The Hebrew Language: History and National Significance
Hebrew is one of the most ancient languages currently spoken and used as daily, literary and scientific language.
Hebrew, from the root ‘-b/v-r meaning to “cross over”, is the ancient language of the Hebrews and later of the Jews, also referred to as “lashon ha-kodesh” (language of the sacred) being the language in which the Bible was written.
Hebrew went through several phases; it ceased to be used as spoken language in the 2nd century C.E. and was revived in the second half of the 19th century. After an amazingly rapid development, Hebrew has become the official language of the State of Israel (alongside Arabic).
Linguists debate over the nature of contemporary Hebrew, which represents a unique case of language revival with several influences that reflect modern Jewish and Israeli history.
Vibrant Hebrew literature and music also stimulate Hebrew studies.
The revival of Hebrew also has a profound national meaning, reflecting the national renascence of the Jewish people epitomised by the Zionist political enterprise.
The different stages of the Hebrew language
Hebrew is a Semitic language of the Canaanite group and of the Northwest Semitic languages (including Aramaic).
Biblical Hebrew is the first stage of the language, dating back to the 10th century B.C.E. and is divided in three periods, which include: Archaic Biblical Hebrew, in which part of the Torah was written, Standard Biblical Hebrew, in which much of the Bible was written, and Late Biblical Hebrew, in which the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah were written.
A page of the Talmud
After the Babylonian exile, Hebrew and Aramaic coexisted as both literary and spoken languages. Hebrew survived as the language of the Mishnah, the core of rabbinical law, while Aramaic survived in other parts of the Talmud.
After the Roman conquest and the deportation of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel, Hebrew survived for almost two centuries as a spoken language and ceased to be used for daily communication in the second half of the 2nd century C.E.
During the Middle Ages, Hebrew was principally used as liturgical, rabbinical, scientific and literary language.
Solomon ibn Gabirol
Used for praying, Hebrew has remained the main language of the Jewish people for religious purposes. Hebrew was used for rabbinical literature, including treatise and legal rulings.
A significant renewal of the Hebrew language came about in the early Medieval period, when Hebrew was used in philosophical and scientific works, introducing Greek philosophical concepts also translated from Arabic, such as Maimonides. Hebrew Medieval poetry also contributed to revitalise the Hebrew language, such as Solomon ibn Gabirol and Judah ha-Levy.
The Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) created the conditions for the revival of the Hebrew language as a spoken language.
The revival of the Hebrew language: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda Eliezer Ben-Yehuda
In the 19th century, Hebrew went through a process of revitalisation under the emerging national renascence of the Jewish people referred to as “shivat Zion” (return to Zion, later Zionism). Hebrew was then used for modern literary composition, including prose and poetry, as well as for political composition, including journalism and essays.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda played a major role in the revival of the Hebrew language. His enduring and visionary dedication led to the rebirth of Hebrew as spoken language, language of instruction in Jewish schools worldwide and official language of the Jewish community in pre-state Israel (Yishuv).
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (born Perlman) was born in 1858 in Luzhky in the then Vilna Governorate. After his studies in Paris, Ben-Yehuda settled in Jerusalem in 1881, where he completely dedicates himself to renewing Hebrew vocabulary for making of Hebrew a feasible spoken language.
His project faced harsh opposition in the religious milieu, where the secular use of Hebrew was considered a desecration of the sacred language, and was considered by many as an unfeasible plan.
Ha-Yom, first Hebrew daily newspaper established in 1886 in St. Petersburg.
By the end of the 19th century, Hebrew was revived language with vibrant literature, journalism and with a stronghold of speakers in pre-state Israel and in Eastern Europe.
Ha-Zvi, newspaper founded and directed by Ben-Yehuda
Ben-Yehuda is also known for founding modern journalism in Hebrew. He founded and directed the newspaper “ha-Zvi”, which was the first Hebrew newspaper introducing modern journalistic approach.
The bulletin of the Ukrainian section of the Tarbut school system.
Hebrew rapidly developed as the language of instruction in Jewish school in Eastern Europe since the beginning of the 20th century. The “Tarbut” Zionist movement managed in the interwar period almost 300 educational institutions in Eastern Europe, where Hebrew was the language of instruction. The “Alliance Israelite Universelle”, working primarily in the Middle East, also introduced Hebrew in educational curricula.
