On Speaking Hebrew

Throughout the ages, there have been select sects among us that have urged the restriction of Hebrew to only holy matters, while using other Jewish-flavored languages for day to day business. Nevertheless, Hebrew can and should be used when speaking about even the most secular of topics (Orach Chaim 85:2).

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin,

Judaism Rabbi Ari Enkin
Rabbi Ari Enkin
צילום:
Our national language is one of the most precious gifts we have, uniting Jews of every stripe. According to tradition, it was actually Hebrew that was the first language spoken on earth. In fact, it is even the language that is spoken in heaven. The Midrash (on Genesis 18:6) teaches that the world was created with the Hebrew language. Thereafter, Adam and Eve, as well as all of earliest humanity spoke only Hebrew (Genesis 2:23).

Adam intentionally named all the animals with the Hebrew language in order to express the hidden meaning and purpose of their existence. For example, there is a well known saying that "dogs are a man's best friend." Could it be a reflection of their Hebrew name - kelev - which means "like the heart"?

Biblical Hebrew is known as the "holy language" for a variety of reasons. For one, as mentioned, it is the language of G-d. Another reason it is referred to as the holy language is that it has no words to depict the sexual organs or sexual relations.

Throughout the ages, there have been select sects among us that have urged the restriction of Hebrew to only holy matters, while using other Jewish-flavored languages for day to day business. Nevertheless, Hebrew can and should be used when speaking about even the most secular of topics (Orach Chaim 85:2). Although Hebrew can even be spoken in the bathroom, some authorities suggest not doing so out of respect for the holy language (Sefer Chassidim).

Even today, there are enclaves in Jerusalem of extreme Hassidic sects that refuse to use Hebrew outside of study and prayer. Most, however, including the anti-Zionist Satmar group (may they soon repent!), have adapted to Israeli society to at least the extent that they do converse in Hebrew.

Make no mistake, Yiddish, Ladino, and even Aramaic, are not Jewish languages. They were languages used by specific groups of Jews in specific areas at specific times. The only national Jewish language remains Hebrew to this day. Indeed, in preparation for the imminent Messianic era and the mass Aliyah that will follow, we would be well advised to work on our Hebrew.

In anticipation of the exile and Diaspora, the Torah itself began introducing non-Hebrew words into its text. For example, the Torah calls the Tefillin of the head "Totafot", a word of Caspian and African derivation (Menachos 34b). Furthermore, Hebrew itself has been mutilated by the various dialects of the places Jews were to be found (cf. kugel vs. kigel). It is even questionable whether one may serve as a Chazzan in a synagogue whose pronunciation of Hebrew is different from one's own (Megilla 24b).

It is important to note that merely conversing in Hebrew is a tremendous mitzvah that cannot be underestimated. The Maharik (on Deuteronomy 7:12) laments the fact that the mitzvah of speaking in Hebrew has been all but ignored in the Diaspora. The famous Torah commentator Rashi (rabbi by day, winemaker by night) derives from the Shema prayer (Deuteronomy 11:19) that parents are required to ensure that their child's first words are in Hebrew. The Rambam was known to have said that even speaking languages that resemble Hebrew has much merit. As such, he rules that it is better for one to speak Arabic than English!

Keep in mind, however, that although what we speak to each other may be important, how we speak to each other is essentially important!




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