They couldn’t believe
their eyes- having assumed for twenty-two years that Yosef was lost to slavery
or even murdered, they could hardly imagine that he currently stood before them
as the second most powerful man on Earth. Flabbergasted and speechless they
wondered about the identity of this intimidating accuser turned "loving
brother". Could this really be Yosef? Maybe he was an impostor or perhaps
this was just another stage of his crafty manipulation.
Looks can be deceiving
but language is very reliable. The midrash reports that by speaking directly to
his brothers in Hebrew, Yosef convinced them of his true identity. Prior to the
great reveal, he communicated with them through a translator, pretending to be
Hebrew-illiterate. Hearing him speak Hebrew convinced the skeptical brothers
that this foreign-looking man was their long-lost brother. Language is that
Our return to our homeland
and to historical relevancy has awakened a language which had been left for
dead. For centuries, Hebrew was spoken in the rooms of study and the halls of
prayer, but hadn’t been used colloquially. Suddenly, lost language was resurrected,
thereby refreshing Jewish identity. In our new world, speaking Hebrew is
essential for religious identity for several reasons:
Is it a Mitzvah?
Hebrew is termed "lashon
hakodesh" or a sacred language. Generally, language has no objective or
absolute meaning. All language is merely a convention- words and meanings
agreed upon by communities, countries or ethnicities. Language, by definition
cannot be holy and certainly can't be holier than other languages.
Hebrew is different. It
is the language of Hashem, the language He employed to create His world and to
reveal His will to humanity. Some- including the Rambam- asserted that there is
a formal mitzvah to know or even to speak Hebrew. Likewise, many applied
halachik guidelines to any texts written in Hebrew- even without Torah content.
For example, some debate the permissibility of bringing any Hebrew text into an
unclean environment such as a bathroom.
Even if there is no
formal mitzvah to speak Hebrew, this language is a gateway to greater access of
Torah. Over the past forty years we have experienced a literary revolution, as
enormous volumes of Torah have been translated into English. This has transformed
Torah study, making it accessible to countless non-Hebrew speakers. However, as
valuable as this shift has been, direct and frontal encounter of Torah in its
original language is far superior-intellectually and spiritually- to studying
translations. Additionally, from a purely practical standpoint, in the internet
age, Hebrew facility provides access to a vast world of Torah information
written only in Hebrew.
Language and Identity
The midrash depicts the
Jewish slaves in Egypt as completely abdicating religious practices and sinking
into the surrounding pagan culture. The weight of two centuries of bondage was too
difficult to bear. Yet, to their credit, by speaking and naming children in,
Hebrew they preserved their basic Jewish identity. Their core of Jewish
identity was safeguarded and ultimately served as the platform for a national religious
rejuvenation. Religion is built on national identity which forms around cultural
factors such as food, art, music and, of course, language. Hebrew language familiarity
reinforces Jewish identity, which in turn, enables religious development.
By contrast to the Jews
in Egypt, after the destruction of the first Mikdash, the exiled Jews in Babylonia
discarded Hebrew language, while deeply assimilating into the local cultures. This
abandonment of Hebrew, made it extraordinarily difficult to disengage from
Babylonian culture. Ezra is distressed by his unsuccessful attempts to separate
Jews from their Gentile wives. If only they had spoken Hebrew, it is unlikely
that many would have intermarried to begin with.
Throughout our exile we erected
language barriers to defend against cultural encroachment. The Ladino language preserved
Jewish identity among many of Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th
century. Likewise, for hundreds of years, Yiddish served to blockade Central
and Eastern European Jewry from cultural assimilation. Today, in many insular
Hasidic circles, Yiddish is employed in a similar strategy of ethnic
preservation. Our language has always been a tool for upholding Jewish identity
in a foreign, and oftentimes, hostile environment.
A Common Denominator
The Jewish world is badly
divided along ideological, religious cultural and even political lines. Across
the Jewish world, the seismic events of the past two centuries have elicited differing
responses, leaving our people badly splintered. Sometimes it feels as if what
divides us is greater than what unites us. Even opinions about our "common"
state of Israel sharply differ. There are very few broad-spectrummed unifiers
of all Jews. By definition, language is a great unifier as it enables
communication. Two Jews can communicate in Hebrew no matter how many "points
of difference" separate them. Often, by speaking common language we are
able to discover "common language". Yosef was separated from his
brothers for over two decades and, undoubtedly, looked and acted very
differently from them. Yet, language melted all the barriers and bridged across
all the lost years.
parts of the Jewish world are still resistant to Hebrew. For some, the shift
has proven too technically challenging. Even in Israel "pocket communities"
of olim, have continually resisted broad-scale Hebrew adaptation, creating
bubbles of English language and culture within the Hebrew state. Relocation to
a foreign country is difficult enough. Switching to a different language, for
many, can be professionally and emotionally handicapping.
opposed the adaptation of Hebrew on ideological grounds. As this linguistic
revival was largely driven by secular Zionists, many feared that the language
had been ideologically weaponized. Speaking Hebrew would legitimate
anti-religious agendas. Gradually, as Hebrew language has expanded, this
concern has faded. Modern Hebrew is no longer the province of secular Jews
aiming to modernize or debunk tradition. Of course, in his sefer, Va'yo'el
Moshe, the Satmar Rebbe registered numerous ideological oppositions to speaking
Hebrew. By and large, these objections are reflective of his strong prejudice
against the state of Israel.
Others wonder whether
modernized Hebrew has been so radically altered that it bears little
resemblance to original Hebrew. It is difficult to jump–start languages which
have been dormant while human experience has evolved. Suspended languages cannot
coin words for newly developed technologies, inventions or ideas. This has
forced the introduction of many foreign words into Hebrew, diluting it from its
original Biblical version. In truth, incorporation of foreign words is natural for
any language and certainly necessary for a revived language. The Torah itself contains
numerous "foreign' words and, likewise, Rabbinic language blends words
from many different languages. In part, Hebrew is such a rich language precisely
because it is multi-layered. It draws from Biblical Hebrew to Talmudic Hebrew
to Medieval Hebrew and even includes several Yiddish'isms. Modern Hebrew is a
kaleidoscope whose changing colors represent the changing tides of Jewish
Ironically, access to
Hebrew familiarity is easier and more enjoyable than in the past. Traditionally,
Hebrew was taught in classroom settings, with an emphasis upon formal rules of
grammar. This very technical training was off-putting to many, and smothered
interest in speaking Hebrew. Today, through the internet and social media,
exposure to casual Hebrew is readily available. It is more effortless and
certainly more enjoyable to "speak" Hebrew than ever before.
We have opened the door
onto the final stage of history. Will the end of history resemble the arch of
the original Egypt redemption? Will Hebrew language form the "identity
platform" upon which widespread religious revival will occur? By speaking Hebrew,
we rebuild Jewish identity, throw open new gates of Torah study and bond with Jews
across the world.
The midrash asserts that
when the world is finally redeemed, all of humanity will speak the common
language of Hebrew. It pays to speak Hebrew. It pays to get a head start on the