Haim Nachman Bialik Shaul Tchernichovsky
Haim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) and Shaul Tchernichovsky (1875-1943) are considered the first great poets in modern Hebrew. Their poetry moves from ancient and modern Western themes, renewing the Hebrew language until then used primarily for religious poetry. They also contributed to the first translations of classical poetry into Hebrew, including Greek and classical English literature.
Abraham Mapu, the first Hebrew novelist
Abraham Mapu (1808-1867) is considered the first Hebrew novelist. He published romantic novels in Hebrew in the middle of 19th century, inspiring Ben-Gurion to become a Zionist.
The first generation of Hebrew writers adopted Hebrew as a literary language for a Zionist choice, while their mother tongues included different European languages.
The meaning of the Hebrew revival Eliezer Ben-Yehuda: “Two things without which the Jews will not be a people: the land and the language”.
Linguists debate over the nature of modern or Israeli Hebrew: some authors consider it a Semitic language with Indo-European lexical influences; others consider it an Indo-European language with Semitic vocabulary; whereas Ghil’ad Zuckermann claims it is a hybrid of classical Hebrew and Yiddish with influences of other languages.
The language revival of Hebrew signifies the importance of a language for a nation, as well as the profound will and capacity of a group aiming to national liberation.
The revival of the Hebrew language reflects the revival of the national consciousness of the Jewish people
The song "Eliezer Ben Yehuda", by Chava Alberstein, lyrics by Yaron London Yaron London, journalist and writer Chava Alberstein, Israeli singer
Ghil’ad Zuckermann is professor of linguistics at the University of Adelaide, Australia and specialised in Jewish languages, languages in danger and revival of dead languages. Of Italian descent, Ghil’ad Zuckermann is grand nephew of the artist Isidoro Grünhut.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann is author of “Yisraelit safa yafa–Israeli: A Beautiful Language”, in which he argues that Israeli Hebrew is a hybrid language based on classic Hebrew and Yiddish primarily, and on other languages that were mother tongues to the first Hebrew speakers.
In your academic career you have dedicated major studies to contemporary Hebrew, which you call “Israeli”. The revival of the Hebrew language is considered a “rebirth”, after almost 2000 years it was dormant and used as liturgical and doctrinal language. Can you explain your thesis on this phenomenon? After the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of the Jews from the Land of Israel, Hebrew has been used as a spoken language until the 2nd century C.E. For the following 1700 years, Hebrew has been used as a liturgical language in prayers and synagogues, for intellectual purposes, specifically in rabbinic literature. Hebrew was also a literary language, used for religious poetry in 16th and 17th century. Although being used, during 17 centuries, Hebrew has never been spoken as mother tongue.
In A. B. Yehoshua’s “A Journey to the End of the Millennium”, there are two Jewish merchants speaking Hebrew… Hebrew was also used as lingua franca, as a common language among Jews speaking different languages. A Polish and an Ottoman Jew would speak Hebrew for communicating, but in their daily life they would speak Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Turkish and Ladino.
Hebrew was then a dead language? A language is dead when nobody speaks it as mother tongue, meaning that one learns it as a kid and spontaneously communicates it without learning it in school, naturally absorbing its structures. Since the 3rd century, nobody has ever learnt Hebrew in the family and therefore Hebrew was a dead. However, Hebrew has been used for religious and literary purposes, changing from classic, Biblical Hebrew, which was spoken in the Land of Israel. That is why one speaks of Mishnaic Hebrew, which is the Hebrew in which the Mishnah was written, the first collection of rabbinical law written in the beginning of the 3rd century. There is also a Medieval Hebrew, used in rabbinical literature. The Hebrew language has gone through different stages, but it has never been used as a mother tongue for several centuries. In this sense, it was much like Latin, which in Europe served as intellectual, liturgical and common language, although it was not spoken as mother tongue.
So when did Hebrew come back to life? One can say that Hebrew came back to life in 1886, when, at the age of 4, Itamar Ben-Yehuda begins speaking Hebrew. Itamar Ben-Yehuda was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s son, known for his enterprise in reviving the Hebrew language. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born in a village of today’s Belarus, where he was educated in religious institutions. After abandoning Orthodox life, he first went to Paris and then settled in Jerusalem, dedicating his life to the project of reviving the Hebrew language. At Ben-Yehuda’s one would speak only Hebrew, and he would forbid anyone to speak with his son any language but Hebrew. That is why Itamar begins speaking very late.
