I grew up without a Jewish education, but have come to love learning. I have finally, after many years of wavering, gotten up the courage to take a beginner’s Hebrew class. I am really struggling and ready to give up. With so much in the prayer service in English or transliterated and all the great classic texts translated, do you think I should even bother?
First, congratulations for being courageous — it is no simple matter to take on a new learning enterprise. You must have been seriously motivated to have signed up in the first place for an adult Hebrew class. I am guessing you surely had compelling reasons, and that I truly understand. I am a fervent Hebrew enthusiast. I love Hebrew: the words, the charming expressions, the subtle connections, and the ancient reverberations in its lilt.
Perhaps, I can tap into what got you going, add a few inspiring words from those greater than us, and get you back onto the aleph-bet track!
Make no mistake, the speaking of Hebrew is no simple issue. It is a question that scholars and philosophers have wrestled with generation after generation, starting perhaps from the first Diaspora. In 586 BCE in Babylon, Aramaic became the vernacular. Though our holiest texts are in Hebrew, through years of exile our popular spoken tongues became Aramaic, Ladino and Yiddish. Hebrew became a language of books — read in the study house and in the synagogue.
In spite of this, remarkably, miraculously, amazingly — on account of population censuses — we can project that we are approaching an era when Hebrew will be the spoken idiom of the majority of the Jewish people. For that alone, it may be well worth giving it another shot. Know however, that utility does limited justice to the phenomenon of Hebrew study. There are huge ideas that encase the noble study of the holy tongue.
A Midrash concerning the enslavement in Egypt wonders about our redemption and offers reasons for God’s deliverance of the Israelites — they did not alter their mode of dress, they maintained their Jewish names, and they did not change their language.
This teaching reveals a vital notion of our sages: retaining one’s language is essential to one’s survival. Of course a common language binds a people together, solidifying their identity. Language unites, hence the multiplicities of language signals dispersal and disunity in the Tower of Babel narrative.
But we are talking about more than simple cohesiveness — we are discussing survival. And this Midrash is about a unique kind of survival: a spiritual survival. In other words, redemption. Here the redemptive quality of survival is linked to language.
On these lines the sifre teaches us that the instruction in the central prayer of declaration, the Sh’ma: “v’dibarta bam” and you shall speak of it, refers to the speaking of Hebrew. As soon as a child is able to speak, parents are enjoined to engage them in the speaking of the language of our people, elevating it from practicality and survival to a level of mitzvah, commandment of the Almighty.
Maimonides echoes this thought in his commentary to Mishnah Avot, where he identifies the speaking of Hebrew as a mitzvah, albeit not the most major of commandments, but a mitzvah nonetheless.
For me this spiritual approach toward language is particularly powerful. There is something mystical about this language of revelation — it bespeaks an emotion experienced in the soul but articulated by the body. The learning of language may begin with painstaking learning of letters, but as the words are formed and ideas articulated, language quickly transcends the confines of the letters and leaps into the lofty sublime of ideas.
Moshe Greenberg puts it this way: “The uniquely Jewish store of concepts and values cannot be transmitted in translation.”
Languages communicate the particular ideas of the people who speak it and live their particular metaphors. In the case of Hebrew, words give voice to the pathos of its speakers.
I offer the classic Yiddish lullaby, “Oifin Pripichek,” as an example. Here the traditional melamed, teacher, sits by the fireplace and urges his precious students to learn the letters with the vowels. The sweet picture of the white-bearded rabbi somberly segues into an entirely different image. In the last stanza of the song the teacher cannot help himself and asks his students movingly, do they know how many tears and feelings lie in these letters?
The teacher gives way to temptation, he pulls away the protective curtain, his didactic demeanor dims, and he reveals himself. He allows his students a glimpse of the eternal pathos contained therein.
How do we understand these tears? Are they tears of the struggle of study? Tears of lives risked at Torah study? Maybe they are tears of the deep knowledge of just what is at stake in the learning of these letters — everything.
This learning of Hebrew is huge. you need to ask yourself if you want to live a life in translation. You are right, all of our great works have been translated: the Torah, Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, the Zohar and of course the siddur. But something is missing, lost in translation. Gershon Shaked puts it this way, “Literature written for an imaginary audience which does not speak its language, is counterfeit and untruthful.”
Though I can live without the nuances of Virgil in Latin or Aeschylus in Greek, or Candide in French, I cannot live without Hebrew.
I know it is not easy. I have experienced the challenge of attempting to learn a language — I have tried my hand at French and Russian and can claim little acquisition and no aptitude. But this is your language. The early Zionists had a dream of resurrecting a language. You can be a part of that miracle.
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail to email@example.com.