October 3rd, 2023

Culture & Custom

Holy Tongue

Mordechai Schiller

By Mordechai Schiller

Published Oct. 20, 2014

Holy Tongue
Not all languages are created equal. There is one language apart from all others.

Hebrew is called "Lashon Hakodesh" — the Holy Tongue. There are some who might dismiss this as just pious Heb-perbole. But you don't have to be pious — or Jewish — to know that Hebrew is special.

Personally, I have no problem with axiomatically quoting the Torah. We hold its Truth to be self-evident. As an old bumper sticker put it: "G-d said it. I believe it. That settles it!"

But, for the cynics, skeptics, and others absolutely sure of their uncertainty, rather than beg the question by jumping right into quoting the Torah to prove its own specialness, let me start with a venerated secular source: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The word "Ivri — Hebrew," means otherness. According to the OED, the etymology of the English word Hebrew is:

"Middle English Ebreu, from Old French Ebreu, Ebrieu (nominative Ebreus, 12th cent. in Hatzfeld & Darmesteter), from medieval Latin Ebrus for classical Latin Hebræus, from Greek Hebraios, from Aramaic 'ebrai, corresponding to Hebrew ibr? 'a Hebrew,' lit. 'one from the other side (of the river)'; from '?ber the region on the other or opposite side; from '?bar to cross or pass over.)"

Eons before Oxford, the Midrash explained why the Torah calls Abraham "ha'Ivri — the Hebrew." The word Ivri is related to the word eiver, meaning "on the other side." The Midrash explains that Abraham was unfazed by standing alone in his beliefs. "The whole world stood on one side and he stood on the other."

Could Thoreau have known this Midrash? In his essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, Thoreau wrote that Abolitionists should withdraw support for the government of Massachusetts and "not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have G-d on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already."

Shortly after my brother Rabbi Nota Schiller (dean of Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem) got married, he moved to Israel. Before he left, he went to take leave of, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, zt"l, the late dean of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin.

Rabbi Hutner told my brother, "When we make a l'chaim toast for a yahrtzeit, we say, 'May the neshamah have an Aliyah [May the soul rise to a higher level in Heaven].' Now, I say to you, may your Aliyah [ascension to live in Israel] have a neshamah [soul]!"

In the course of the conversation, my brother mentioned that he was concerned about adapting to a new language. Given his lifelong involvement in writing and communication, he was afraid he wouldn't be able to fully express himself, writing in Hebrew.

Rabbi Hutner told him that people can readily learn to write in a new language. "But nobody," he said, "writes poetry in an adopted language."

Poetry, he explained, is too profoundly connected to our primal emotions. "There is one exception, though," the sage said, "A Jew from any country can learn to write poetry in Lashon Hakodesh; because Lashon Hakodesh is every Jew's first language."

Still pondering Rabbi Hutner's premise that no one writes poetry in an adopted language, my brother asked, "But what about Joseph Conrad?" (Conrad was a Polish immigrant, and one of England's greatest lyrical novelists.)

Rabbi Hutner countered, "That is not poetry; that is prose."

Apparently, Rabbi Hutner felt that — no matter how poetic — prose couldn't be verse.

A horse of a different color

Hebrew is the language of Creation: The Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers tells us "that "the world was created with 10 utterances." The Divine created the universe using one set of tools: Hebrew words.

The Torah says Adam called his wife ishah (woman) because "she was taken from ish [man]." The foremost commentator, Rashi, explains, based on the Midrash, that this derivation teaches us that "The world was created with Lashon Hakodesh — the Holy Tongue — Hebrew."

Adam later "called his wife 'Chavah' [Eve] because she was to be mother of all chai [life]." The name Adam itself comes from the Hebrew word adamah [earth], because G-d created Adam from the earth.

A Horse is a horse, of course. But is it, really? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says the etymology of horse is: "hors = Old Frisian hors, hars, hers (Frisian hoars), Old Saxon hros (Middle Low German ros, ors, Middle Dutch ors, Low German and Dutch ros), Old High German hros, ros, Middle High German ros, ors, German rosz, all neuter, Old Norse hross masculine; not recorded in Gothic. The affinities of the word outside Germanic are uncertain. …"

In other words, nobody knows for sure. So, "You pays your money and you takes your choice." Or, as Mark Twain said, "It is difference of opinion that makes horse-races."

On the other hoof, the Hebrew word sus is a horse of a different color. The Torah says that the Divine brought all the animals before Adam, "…and whatever the man would call each living creature — that was its name."

Adam didn't "give" the animals names. He prophetically connected with the spiritual essence of each animal and called it by its name. Thus, the Hebrew word sus isn't a mere label. It definitively identifies the creature we call a horse.

More to the point, all other languages are nothing more than collections of arbitrary sounds that enough people got together and agreed on to refer to a specific object.

In our case, that object is a mammal that has hooves, pulls loads, runs races and helped win the West. All things being equine, there is no intrinsic meaning to the juxtaposition of phonemes riding on horse. Since Hebrew is the language of Creation, by corollary, it is the language of prophecy.

As my brother said, "In prophecy, there is an absoluteness to diction and syntax. We scramble to catch the bobbing and weaving sparks of holiness hidden elsewhere. Yet the phrase 'V'romamtanu mikol ha'leshonos — He lifted us above all other tongues' — means just that."

And so, only Hebrew is "Lashon Hakodesh — the Holy Tongue."

When I was a rabbinical student at the Beth Medrash Gevoha in Lakewood, NJ., I would sometimes spend lunchtime in the yeshivah library, reading Sefer HaCarmel — a dictionary/thesaurus based on the commentary of the Malbim (d. 1879).

The Malbim wrote in the introduction to his commentary on the book of Isaiah that the Jewish prophets never used two different words to mean the same thing.

There are no "synonyms" in Hebrew. That is, there are no interchangeable words. Each word is precise and essential. In his commentary, he defines seeming synonyms explaining the fine differences in meaning.

Yehuda Leib Gordon, the poet (d. 1892), and Pinhas Rutenberg (founder of the Israel Electric Corporation) were both irreverent enough to name electricity for an angel in Ezekiel's vision: "Chashmal."

It is ironic that the fathers of Modern Hebrew couldn't come up with a more creative word in Ivrit for Alexander Graham Bell's "harmonic telegraph" than telefon.

Lamentably, Modern Hebrew continues to deteriorate. How sad that the glut of Western media led to Israelis giving up "Shalom" for "Bye." But there is still hope. The OED says the etymology of "goodbye" is "A contraction of the phrase G-d be with you"!

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Mordechai Schiller is a copyeditor and columnist at Hamodia, the Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry, where this first appeared.