Ben-Yehuda was considered a visionary man. A few people supported him in the beginning. It was just at the end of the 20th century that the Jewish community in Palestine decides to adopt Hebrew as a national language for the Jews. Not only was he considered a fool, but he was also ostracised by religious Jews. Orthodox Jews consider Hebrew a holy language, and the secular use of Hebrew is a desecration. They did everything to stop him. They also brought him to court for heresy and the Ottomans imprisoned him. Orthodox Jews vandalised his grave with writings; Ben-Yehuda’s daughter, informed of what happened, asked, “In which language did they write?”, and being told it was Hebrew, she then uttered: “Ben-Yehuda won!”.
You claim, however, that the revived Hebrew spoken at that time is not Israeli Hebrew. Indeed it is not. The first Hebrew-speakers came from Europe mainly, and from different parts of the Middle East, for building a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. They all would speak different mother tongues, including Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Arabic, Persian, Ladino and Turkish, but they adopted Hebrew for implementing the Zionist political project. Their Hebrew was more similar to Medieval Hebrew, as in the poems of Tchernichovsky and Bialik, or in the novels of Agnon, in terms of structure and vocabulary. It was a generation that learnt Hebrew in school and not in the family. It was the generation after them that begins speaking Israeli, which differs from Hebrew.
And this is your argument: Israeli is not Hebrew, as one thinks. Why? Israeli cannot be Hebrew, because Hebrew, although being used, has been over 17 centuries a dead language, brought back to life by people who spoke different mother tongues. The reviving process inevitably changed the language, and not only in the vocabulary, but also in the very linguistic structure. This is why I insist in calling it Israeli and not Hebrew.
Can you give some examples of these differences? There are some examples that I usually give. One difference is the meaning of the words. I always refer to what Amos Oz tells in his “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, when as a kid he would attend with his parents the public speeches given by Begin in Jerusalem. Begin used the Hebrew word “lezayen”, which in Biblical Hebrew means “to arm someone”. During a speech, Begin said “the Americans arm the Arabs, everyone arms the Arabs, but if I were Prime Minister, they would arm us”. In Israeli Hebrew “lezayen” means “to fuck”; therefore, the young Oz burst in laughing amid the attentive public, because what he was hearing was “the Americans fuck the Arabs, everyone fucks the Arabs; but if I were Prime Minister, everyone would fuck us”. There are also new words introduced to fill the lexical gaps. A famous case is the Hebrew word for “tomato”, which did not exist in Biblical or Medieval Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda proposed “badura”, the Hebrew version of the Arabic “bandura”, and “agvanya”, the Hebrew translation of the German “Liebesapfel”, which eventually prevailed. But the most striking differences are in the structure. The word order, for instance. In Biblical Hebrew, the verb precedes the subject, while in Israeli Hebrew it is the opposite.
Why is it so? The cause is the influence of the Hebrew revivers’ mother tongues. Most of them spoke Yiddish, and that is why I claim that Yiddish is as fundamental a component of the Israeli language as Hebrew. Consider also how the letter “r” is pronounced: it is a guttural sound that comes from Yiddish, while other sounds like the “’ayin” or “hey” got lost and are pronounced only by Hebrew speakers coming from Arab countries.
You then claim that Israeli is a mix of Yiddish and Hebrew? There are different theories in linguistics. There are some authors who claim that contemporary Hebrew is a Semitic language with significant Indo-European lexical contributions. Others claim that Israeli Hebrew is an Indo-European language with Semitic words. My thesis is different. I claim that the Israeli language is a hybrid based on two equally primary components: Hebrew and Yiddish. And this is why Hebrew is a unique and extremely interesting linguistic phenomenon. One has to think that those who began speaking Hebrew actually thought in Yiddish. There are a lot of arguments for supporting my thesis. For instance, those who learn Israeli Hebrew are taught to ask “ma nishma’” to say “how are you?”. “Ma nishma’” literally means “what is heard?”, and it is the Hebrew translation of the Yiddish “vos hert zikh?”. here are several other examples that I make, including Biblical expressions that became common in Yiddish and were translated into Israeli.
If one thinks of the history of the Hebrew language and of the Jewish people, there was a similar process of revival after the exile in Babylon. Was it somehow similar? I am not an expert of that historical period, but I can say that Bar Kochva spoke Hebrew in 135 C.E., when Hebrew was already the language of the Jews after they returned from exile in Babylon. Before Bar Kochva, Aramaic was more important than Hebrew, used in both written and oral communication. However, Hebrew was not a dead language, because since 1300 B.C.E. until 135 C.E., Hebrew had always been spoken as mother tongue, although most of the Jews, including Jesus of Nazareth, would speak Aramaic. After that, Hebrew ceased to exist as a living language because nobody learnt it as mother tongue until 1886, when Itamar Ben-Yehuda begins speaking it.
