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A Linguistic History of Judaism: Hebrew

Written by Kyle Fingerhut


I’d like to start this series with the first and last (in some sense) language of the Jewish people.


Some thousands of years ago, Hebrew was the common language of the Jewish people. When the Romans destroyed the second Jewish Temple in 70 CE, however, its use rapidly declined. This was settled when Hadrian expelled, enslaved, and killed many of the remaining Jews (a common trope). The language, which is also that of the Torah, was preserved for religious purposes. Consequently, the language died in all but religious areas of Judaism.


At that point in history, Aramaic became the common language spoken among Jewish people. For the next 800 or so years, Hebrew remained a solely liturgical language, so my great-grandparents in Poland, Ukraine, and Morocco only knew of it for reciting prayers, reading the Torah, and the like.


It's worth noting that not even in the realm of Jewish liturgy did Hebrew reign supreme. Once the Jews took Aramaic as their common tongue, Jewish law, also known as the Talmud, was written in Aramaic, not Hebrew. Centuries later, however, Rabbis such as Rashi (a French Rabbi) continued writing Jewish law and did so in Hebrew.


Of course, this liturgical survival and occasional usage throughout the centuries was insufficient in keeping Hebrew alive as a spoken language. That is until the Haskalah (השכלה) “wisdom”, or Jewish Enlightenment came into being in the 18th century. This brought Hebrew newspapers, such as Hamagid (המגיד) “the declarer” in Russia which was published weekly but made its way around the world and eventually shifted its headquarters to Berlin and later Kraków.


At this point, Yiddish (a Jewish variety of German with Hebrew and Slavic influence) had unique varieties spoken in Eastern and Central Europe, and Ladino (a Jewish variety of Spanish with Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Turkish influence) was mainly spoken in North Africa and Turkey by Jews expelled (again) from Spain and Portugal.


Members of the Haskalah got to work at improving Hebrew and equipping it for use in the modern world. They viewed Yiddish and Biblical Hebrew negatively and aimed to “purify” Hebrew. Meanwhile, in the late 19th century, many poets, playwrights, and translators began to produce works in Hebrew, heavily aiding the efforts to revive Hebrew. Many of these artists, however, embraced the use of Yiddish to express otherwise impossible concepts with the limited vocabulary and syntax of Biblical Hebrew.


As Jews were being expelled or tortured in their own countries, many fled to Palestine. The question of what common language the Jews would use to communicate with each other was hotly debated. For Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the leading proponent in the revival of Hebrew, it was of paramount importance that Hebrew be the language chosen. It was clear to him that when Jews in Palestine sought to understand each other and lacked a common tongue, they would revert to some broken form of Hebrew. He created a thesaurus of contrived Hebrew words required for a modern language forged from Biblical Hebrew forms.


Though some viewed Yiddish as the language which should be the lingua franca of Jews in Palestine, the influx of immigrants fleeing from Nazi Germany sought to leave Yiddish behind along with its memories of persecution, exile, and murder. Meanwhile, the immigrants from other, mainly non-European countries who did not speak Yiddish had no connection to the language. Furthermore, the desire to create a unified Jewish identity in Palestine led to the adoption of Hebrew. Once Israel was established, to enforce this decision, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion even used tools to suppress Yiddish from being spoken such as extra taxes being levied on Yiddish shows. All education, youth movements, and military service were to be carried out in Hebrew.


Hebrew remains the only language to have ever been brought back from the dead. While it was an incredible feat, it has also brought unintended consequences such as the current “definitely endangered” status of the Yiddish language. Once, Israel sought to lessen the usage of Yiddish through force, and nowadays, Israeli universities offer courses in Yiddish to keep the dying language alive. There’s also a new generation of people who are interested in learning their ancestors’ language, Yiddish (it’s also on Duolingo now!).


It is unclear whether the suppression of Yiddish was necessary to promote Hebrew or whether Yiddish could have been better protected. After all, 85% of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers, so it seems that anything short of adopting Yiddish as a national language, Israel could not have done much to sustain it.


If you’d like to get a taste of the Hebrew language, here is a link to my Hebrew playlist on Spotify!


References:

  • Hebrew: A dead language revived (2022) Unpacked. Available at: https://jewishunpacked.com/hebrew-a-dead-language-revived/#:~:text=But%20when%20the%20Romans%20destroyed,the%20final%20native%20Hebrew%20speakers. (Accessed: December 7, 2022).

  • Saenz-Badillos, A. (2022) The revival of Hebrew, My Jewish Learning. Available at: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-revival-of-hebrew/ (Accessed: December 7, 2022).

  • Laub, K. (1987) Long suppressed, Yiddish is making a comeback in Israel, AP NEWS. Associated Press. Available at: https://apnews.com/article/9d46cc421298178d834b94bc067c1821 (Accessed: December 7, 2022).

  • Schaechter, R. (2022) 85% of the Jews killed in the Holocaust spoke Yiddish. here's how to honor them., The Forward. Available at: https://forward.com/forverts-in-english/500981/85-of-the-jews-killed-in-the-holocaust-spoke-yiddish-heres-how-to-honor-them/ (Accessed: December 7, 2022).

  • Image by zofiaEliyahu from Pixabay.

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