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How Hebrew Kept Us a People

The story of how the mystical language came to be, why it was detested by many, and how it reemerged as an anchor of Jewish identity

Stanley Dubinsky and Hesh Epstein
May 19, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Current events sometimes have a way of distracting us from the larger picture, and one larger picture worth looking at is the current state of the Hebrew language. This year, we mark the 100th yahrzeit of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (אליעזר בן־יהודה), considered to be the “Father of Modern Hebrew.” For anyone who hasn’t noticed, and most haven’t, there are more speakers of Hebrew in the world today than at any other time in human history: With a population of 10 million Hebrew-speakers, which includes between 5 million and 9 million native speakers of the language, Israel’s Hebrew-speaking population today exceeds the approximately 4.5 million Jews living throughout the Roman Empire at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple.

To fully understand the significance of this moment in our history, we need to examine the word lashon [לָשׁוֹן], or language, which initially referred to the way that a person, a family, or a tribe spoke, and see how it evolved, by the time of the Second Temple, to be synonymous with, and an identifier of, a larger idea: that of an am [עָם], a people, and an ummah [אֻמַּה], a nation.

This journey toward understanding the significance a language has in creating peoplehood begins with a puzzle. In Genesis Chapter 10, we read about the dispersal of the descendants of Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. It describes the divisions of each group of descendants, saying that they were divided “according to their families and their languages/tongues, in their lands and their nations.”

לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לִלְשֹׁנֹתָם, בְּאַרְצֹתָם, בְּגוֹיֵהֶם
l’mishpahotam, lilshonotam, b’artzotam, b’goyayhem
[Genesis 10:20 (JPS, KJV)]

At the start of the very next chapter, describing the building of the Tower of Babel, it says that “the whole earth was of one language and the same words.”

וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, שָׂפָהאֶחָת, וּדְבָרִים, אֲחָדִים
vayehi kol ha’aretz, safah ‘echat udevarim ‘achadim
[Genesis 11:1 (JPS, KJV)]

“How could it be,” the astute reader may ask, “that the whole earth had one language (safah [שָׂפָה]), if every family each had their own language (lashon [לָשׁוֹן])?” This verse, no surprise there, inspired voluminous rabbinical commentary, much of it concerned with the significance of “the whole earth” using “the same words” devarim ‘achadim (דְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים). Less attention, alas, was paid to being told that “the whole earth had one language” safah ‘echat (שָׂפָה אֶחָת) right after learning that the descendants of Noah dispersed and settled each “according to their [various] languages” lilshonotam (לִלְשֹׁנֹתָם).

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan debate this latter issue in the Talmud (Yerushalmi Megilla 1:9), with one saying that everyone spoke in (all) 70 languages (of the world) and the other saying that they all spoke in Hebrew—“the Holy Language”—asserting that it was the common language of the whole world.

To better understand this relatively unexplored contrast, we might refer to the distinction made by the Swiss thinker Ferdinand de Saussure, considered the father of modern linguistics, between langue and parole. The first is the Platonic and abstract language that we share—the safah [שָׂפָה] or code—and the second is our actual use of it: our lashon [לָשׁוֹן] or patterns of speech. Thus, using the biblical terms, we could say that a resident of London and a resident of Washington, D.C., don’t speak the same lashon [לָשׁוֹן], the first speaking British English and the second American English, but that they both share the same safah [שָׂפָה]—namely, the English language, or safah anglit [שפה אנגלית].

Our suspicions about the meaning of lashon [לָשׁוֹן] in the early books of the Bible are confirmed in other passages, where the word refers to the way that someone speaks, rather than what language they use. In Exodus Chapter 4, Moses tells Hashem that he is not verbally skilled enough to represent the Israelites before Pharoah, saying “I am not a man of words … because I am heavy/slow of mouth (khevad peh) and heavy/slow of tongue (khvad lashon),” presumably meaning that his speech is slow and difficult.

לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי … כִּי כְבַד-פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן, אָנֹכִי
lo ish d’varim anochi … ki khevad-peh ukhvad-lashon anochi
[Exodus 4:10 (JPS, KJV)]

Psalm 52 tells us about a character—Do’eg, a contemporary of King Saul—who uses “treacherous speech” (leshon mirmah).

אָהַבְתָּ כָל-דִּבְרֵי-בָלַע; לְשׁוֹן מִרְמָה
ahavtah kol-divrei-bala’; leshon mirmah
[Psalms 52:6 (JPS), 52:4 (KJV)]

Job is addressed in Chapter 15 of that book, and castigated for choosing “crafty language” (leshon ‘arumim).

וְתִבְחַר, לְשׁוֹן עֲרוּמִים
vetivhar leshon ‘arumim
[Job 15:5 (JPS, KJV)]

We are pretty sure that, during the First Temple period, the Israelites and their neighbors spoke the same langue (i.e., safah [שָׂפָה]), but had different paroles (i.e., leshonot [לְשֹׁנוֹת]). The peoples in the kingdoms of Judah, Israel, Edom, Moab, Ammon, and Phoenicia all spoke variants of the Canaanite language (a subgroup of closely related Northwest Semitic languages). For example, Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth are assumed to have understood each other well enough, each using their own lashon—Naomi using Israelite and Ruth using Moabite. When Ruth says to Naomi, “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” she is most likely speaking in her own Moabite lashon (dialect).

A partial image from the stele is shown here, with the equivalent Hebrew text and translation:

את . נבה . על . ישראל/‘et . nabah . ‘al . yisra’el: Take . Nabah . against . Israel
A partial image from the stele is shown here, with the equivalent Hebrew text and translation: את . נבה . על . ישראל/‘et . nabah . ‘al . yisra’el: Take . Nabah . against . Israel

Moabite textual evidence confirms this. The Moabite Kingdom adopted the ancient Hebrew script, and the text of the Moabite King Mesha’s stele (written around 840 BCE at the time of the Book of Kings) proves it. A 2022 article published in the winter issue of Biblical Archeology Review confirms beyond doubt that the Moabites and the Kingdom of Judah were contemporaneous and that they spoke and wrote the same safah, with each kingdom likely having its own lashon (dialect). A partial image from the stele is shown here, with the equivalent Hebrew text and translation:

את . נבה . על . ישראל
‘et . nabah . ‘al . yisra’el
Take . Nabah . against . Israel

Just as the Israelites and Moabites each had their own lashon (dialect), so, too, did the different Israelite tribes. This is attested in the Book of Judges (Chapter 12), relating the aftermath of a battle between the tribes of Ephraim and Gilead (who formed the eastern half of the tribe of Manasseh). Here, the Gileadites set up sentries on the Jordan River to stop the fleeing Ephraimites from crossing over. It happens that where the Gileadite lashon (dialect) had a “sh” sound in certain words, the Ephraimite lashon would substitute an “s” sound in those same words. In this case, the Gileadite dialect word shibboleth (שִׁבֹּלֶת)—meaning an “ear of grain”—was used as a test to identify fleeing Ephraimite soldiers, who would according to their own dialect pronounce it sibboleth. On this basis, Gileadite sentries identified and killed, according to the text, some 42,000 Ephraimite soldiers.

Having gotten through the First Temple period with a pretty stable meaning for lashon, here is where the story takes a turn and the meaning changes, pretty dramatically. The Babylonian destruction of the Kingdom of Judah and the First Temple in 587 BCE resulted in the removal (until 538 BCE) of about 25% of the defeated kingdom’s population (its leaders, priests, and the wealthy) to exile in Babylon.

It was during the experience in Babylon that the Hebrew-speaking Jewish exiles first found themselves in a completely foreign place, surrounded by profoundly different peoples and languages. One might speculate that it was here that their consciousness of being different, distinct from all those around them, crystalized, and that in this place they saw their language as what made them so different. It is not surprising then that we find, in the texts referring to this period, the first use of lashon, “language,” as synonymous with, and an identifier of, am [עָם] and ummah [אֻמַּה].

In Chapter 1:22 of Esther we read that the Persian King Ahasuerus (אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ) dispatches letters “to every province in its own script and to every nation in its own language.”

