Shiur #29: Hebrew Language and Poetry

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     One of the topics remaining to be discussed is R. Yehuda Halevi's attitude toward the Hebrew language and Hebrew poetry.  This is not a central issue in Rihal's thought, but it gives rise to important principles. 




The Khazar king: Is Hebrew superior to other languages? Do we not see distinctly that the latter are more finished and comprehensive?

The Rabbi: It shared the fate of its bearers, degenerating and dwindling with them.  Considered historically and logically, its original form is the noblest.  According to tradition, it is the language in which God spoke to Adam and Eve, and in which the latter conversed.  It is proved by the derivation of Adam from adama, isha from ish; Chava from chai; Kayin from kaniti; Shet from shat, and Noah from yenachamenu.  This is supported by the evidence of the Torah.  The whole is traced back to Eber, Noah, and Adam.  It is the language of Eber after whom it was called Hebrew, because after the confusion of tongues it was he who retained it.  Abraham was an Aramaean of Ur Kasdim, because the language of the Chaldaeans was Aramaic.  He employed Hebrew as a holy language and Aramaic for everyday use.  For this reason, Ishmael brought it to the Arabic speaking nations, and the consequence was that Aramaic, Arabic, and Hebrew are similar to each other in their vocabulary, grammatical rules, and formations. 

The superiority of Hebrew is manifest from the logical point of view if we consider the people who employed it for discourses, particularly at the time when prophecy was rife among them, also for preaching, songs, and psalmody.  Is it conceivable that their rulers, such as, for instance, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon, lacked the words to express what they wished, as it is the case with us today because it is lost to us? Do you not see how the Torah, when describing the Tabernacle, efod and breastplate and other objects, always finds the most suitable word for all these strange matters? How beautifully is this description composed! It is just the same with the names of people, species of birds and stones, the diction of David's Psalms, the lamentations of Job and his dispute with his friends, the addresses of Isaiah, etc.  (II, 67-68)


     Rihal tries to prove the superiority of Hebrew over all other languages in two ways:


The first is by way of tradition.  Rihal argues that Hebrew was the language spoken by Adam and Eve.  To support this assertion, he adduces two proofs:


1)   A) Tradition attests to the fact that their names are connected to words in the Hebrew language.  This teaches that these names are derived from Hebrew.  We see, then, that the Hebrew language existed from the very beginning of creation.


2)   B) Eber, for whom the Hebrew language is named, received it from Noah and Noah received it from Adam,[1] and it was he who preserved it during the generation of the dispersion, when the languages became confused, and passed it down to Abraham.


The second way is by "rational proof:"


Rihal tries to prove the perfection of the Hebrew language from the fact that the language served the people of Israel for all its needs, from exalted Divine speech by way of prophecy, through the Torah's detailed descriptions of the Tabernacle's vessels, to poetry and prophetic rebuke.  In all these areas, the Hebrew language was not limited in any way in its ability to describe what its users wished to say.  Rihal feels that in his time, when Hebrew is no longer a living language, it is no longer capable of expressing all that he wishes to say.  This feeling reflects the deficiency and limits of the language.  When, however, Hebrew was still a living language, no one ever had this difficulty – and this attests to the language's perfection.[2]


A side comment is in order here.  Rihal seems to be parting from his usual custom in trying to bring proof based on the power of logic.  Rihal adopts a similar method in his words about the Divine origin of the Torah:


The details of these regulations would fill volumes.  He who studies them carefully will see that they are not of human origin.  Praised be He who has contrived them.  (II, 56)


     It seems, however, that in both passages, Rihal is not trying to offer proof that is "manifest or proven," but merely to adduce additional support to his argument.




     In the framework of his account of the development of the Hebrew language, Rihal asserts that in Ur Kasdim, Abraham spoke the local language – Aramaic, and that in essence Abraham was the first to turn Hebrew from a spoken language into a "holy tongue," while assigning Aramaic for "everyday use."[3]


     Rihal does not trace the development of the Hebrew language past Abraham, but it seems to me that his distinction between "holy tongue" and "spoken language" has much to teach us about the later development of Hebrew.