Your thesis triggered a passionate debate. Many accuse you of being post-Zionist or anti-Zionist. How do you answer? Many criticise me for the model of “hybridity” of the Israeli language and they are wrong to believe I am an anti-Zionist. According to them, I imply that Israelis are somehow “stranger” or that Jews do not belong to that land. Most virulent critiques accuse me of neglecting the continuous use of the Hebrew language. But what I do is just the opposite! Those who neglect Hebrew continuity simply erase 1750 years of Diaspora, during which Hebrew has not been spoken as a mother tongue. According to this position, we should simply set aside the Jewish languages of the Diaspora, including Ladino, Yiddish, Judaeo-Arabic and Judaeo-Persian, for speaking the Biblical language that used to be spoken in the Land of Israel. It is just impossible. My thesis builds upon Hebrew continuity, but considers and analyses the influences of Jewish languages on the revived Israeli Hebrew.
You do not look upon yourself as an anti-Zionist? What I mean is that I do not share the position that neglects the Diaspora, but this does not mean that I am anti-Zionist. I claim that the Bible should be taught differently, almost as one teaches Latin in Europe, because I think that Biblical and Israeli Hebrews are two different languages. My detractors consider this position as anti-Zionist just because I do not think that Israelis speak the language of the Bible. If I were a real anti-Zionist, I should say that one should not teach the Bible at all! Shlomo Sand criticised me on this issue, accusing me of being a nationalist. I received virulent criticism and even threats by both right-wing and left-wing extremists. Right-wing people tell me that I am an anti-Zionist because I live abroad; left-wing people tell me that I am a nationalist because I speak of the “Israeli language”, which would exclude the Arabs. I do not have a political agenda in my research. And the controversy following the publishing of my book really impressed me, because it shows that certain topics are so sensible that one cannot even analyse them from a linguistic point of view without being accused of something.
Are you boycotted? Yes, and this is very strange because in Australia and in the UK I am an activist against anti-Israeli boycotts! Professor Dan Avnon, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has been victim of a boycott organised in the University of Sydney, and I invited him in my university in February this year. I am firmly against boycotts and boycott organisers. Even the Academy of the Hebrew Language boycotts me. This does not make me change my opinion that anti-Israeli boycotts are wrong.
In an interview you gave to a New Zealand TV programme, you explained the significance of the Hebrew revival, which you take as a model for reviving aboriginal languages of Australia. I guess Hebrew shoes how it is possible to revive a language; moreover, it shows that it is not possible to revive a dead language without hybridisation, meaning you cannot revive a language without the revivers’ mother tongues influencing the revived language. In the case of the Israeli language, the uniqueness consists of the fact that both Hebrew and Yiddish are primary components of the language, while other languages have had more or less important influences. In my activity I use elements of the Hebrew revival process and apply them to aboriginal languages. I am in favour of language revival, and in my studies I have analysed what elements of a language can be revived and what cannot. For instance, I know that phonetical elements cannot be revived, and it is clear the Israeli has a Yiddish pronunciation and inotonation. Language reflects identity, which is fluid, follows history, changes with migration. That is why my theory caused so much hostility. But one has to tell the truth, that a language cannot be pure, as purists believe it should be in virtue of Zionism. Jewish identity is itself hybrid. Take an Italian Jew, a Polish Jew and a Yemenite Jew: hybridity is part of Jewish culture, which in years of Diaspora has assimilated cultural and social elements of the communities among which Jews have live for such a long time. And all this reflects in the language as well.