אֶל־מְדִינָ֤ה וּמְדִינָה֙ כִּכְתָבָ֔הּ וְאֶל־עַ֥ם וָעָ֖ם כִּלְשׁוֹנ֑וֹ
‘el-medinah umedinah kikhtavah ve’el-am va’am kileshono
[Esther 1:22 (JPS, KJV)]

In the Book of Daniel, which recounts events that took place earlier under the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (נְבוּכַדְנֶצַּר), we repeatedly find the three-part parallelism lashon [לָשׁוֹן], am [עָם], and ummah [אֻמַּה] used as synonyms (both in Hebrew and in Aramaic) on seven separate occasions (Daniel 3:4, 3:7, 3:29, 3:31, 5:19, 6:26, 7:14).

דִּי כָל-עַם אֻמָּה וְלִשָּׁן
di kol-am ‘umah velishan
[Daniel 3:29 (JPS), 3:28 (KJV)]
לְכָל-עַמְמַיָּא אֻמַּיָּא וְלִשָּׁנַיָּא
lekol-amemayah ‘umaya velishanaya
[Daniel 3:31 (JPS), 4:1 (KJV)]

It was also after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, the Exilic Period, and the return to Jerusalem that prayer (tefilah [תְפִלָּ֖ה]) is accorded a formal, communal role previously served by animal sacrifice in the Temple. And so, in this context, the lashon of the Jews is first taken to distinguish them from all the other peoples around them and then the use of this lashon in tefilah is elevated as ritually equivalent to sacrifice (korban [קָּרְבָּן]).

This is prefigured in the First Temple period in the Book of Hosea [Chapter 14:3] where the prophet suggests that those who have sinned might replace the sacrificial payment of bulls with words/prayers.

וּנְשַׁלְּמָה פָרִים, שְׂפָתֵינוּ
uneshalmah farim, sefataeynu
“instead of bulls we will pay [the offering of] our lips.”
[Hosea 14:3 (JPS), 14:2 (KJV)]

One consequence of the Babylonian exile was that Jewish leaders saw a need to strengthen the people’s personal relationship with the Hebrew language through the institution of communal prayer. While the people did have a long-standing relationship to the language through reading the Torah or hearing it read, they had not previously used the language of prayer formally and communally.

In response to this, after the return to Israel, the Prophet Ezra is said to have established the Shemonah ‘esrey berachot (שְׁמוֹנֶה עֶשְׂרֵה בְּרָכוֹת), or Eighteen Blessings—the Tefilat Amidah (תפילת העמידה)—so that “prayers could be set in the mouths of everyone … and the prayers of those unable to express themselves would be as complete as the prayers of the most eloquent.” [Mishna Torah Laws of Prayer Chapter 1:4]. So doing, the ability to fulfill obligations of Temple observance was placed into the mind and mouth of each Jew, thereby empowering everyone to perform their own sacrifice (korban [קָּרְבָּן]) without ritual intercession of priests [n.b., with the destruction of the Second Temple, prayer came to formally and completely replace Temple sacrifice].

Not only was tefilah elevated in ritual significance in this period, but the Jews in Persia after remaining faithful to their identity during the period of Haman’s decree, were deemed to have willingly reestablished the covenant and secured their historic identity that now takes on a direct association with their language. This is in contrast with the Israelites of the Exodus, who were seen to have been coerced to accept the commandments at Sinai [Talmud: Shabbat 88a]. Thus, one might assert that the voluntary elevation of lashon for tefilah was in some ways superior practice to what had preceded it.

We find explicit acknowledgement of the parallel status of am and lashon, and the equal importance of both, in the morning prayers recited every day before the Shema,

וּבָֽנוּ בָחַֽרְתָּ מִכָּל־עַם וְלָשׁוֹן
uvanu vacharta mikol-am velashon
You have chosen us from every people and language

This idea is made even more explicit five times each year in the Tefilat Amidah (תפילת העמידה) for festivals where the phrase “you raised us up from all the languages” amplifies the importance of language to the business of being chosen.