     Throughout the First Temple period, Hebrew served as both the spoken language and the official language of the kingdoms of Judea and Israel.  Religious books were also written exclusively in Hebrew.


     After the destruction of the First Temple, there was a decrease in the use of Hebrew and an increase in the use of Aramaic, the dominant language of the period.


     Throughout this period, however, and even during the time of the Second Temple, Hebrew never disappeared, and it remained especially widespread among the Sages, and first and foremost among the Tannaim.  The mishna, as we know, is written in Hebrew.  Even though there are differences between biblical Hebrew and the Hebrew spoken by the Sages, their common elements are far more numerous than the differences between them.


     A critical turning point was reached during the Amoraic period, when the Sages discontinued lecturing in Hebrew.  At that point, Aramaic assumed absolute rule, and Hebrew became the "holy language." Throughout the period of the exile, the holy language was used for poetry and prayer, whereas the spoken language was the local vernacular – Spanish, Italian, English, Arabic, or the like.


     When we examine the history of the Hebrew language, we find an astonishing correlation between that history and the history of the Jewish people.


     The Hebrew language peaked during the period of the kingdom of Israel, and the further we move from that glorious era to the dark days of exile, the more the Hebrew language was pushed into the corner and used exclusively for Torah study and prayer.


     What follows from this is that the separation that Rihal attributes to Abraham between spoken language and holy language later came to symbolize Jewish life in the exile. 


     This division is not merely a technical matter.  The general phenomenon, according to which a Diaspora Jew learns, prays, and conducts his religious life in one language – one that is "dead" or, put differently, "archaic" - while he manages his daily life, speech, poetry, and writing in another language - the local tongue - reflects the people of Israel's situation in the exile and their foreignness.  This situation does not allow them to live their lives in a harmonious manner, but rather forces them to distinguish between their state and their religion.[4]


     If we accept this correspondence between the state of the Hebrew language and the state of the Jewish people, we cannot but be amazed by the resurrection of the Hebrew language together with the blossoming of Zionism.


     Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and others tried to revive the Hebrew language by turning it into a spoken language.  In their eyes, the Jewish people's exit from exile and return to the land of Israel reflects their ability to restore their language as a living tongue.


     We saw above that Rihal sees Hebrew's limited capacity to describe all situations, feelings, and objects as a clear sign that Hebrew is no longer the people's spoken language. 


     Those who resurrected the Hebrew language also saw its ability to fulfill every need and describe every situation as a necessary condition for Hebrew's restoration as a living, spoken language.  Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the Academy of the Hebrew Language strove to find an answer and solution to every difficulty and every object.  The phenomenon of Jews sending a question to the Academy of the Hebrew language asking what to call the "tzuptzik of a kumkum" became commonplace.


     It seems to me, however, that this approach, which was the driving force behind those who resurrected the Hebrew language, is missing something important.


     The Hebrew language, as we have seen, symbolized the connection – or lack thereof – between the Jewish people's heritage, culture, and religion, which had always been conducted in its own language,[5] and its national, communal and social life.


     When the Torah and tradition were the foundations of the Jewish people's national and social life, the Hebrew language was also its language.


     When the Jewish people lost its independence, and with it its ability to conduct its national life in accordance with the Torah and the prophets living in its midst, the use of the Hebrew language also became constricted, and use of the language of the conquering nation which dictated Israel's national and social life expanded.


     The restoration of independence to the Jewish people and the end of its subjugation to alien powers at the time of the establishment of the State of Israel was supposed to restore the Hebrew language's role as a bridge between its national and communal life and its religious and cultural heritage.


     Reviving the Hebrew language without resurrecting Jewish national life in light of the religious heritage of the Jewish people is like fashioning vessels without filling them with content and meaning.


     It seems to me that this deficiency relating to the revival of the Hebrew language and its restoration from a holy tongue to a spoken language also reflects the shortcomings of secular Zionism, which tried to restore the Jewish people to its historic independence and even spoke of "Jewish heritage and culture," while at the same trying to preserve the artificial separation created in the Diaspora between state and religion in the renewed kingdom of Israel. 