Professor of semiotics and philosophy of communication at the University of Turin, writes for Informazione Corretta.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is known for embarking on the revival of the Hebrew language. Who was Ben-Yehuda? Little is known about him. There are streets named after him in every Israeli city, but there is no museum dedicated to Ben-Yehuda. His house, donated to the Municipality of Jerusalem, is now home to a Germanic peace association. Ben-Yehuda was born in 1858, two years before Herzl and peer of Zamenhof, the inventor of the international language Esperanto. He was born to a Hassidic Lubavitch family in Luzhky, part of the then Vilna Governorate in today’s Belarus. His parents gave him a religious education, and he studied in a yeshiva, from where he was banned at the age of 12, after been caught to read the “Gulliver’s Travels” in Hebrew, which shows that Hebrew was already been used as a language besides religious purposes. Ben-Yehuda did not invent Modern Hebrew. The history of Hebrew has never been interrupted, going through periods of reuse, mainly be learned people–as Latin until the 18th century. Hebrew was the language of communication among Jews of different regions, used by merchants and was also a religious and doctrinal language. Ben-Yehuda settles in Paris at the age of 20, where he becomes a forerunner of Zionism, drawing inspiration from the Bulgarian uprising for independence. He believed that Jewish political independence would follow the affirmation of a national language. Ben-Yehuda settles in Jerusalem in 1881, where he works as a teacher and as a journalist for the newspaper “Tzvi”, founded by himself and used for the Zionist cause. It is the first Hebrew language newspaper in history. He fights for the affirmation of the Hebrew language, obtaining the introduction of Hebrew as language of instruction in schools. He allies with the settlers of the first aliyah in 1890s. Ben-Yehuda’s contribution is lexical, primarily, expanding the Hebrew vocabulary with words deriving from Biblical Hebrew and from Arabic and disregarding Indo-European languages. Orthodox Jews tried to hinder his work, informing the Ottomans authority on his allegedly seditious activity–he was eventually condemned and spent a year in prison. His wife was refused ritual burial, after being excommunicated–as Spinoza was banned from the community.
The revival of Hebrew was hindered but also derided. The Hebrew language is directly linked to the political project of Jewish national independence, which caused several controversies. Rothschild did not want Hebrew; neither did the Orthodox. Those who support the project are the “settlers” coming from Europe. The battle of Ben-Yehuda aims at making Hebrew the mother tongue of Jews, a language of daily, political and scientific use. Not all agreed; indeed, when the Technion of Haifa was founded, German was to be adopted as language of instruction: Ben-Yehuda did all he could to impede this, even organising demonstrations. His project was to transform an intellectual and liturgical language into a living language. Therefore, Ben-Yehuda adopted Hebrew at home, banning the use of any other language. His project was successful after just 20 years: in 1910, there were already several Hebrew-speaking families and schools where Hebrew was the language of instruction.
The enterprise commenced by Ben-Yehuda is political, but his figure is not considered likewise. Ben-Yehuda wanted people in Israel to speak Hebrew. He is the first Herzl, to a certain extent, but he never became as important as the founder of Zionism–even Herzl thought German would be the language of the “State of the Jews”. Ben-Yehuda fought against Yiddish, bearing the black mark of the Diaspora, which meant discrimination. His project follows the decision to create a Jewish identity that would be opposite to the ghetto and the Diaspora.
The revival of Hebrew is then political. To revive Hebrew is a political act. Ben-Yehuda was not a linguist; he was a journalist. He was taught Hebrew as a yeshiva student. His extraordinary contribution consists of renewing the vocabulary: Hebrew, from a poor language, slowly and patiently acquires a rich vocabulary. Ben-Yehuda was not like Zamenhof, who wanted to invent a new language, rational and universal: Ben-Yehuda wants to revive Hebrew with specific lexical choices, combining tradition and modernity, including several unsuccessful proposals. One such case is the word “tomato”: Ben-Yehuda wanted to impose the word “badura”, which he invented, but eventually “agvanya” prevailed. Consequently, by the beginning of the 20th century, there is already a Hebrew contemporary literature–Bialik is an example. Gershom Sholem writes that when he went to Jerusalem in 1920s, he already had relationships with intellectuals and writers because he spoke Hebrew, which shows a profound Zionist belief.
How did Ben-Yehuda influence Modern Hebrew, beyond vocabulary? The phonetic choice is significant in this respect: Ben-Yehuda chooses the Sephardic pronunciation over the Ashkenazi. Ashkenazim would say, and still do in liturgy, “Yisroel” instead of “Yisrael”, “shabes” instead of “shabath”. Ben-Yehuda preferred Sephardic sounds, for Hebrew to acquire a sort of Jewish authenticity and distancing itself from Yiddish.
Many sounds got however lost… It is natural. If one thinks of how English pronunciation has evolved, one notes that Shakespeare’s English was different, and that is why there is a huge gap between spelling and writing. Ancient Hebrew pronunciation is difficult to reconstruct, and not much is known. For instance, the letter “’ayn”, which is not pronounced in Modern Hebrew, in Italy was transliterated with “gn”, and Hebrew words with “’ayin” are still pronounced in a peculiar way in Judaeo-Roman and Judaeo-Venetian dialects.