אַתָּה בְחַרְתָּנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים אָהַבְתָּ אותָנוּ וְרָצִיתָ בָּנוּ וְרומַמְתָּנוּ מִכָּל הַלְּשׁונות
Atah bachartanu mikol ha’amim ‘ahavta ‘otanu veratzita banu,
veromamtanu mikol haleshonot
You chose us out of all the peoples, loved us, and desired us,
and raised us up from all the languages.

One might infer from all this that we were chosen along with our language, and our being chosen is intimately connected with the language that we possess and transmit, and the texts that go along with it. It would not be an exaggeration to say that (i) Hebrew coming to be an existential part of the Jewish people’s identity and (ii) the practice of daily Hebrew prayer by the community is what combined with the mitzvot to secure the preservation and transmission of the language down through centuries, making the revival of Hebrew 2,400 years later so much more possible than it would otherwise have been.

And so it was that the Roman siege of Jerusalem marked the end of Jewish national self-determination for the next 1,985 years, until the establishment and independence of the modern State of Israel. Throughout nearly 2,000 years of the Diaspora, it was the Hebrew language and the Jewish texts it enshrined that sustained and preserved the Jewish people. Without the language and its texts, Jews would likely have disappeared as a people. So, as much as Hashem raised up our language, he raised us up and sustained us with it.

Just how important was our language? If the responses to it in the Christian world were any indication, very much so. The Hebrew language and its texts were a threat to Christian hegemony and to the basic precepts of Christianity itself, even more so than the Jews who spoke and used it. The Christian world viewed the Hebrew language and texts as exceedingly dangerous, and over the course of 1,500 years, they attacked these along with the people who cherished them. Beginning only 150 years after the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, Emperor Justinian forbade teaching of the Mishnah. In the eighth century, the Visigoths in Spain forbade converts to Christianity from reading Hebrew books.

Needless to say, the step from banning to burning was a short one. By the 13th century, Catholic popes, starting with Gregory IX, commenced burning Jewish books, and this continued for at least another 500 years, with the last major Talmud-burning occurring in Poland, in 1757, when Bishop Nicholas Dembowski condemned nearly 1,000 copies of the Talmud to be thrown into a pit and burned.

It was the dream of a return to Israel that provided a framework for the re-raising up of our language. However, it should be noted that the selection of Hebrew as the national language was not a foregone conclusion, even though the determination of the Jewish migrants to construct a nation based on language was. There was in fact a robust debate on whether to adopt Yiddish or to revive Hebrew, with the latter winning out for being seen as more authentically and historically Jewish.

Many of the original Zionist leaders were from Eastern Europe, where Yiddish held sway as a Jewish lingua franca. European Jews had developed a rich tradition of Yiddish literature, song, and folklore—much richer than that of Hebrew (which had primarily been a vehicle for liturgical and scholastic traditions). The prevalence of Yiddish among European Jews thus made it a natural candidate for the language of Jewish national self-determination.

However, there was significant opposition to Yiddish. Many of those aspiring to establish a Jewish homeland saw Yiddish as a language of exile, the language of a people without a land. In the debate between supporters of the diasporic language of convenience and supporters of the ancient language of Israel, the latter won out.

This brings us back to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the “reviver of the Hebrew language.” In 1879, Ben-Yehuda wrote that “if a language is to be taken, on the European model, as a criterion of nationalism and nationhood, we have a language in which we can write everything we want to and we can speak it if we only want to. This language is Hebrew.” Beginning with Ben-Yehuda’s arrival in Palestine in 1881, the Hebrew language revival program was so successful that “by the end of WWI fully 40% of the Jewish population of the country used Hebrew as their first or daily language, including more than three-quarters of the children.” Cecil Roth summed up Ben-Yehuda’s contribution to the Hebrew language, saying: “Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.” And we are all, in Israel and elsewhere, the richer for it.

Stanley Dubinsky is a Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina. Rabbi Hesh Epstein is the (founding) Executive Director of Chabad Lubavitch of South Carolina and oversees the Chabad-Aleph House Synagogue in Columbia, S.C.