Hebrew: The language that united a nation

Hebrew: The language that united a nation

One of the reasons why the entire Jewish population (in the present and in the past) can read and write is due to the importance of language as an element of cultural unity. The Hebrew language is the main link between humanity and the sacred knowledge that we have inherited from Hashem. In fact, the ancient Kabbalists used to say that the world is made from language, since G-D first created the letters of the Aleph-Bet and then created the entire universe and all its complexity thanks to infinite combinations of words and sentences. The only ancient language that has remained alive to this day, the only dead language that has returned from the dust is actually Hebrew. Let us know this precious language and its history!

Hebrew is a Semitic language (ie, descended from the family of Sem, one of the sons of Noah), and linguists claim that it belongs to the Afro-Asian branch of languages. Today, it is written and spoken by more than six million people in Israel, as well as within the Jewish communities around the world (almost a hundred countries, by the way.) For millennia, Hebrew is the written, liturgical and prayer language used in Judaism. For a long time (particularly since the return from captivity in Babylon, until the nineteenth century) it was considered a liturgical language, used only for daily prayers, in synagogues, yeshivas and other sacred places, such as the Kotel. However, Hebrew as a spoken language was recovered by Zionism in the late nineteenth century, thanks to the work of Eliezer Ben Yehuda and other great scholars of the scriptures, to serve as a national language to the future Jewish state; and next to the Arabic, it is now the official language of the State of Israel.

According to the Israeli tradition, Hebrew is the language chosen by God to convey his message to mankind. Since ancient times, and beyond it has been permanently spoken throughout its more than three millennia of existence, and it is maintained and even renewed as an important common element and cohesion.

Read also: An easy introduction to Kabbalah: The mystical path of Judaism, by Yosef Meystel

Image courtesy of neilfein at Flickr.com

One of the most disconcerting aspects for Westerners who start learning this language is that Hebrew is written from right to left. Another aspect that intimidates the learners a little is that it is a language that does not need vowels to be written and well-understood. Since it began to be written (because for a long time, the Israelites only kept an oral tradition,) only consonants were written. The use of vowels (called “nikud”) took place in the 9th century thanks to the Masoretes, a group of scholars who sought to teach the Hebrew language so that the new generations of the Diaspora did not forget it. The vowels are a series of points and small lines, located above or below the consonants and serve as a guide to how words are pronounced (rather, how the language was pronounced at the time of the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans.) But they really are unnecessary once you know the language well (even newspapers and magazines in Israel do not include vowels.)

Like all languages, Hebrew has evolved from its earliest moments (the inscription of the Moab Stela and the writing of the Book of Job) to Modern Hebrew, officially spoken in Israel. The language of the book of the Chronicles, for example, is different from that of Kings. Aramaic became the dominant language in the Syro-Palestine region and became a strong influence for Hebrew (it eventually displaced it in some areas.) In the book of Nehemiah there is a complaint that some children of mixed marriages could no longer speak the language of Judah but spoke “the tongue of Ashdod” (perhaps it refers to Aramaic, the language spoken in Babylon during exile.)

Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew have grammatical and phonetic differences, but they are still the same language, after all. In fact, Hebrew speakers can read the Torah and the Tanakh without problems (although they may consult a dictionary in some passages.) However, Modern Hebrew is simplified and easier to learn (it was made as an everyday language for the new population of Israel.)

For many religious Jews, Hebrew remains a sacred language: the primary vehicle for communicating with G-D. Hence, religious communities like the Hasidim prefer to speak Yiddish (a medieval Germanic language) on the street and Hebrew at the synagogue.

The knowledge of Hebrew is the knowledge of the Torah (and, consequently, of Israel.) Even for studying the theology of Judaism it is necessary to study the grammar of Hebrew language. So, if you want to know more about Judaism, Israel and the true meaning of the scriptures, you already know where to begin.

Recommended: The Awesome Mystery of Hebrew