Do you think there is a line of continuity between Biblical and contemporary Hebrew? Modern Hebrew and ancient Hebrew are connected by a continuous line which was never interrupted. Hebrew has gone through different stages: ancient Hebrew, late Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew and rabbinical Hebrew have all preceded modern Hebrew, which represents the last stage of a process that with Ben-Yehuda becomes a Zionist enterprise. In pre-state Israel, Hebrew has rapidly evolved, with a wide use of acronyms. There is also a phenomenon of “radicalisation”, whereby foreign words or letters of acronyms become radical letters of new words. It is a real literary and lexical explosion.
Many authors say that new words hail from slang of the army and become words of daily use. Yes, but there is also the youth. Contemporary Hebrew is a language in continuous transformation and technically complex. One such trend is the literary aspect of the radicals composing words: there are several new words with two radicals, crasis, with an expected significant change of the language in future. The birth of new words also implies a certain Europeanisation, due to cultural proximity of the Israeli to the Western culture. In general, the rebirth of Hebrew is a strange and unique phenomenon. There are no other examples of revived languages showing such vibrant vitality.
Beyond political conviction, what other reasons led to the affirmation of Hebrew? The first and second aliyah brought to Israel thousands of people strongly determined to bring about social change. These people formulated the conditions for subsequent Jewish immigration, establishing the Yishuv (pre-state Israel), choosing agriculture, opening schools and elaborating an Israeli folklore. At a certain point, they also opted for socialism, distinguishing themselves from religious Jews living in Israel. They made Israel, with forms of social, political and economic organisation, which were very different from those that Herzl had in mind. In his “Altneuland”, Herzl imagines how Israel would be, which is not what Israel is. The generation that created Israel chose Hebrew as a symbol of pride and national independence, avoiding the use of languages of the Diaspora. This choice is political, as the flag, the hymn, and this is why it is a unique case in history. Take Armenia, for instance, whose history is in several aspects similar to Israel’s: original Armenian and Diaspora Armenian have not been unified. In the Jewish world, also because of the Shoah, Hebrew has superseded the mixed vernaculars used everywhere until the beginning of the 20th century, such as Yiddish in Poland and Russia. During the Diaspora, several Jewish languages have evolved. In Italy there are a Jewish-Roman dialect, a Jewish dialect in Piedmont, a Jewish-Venetian and there are Ladino and Jewish dialects in the Middle East, such as Jewish-Iraqi and Jewish-Persian. This all shows the openness to dialectically interact with the surrounding cultures, absorbing cultural elements, but preserving the core of collective identity, which is Hebrew, in which people pray and in which intellectuals have written for centuries. The fact that Hebrew has become a daily language, filling the gap between intellectual language and daily use of other languages, is significant and shows the capacity of Israel to become the predominant part of the Jewish world, as well as the success of the Zionist project to create the new Jew.
It is also interesting to see how a language that was reborn 100 years ago produces such a prolific literature. I deny the idea that Hebrew was reborn 100 years ago. Biblical Hebrew and A.B. Yehoshua’s Hebrew are more similar than Dante’s Italian and ours, in terms of semantics. Israeli children read the Bible very easily, while the Divine Commedy is difficult to understand. There is no such Modern Hebrew: there is the Hebrew language with different stages. Hebrew literature has always been interesting–religious poetry for instance continues through the centuries. There is a continuous literary production, which stems from the role of the intellectual in Jewish sociology. He who studies, writes, speaks, invents is a honourable person. Moreover, the capacity to tell a story is also important: the Talmud is full of anecdotes and literary invention goes on in all great books. By and large, the role of narration is major in Judaism and is conducive to literary prolificacy.
The quiescence of Hebrew has already happened during the exile in Babylon, but Hebrew resisted. Is Hebrew essential part of Jewish identity? The prophets write in Hebrew before, during and after the exile. The Bible tells that while Ezra reads the Torah, the Levites make it comprehensible to the people: this is interpreted in the sense that Levites would translate into Aramaic, spoken by the Jews returned from exile. Translation is permissible if it does not supersede the original. Although the Bible has been translated, for the Jews it remains the Book written in Hebrew. It then represented an attachment to the language that was not national, but religious. This is why the rabbis call Hebrew “lashon ha-kodesh”, the language of sacred. The Talmud tells that angels do not listen to prayers if they are not in Hebrew. Hebrew is the core of a very complex identity, both national and religious: it is national inasmuch it is linked to the sacred and divine. Hebrew has been preserved over millenniums as a collective identity and means of interaction with the divine, for living again today with the rebirth of the political identity of the Jewish people. Language returns to history because the people returns.