The origins of Hatikva
The origins of Hatikva

Q. What is the origin of Hatikvah? Is it really by a drunken poet?

A. Don’t denigrate any poem on the basis that the author may have had bouts of alcoholism. Misery often seems to dog the poetical soul.

If you view film clips of people coming out into the streets of Tel Aviv and singing Hatikvah when the United Nations partition decision was made on 29 November, 1947, you will want to cry at the way the anthem captured the sheer emotion of the moment.

The words are by Naftali Herz Imber, put together in Rumania in 1878 or in Rishon L’Tziyyon in 1882; the song was first published in 1886. It was put to music by Shmuel Cohen of Rishon L’Tziyyon, a former Moldavian, and became popular amongst the settlers in the early Zionist colonies. The Zionist movement adopted it as their anthem and it inevitably became the anthem of the State of Israel.

The text underwent changes over the years. Imber himself was not responsible for the ungrammatical second line of the refrain, Hatikvah sh’nat (or sh’not) alpayim (literally, “the hope 2000 years”), which requires a rhyme in the fourth line, B’Eretz Tziyyyon (vi’)Y’rushalayim (“in the land of Zion (and) Jerusalem”). Rav Kook wrote a text for the refrain, which was paraphrased by Imber in the original version: 

Od lo av’dah tikvatenu – Our hope is not yet lost,
Hatikvah hanoshanah – The age-old hope,
Lashuv el eretz avotenu – To return to the land of our fathers,
La’ir bah David chanah – To the city where David dwelt.

The poem originally had four verses and a refrain, with an interesting reference to God in the third verse: Ki od y’rachamenu E-l zo’em – “That an angry God will yet have mercy upon us”. The Hebrew words of Imber’s version fit together well but appear to be based on well-known non-Jewish nationalist themes, especially the “as long as” motif.

The music is also partly borrowed from outside sources, e.g. a liturgical melody for Psalm 117 in Hallel and a Moldavian-Rumanian folk tune, Carul cu Boi – “Cart and Oxen”, which itself utilises a widely known melodic style which the composer Smetana made famous.

So popular has the tune of Hatikvah become amongst religious Zionists that they often use it for Psalm 126 (Shir HaMa’alot) in the Grace After Meals, though I recall an Israeli diplomat in Australia who undiplomatically objected to the “sacred” Hatikvah melody being “cheapened” in the bensching!

Naftali Herz Imber (1856-1909) had a traditional education in Eastern Europe and became secretary to Laurence Oliphant, the Christian Zionist. He was too restless to settle anywhere and after some years in Palestine he went back to Europe and at various times lived in India, England, and the United States. The accusation pursued him that he had at some point converted to Christianity in the hope of staving off poverty and hunger.

In the USA he lived in misery and alcoholism. He had married a Christian intellectual who converted to Judaism for him but the marriage did not last. He wrote a number of volumes of poetry and translated Omar Khayyam into Hebrew. He produced English renderings of some of his poems and wrote some Talmudical leaflets in English.