The separation between state and religion is an idea that arose in exileIt resembles the revival of the Hebrew language in its attempt to have "Jewish words," but not their contents, fashion our national life.  No longer should you say, "Be a Jew in your house, and a German outside," but rather, "Be a Jew in your house, and an Israeli outside."[6] 


     The attitude toward the Hebrew language, as reflecting the relationship between the people of Israel's culture and religion and its national life, finds expression not only in the debate between religious and secular Zionism, but also in the debate between religious Zionism and the Charedi world.


     The attempt of segments of the Charedi community to preserve the language used in the Diaspora – Yiddish – as their spoken language, while preserving the Hebrew language as a holy tongue, also serves to perpetuate (according to them, until the Messiah's arrival) the separation between the Hebrew language and mundane life.  It also preserves the separation between the world of Torah and religion, on the one hand, and national and social life, on the other.


     The Chareidim who do not see the State of Israel as a spiritual and religious herald connected to the redemption of Israel are not prepared to abolish the primary marker of exile – the separation between holy and mundane language, which is essentially a separation between holy and mundane life.[7]




     In the framework of his discussion about language, Rihal relates to poetry, as well.  He distinguishes between two objectives:


The Khazar king: You will only succeed in placing it on a par with other languages thus.  But where is its preeminence? Other languages surpass it in songs metrically constructed and arranged for tunes.

The Rabbi: It is obvious that a tune is independent of the meter, or of the lesser or greater number of syllables.  The verse hodu la-donai ki tov can, therefore, be sung to the same tune as le-osei nifla'ot gedolot levado.  This is the rule regarding tunes that are meant to act upon the soul.  Rhymed poems, however, which are meant for public recitation, and in which a good meter is noticeable, are neglected for something higher and more useful.  (II, 69-70)


     Rihal distinguishes between tunes that are meant "to act upon the soul" and those that are meant for "public recitation."


     Here, Rihal lays the foundation for the fundamental distinction between art that is meant to enlighten and art that is meant to entertain.


     Rihal asserts that the songs of his day, which are meant for "public recitation," must be written according to the strict rules of meter, as was common in medieval poetry; this is evident even in the piyyutim and other poetry that Rihal himself wrote.[8] In contrast, the songs and psalms recorded in Scripture were intended to act upon the reader and leave a mark upon his soul.  These, according to Rihal, are not subject to the rules of rhyme and meter, and they only adopt that which will serve their objective – to enhance the effect of the message that they contain.


     Even though poetry's accountability to the rules of rhyme and meter has passed from the world, it seems to me that Rihal's fundamental argument remains valid.


     The principle underlying Rihal's argument is that when art comes to entertain, it must conform to the accepted norms of the time.  When an artist's aim, be he a painter, a sculptor, an author, a poet, or a singer, is to entertain his audience, he is obligated to adopt the norms and the dominant cultural spirit of the time.  If the audience wants pop music, he must give them pop music, and if the audience wants to dance a waltz, he must give them a waltz, for if he fails to do so, he will achieve his goal – to amuse and to entertain.


     When, however, art wishes to educate, to bear tidings, and sometimes even to object to some accepted norm, it is not trying to find favor in people's eyes.  It wishes to influence and to leave an impact, and the very use of artistic language serves this goal, but there is a world of difference between the desire to influence and the desire to entertain and find favor in the eyes of others.  Art of the second type is not obligated to, or more precisely,  is not subject to any norms; as was noted earlier, sometimes the very opposite is true.


     Such is the art found in the Torah and in the Prophets, and perhaps this is what gives these works of art their eternal quality.


     Countless novels and poems have become obsolete, or at the very least, their relevance, both in their substance and in their style, has become greatly diminished, whereas Shlomo's Song of Songs and the Psalms of David continue to flow through the hearts of those who study them, and presumably will continue to do so for all time.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] The genealogical lists in the book of Bereishit teach us that Noah was born during Adam's lifetime, and that Eber (and even Abraham) was born during Noah's lifetime.

[2] In the continuation, Rihal adds that the masoretic accents and vowels that accompany the Torah that was written in Hebrew make it possible for the written language to serve as a "spoken language."

