloud in synagogue, the language of the Bible. Granted, when I went to Bible classes, as a child and after finishing school, we read the texts in Hebrew, but then we automatically translated them into English.

Here, in Israel, Hebrew is the language of the street signs, the newspapers we bring into our homes and the language we bargain in with storekeepers. It is the language I discuss my son’s progress with when speaking to his teachers. It is the language of my Bible coming out of the mouths of the newscasters on T.V.

Israel wasn’t always like this. In the late 1800’s a man named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda decided that the Jews—the People of the Book—deserved a state of their own. There were few Jews living in Israel in the 19th century. The language of the Jews, Hebrew, was virtually only a written language and not a spoken tongue. Ben-Yehuda ignored these obstacles and remained determined that Jews must return to their land and begin to speak their own language. He arrived in Palestine in 1881 and began the revival. He insisted that his wife speak only Hebrew with their son. Their son became the first all-Hebrew speaking child in modern history.

When the child finally began to speak on his own, Ben-Yehuda had living proof that a complete revival of the language was, indeed, possible. They conversed on the most everyday topics, all in Hebrew. The fact that there was a child in the house accentuated the need to find appropriate Hebrew words for the mundane things of everyday life. Words he couldn’t find basis for in the Scriptures! So Ben-Yehuda had to coin words for doll, ice cream, omelet, towel, bicycle, and hundreds more. As the child grew, so did Hebrew, both in vocabulary and in naturalness of expression. It became the language of instruction at school and the language of business. When people began speaking Hebrew daily, Ben-Yehuda became more aware of the lack of words in Hebrew, and he kept creating new words and publishing word lists in his newspaper. What fun it must have been to need a word for “light bulb” and to riffle through the pages of Leviticus and say “Aha! Menorah! Perfect. I’ll take a piece of the ancient Hebrew word for candelabra and make “norah” the modern word for a light bulb.”

His dream was that the Hebrew language would go from the synagogue to the house of study, and from the house of study to the school, and from the school it would come into the home and… become a living language.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda would be so proud today. Hebrew is read here; Hebrew is spoken here; Hebrew is the language of jump rope songs on the streets and jokes children tell each other and whispered secrets between friends.

When we moved to Israel as a family, our oldest, Avigayil had the hardest time. She was thrown into third grade where real learning was already taking place. She refused to open her mouth. If she had a question in math she would point to a problem. She’d stand by her teacher’s desk until it was explained enough for her, then she’d get back to work. She would spend whole afternoons with her new Israeli friends without saying a word! Gradually, as the months passed, Avigayil started to open up. In fact, her third grade teacher taught her class again the following year in fourth grade. One day she called me, laughing, and said, “I kicked Avigayil out of class today for talking to a friend during the lesson! Isn’t that wonderful? I thought you’d want to hear the good news!” This teacher, a neighbor, still gets a kick out of the fact that Avigayil is now married to an Israeli.

And now? I still can’t believe that my children will only pick up the Hebrew newspapers to read. Or that they’ll only read John Grisham’s novels in Hebrew. Or that I have to remind them to switch to English when guests from abroad come to visit. Or that they’re reading the Hebrew subtitles on the English programs on T.V. Or that they’re text messaging their friends on their cell phones in Hebrew. But that’s O.K. This is what my husband and I prayed for. We knew that Hebrew may never be as comfortable for us as our native language, but our children would be Israelis and their fluency with the language—its intricacies, slang, nuances, its rich treasure of vocabulary—moves me and makes me proud.

I remember learning Hebrew in school as a child. We learned how to read easily since Hebrew is so phonetic but it was something removed because the comprehension wasn’t there. Even when we would study Bible we would use the text as a means of learning the Scriptures while advancing our grasp of the language. My 9th grade teacher would thrill at the efficiencies of Hebrew and would dissect words with glee. She would print up the word, color coding separately each prefix suffix and root. I still remember the word “VaYaShlichUHu.” “And they threw it.” All in one word. The “Va” prefix meaning “And”, the “Ya” before the root and the “U” after the root meaning “They”, the root “Shin, Lamed, Chet” in the middle meaning “Send”, then the “Hu” suffix meaning “It” at the end. “And they threw it.” A concise, miraculous use of letters, roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

I feel privileged that we are able to study the Scriptures in its original language. So much of the accuracy, so many of the finer nuances are lost in the translation. For example: When Moses sends spies from the desert wilderness to tour the Land of Israel the verse reads, “And they ascended up to the Negev and He came to Hebron” (Numbers 13:22). The Hebrew carefully states that first “They ascended”, then later “And he came.” The English translation in most Bibles completely ignores the plural turning to singular. How much is missed! All the spies toured the land but only Caleb goes into Hebron. So later on when the land is being allotted to different tribes, it makes sense that Caleb goes to Joshua and reminds him of the promise Moses made to him back in the days of the spies: “Surely the land on which thy feet have trodden shall be thy inheritance” (Joshua 14:9).

Words having particular meaning in Hebrew are lost in English. When G-d changes Hosea’s name to Joshua, the words in English simply look different in type. In Hebrew though… “Hoshea” is spelled “Heh, Vav, Shin, Ayin”. When G-d changes his name we see immediately that his name now has an added “Yud” to make his name “Yehoshua.” The “Yud” adds G-d’s name to Joshua’s name, a clear promise that G-d will be with him as he leads His people.

After G-d creates man he creates for him an “Ezer Kinegdo.” The English translates it as “a helpmate.” The Hebrew is so much richer. “Ezer” is a helpmate but “Kinegdo” adds so much more. It could mean ”to face him, to stand opposite him, even be against him.” Isn’t that what a wife is to her husband? Standing, facing him, opposite but equal, a helpmate when he does what is good and right, and a restraining force against him if G-d forbid he needs opposing.

And the words for man and woman, “Ish” and “Isha” both have letters from G-d’s holy name in their names. Man has “Yud” and Woman has “Heh”. But if they ignore G-d’s presence in their lives then both man and woman’s names are left with the word “Esh”—Fire! We will burn and self-destruct without G-d in our lives.

In the Bible the Jewish people are called “Hebrews,” the People of the Book. I feel privileged to be comfortable enough to use my knowledge of Hebrew for the exploring of ancient texts and for the appreciation of more contemporary arts. I feel privileged to live in the land of the Hebrews, a land where the ancient and the modern live side by side.

Shalom,
Shira Schwartz
CFOIC Heartland

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