Sunday, December 14, 2014

Wanted: Dead, Alive or Hebrew

As is commonly known, Hebrew was a dead language for close to 2000 years.

As Israeli linguist Chaim Rabin explains:
The speaking of Hebrew ceased about 200 CE (...) Since 1881 Hebrew again became a language spoken by the people.

Note the exact date when Hebrew became a spoken language again.  1881.  Unsurprisingly, this is the same year when the first Zionist aliyah began and when Eliezer Ben Yehuda came to Israel.

So what happened between 200 and 1881?  Hebrew was dead and Jews had no common language, right?

As the Guardian puts it, in their review of Shlomo Sand's book:
In 2009, Shlomo Sand published The Invention of the Jewish People, in which he claimed that Jews have little in common with each other. They had no common "ethnic" lineage owing to the high level of conversion in antiquity. They had no common language, since Hebrew was used only for prayer and was not even spoken at the time of Jesus. Yiddish was, at most, the language of Ashkenazi Jews. So what is left to unite them?

Well, let's go back to what Rabin has to say.
[The Jews] did indeed speak [Hebrew] sometimes, on the Sabbath, or when they desired not to be understood by gentile bystanders, or with Jews from other countries; but this ability to speak occasional Hebrew did not move them to any attempt to speak Hebrew at all times.

He's right.  Jews did not speak Hebrew at all times.  But if Hebrew was a dead language and if Jews did not speak Hebrew, how were they able to speak it occasionally?

The answer is that while Hebrew was not 'alive', it wasn't 'dead' either.

As much as people like Shlomo Sand would like to think otherwise, the Jewish people have had two constants in their history which united them into one nation: a common land and a common language.

And just as there were constant attempts to renew the land, there were constant attempts to renew the language.

It's easy today to dismiss those attempts, because they were not as successful as those of the past century or two, but it is a mistake to do so.  We build on the efforts of those who have come before us.  If the Jews of the 5th, 10th, and 15th century hadn't taken concrete steps to renew Jewish sovereignty in Israel, we wouldn't have been able to do so in the 20th century.

And if the Jews of the 5th, 10th and 15th century hadn't written and used Hebrew and hadn't taught their children to do the same, we wouldn't have been able to do so today.

Other nations today want to emulate us and cannot understand why the Jews were so successful in returning to their land and language and they are not.  They do not realize that keeping your link to your ancient heritage is a lot of hard work.  Once you let it go, it is almost impossible to get it back.

In the years when Hebrew was 'dead', Jews created an impressive body of literature, from religious works to historical narratives, translated works and original creations, poems, plays and personal letters.  In some cases, they also spoke Hebrew.

This article is the first in a series.  In future articles I will discuss the history of our language.

I'll end here with a short quote from Yannai, one of Israel's foremost poets.  This piyyut (hymn) was written about 1500 years ago, when Hebrew was officially 'dead' for over 300 years.  It was part of the prayer for the Torah portion relating to Jacob's return to the land of his ancestors.

In simple, clear language, Yannai draws the parallels between Jacob and his descendants - the Jew standing in prayer - both of whom are named 'Israel'; between returning to the land and returning to God.

Yannai, who lived in Israel, points out that no matter where we go, we will always be strangers in a strange land, and he asks God to return us, in peace and quiet, as sovereigns in our homeland.

See here for an archive of articles about our history in Israel.

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Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael טובה הארץ מאד מאד


Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

I discuss this idea at great length in my newly-published book <a href="><i>Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew</a></i> where I claim that before Ben Yehuda, Hebrew wasn't dead, it was merely "asleep"!

Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

I discuss this idea at great length in my newly-published book Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew where I claim that before Ben Yehuda, Hebrew wasn't dead, it was merely "asleep"!

Ora said...

Thanks for the link. I hope that I'll be able to find new stories even for you.

Batya Medad said...

This post is included in the latest Shiloh Musings: Chanukah 5775 Havel Havelim!

Please visit it, read, comment and share the posts and the blog carnival, thanks.

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