The superiority of a spoken language lies in its immediacy: "The Rabbi: The faculty of speech is to transmit the idea of the speaker into the soul of the hearer.  Such intention, however, can only be carried out to perfection by means of oral communication.  This is better than writing.  The proverb is: 'From the mouths of scholars, but not from the mouth of books'" (II, 72).

The intonation and pauses that are part of oral communication find expression in the masoretic accents and allow for the Torah, even when read, to have the quality of speech.

The accents and vowels also allow every Jew in every place to hear the words in precise manner, as the uniformity of reading testifies: "Did you not see that a hundred persons read the Torah as one person, stopping in one moment, and continuing simultaneously?" (II, 76).

These wonderful words turn the public reading of the Torah on Shabbat from "study" to an experience of revelation and speech.  When we read the Torah with its masoretic accents, it is as if we were hearing the voice of God speaking to Moshe in unmediated manner.

(It might be noted that Rav Nachman of Breslav preferred learning from a teacher to learning from a book, because of the aspect of revelation that exists when one stands before a person who is talking to him face-to-face – Likutei Moharan Kama 20, 4).

Elsewhere (in a discussion concerning Sefer Yetzira), Rihal discusses the forms of the Hebrew letter: "The shapes of the letters are not the result of accident, but of a device which is in harmony with the character of each letter" (IV, 25).

[3] Rihal also mentions that Ishmael, the son of Abraham, brought Aramaic to the Arabic speaking countries, where it developed into the Arabic language, and therefore the three languages – Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic – are closely related.  (Similarly, Ibn Ezra writes that "the two languages [Hebrew and Arabic] and Aramaic come from one family;" Bereishit 30:37).

[4] Jews in various periods tried to assimilate into the nations among whom they lived, and therefore advocated strengthening this division, in the sense of "Be a Jew in your house, and a German outside," and the like.  It should be noted that despite their efforts, they never succeeded.  This division, which they accepted, proposed, and even encouraged was totally rejected by the host nations, who from time to time would remind the Jewish European of his Jewishness. 

[5] There are important Torah works that were not written in Hebrew (ranging from the Talmuds, through the Zohar, to Kaddish), and even the Torah and the liturgy were translated.  However, the Torah, the mishna and the siddur, all of which are written in Hebrew, always remained the basic and most important texts, and it was always considered better to study and to pray in Hebrew than in translation.

[6] As noted, this goal was never reached in the Diaspora, but was rather foiled, not by Jews who objected to it, but by non-Jews who were not prepared to accept this distinction and always called even the most loyal and patriotic Jewish citizen by the derogatory term "Yid." Similarly, in our own times, the nations of the world and our neighbors constantly remind us that this approach will never succeed, and that even the Israeli who pursues peace and strives to establish open borders will always remain "Al-Yahud."

[7] It should be noted that at the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century, there were Jewish circles (primarily in Germany) who objected to Zionism precisely because of a desire to preserve the purity of Jewish culture.  The establishment of a Jewish state would turn Judaism's noble and abstract spiritual ideas into pragmatic concepts that would become sullied when they encountered the practical and material world.  This striving to preserve Jewish culture in its purity without encountering practical reality is similar to the striving of the Chareidim to preserve the Hebrew language as a holy tongue and not to taint it with the mundane world.  Both of them are based on the desire to perpetuate (according to the Chareidim, as stated, until the arrival of the Messiah) the artificial situation that was created in the Diaspora, in which Jewish heritage, culture and language are separated from mundane life.

[8] It is possible that Rihal is confessing his own sin when the Rabbi reacts to the argument put forward by Khazar king: "The Khazar king: It is but proper that mere beauty of sound should yield to lucidity of speech.  Harmony pleases the ear, but exactness makes the meaning clear.  I see, however, that you Jews long for a prosody, in imitation of other peoples, in order to force the Hebrew language into their metres.

The Rabbi: This is because we remained and are forward.  Instead of being satisfied with the superiority mentioned above, we corrupted the structure of our language, which is built on harmony, and created discord" (II, 73-74).