Rabbi Ilan Goldman
Former Rav-Shaliach, Bnei Akiva England
Currently Executive Director of Project Aseret
Speak the Language of the Hebrew Man
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, in his masterpiece The Kuzari, discusses the Hebrew language, ‘Ivrit’. The Midrash explains that Avraham was given the name ‘Ivri’ (a Hebrew) because the entire world was on one ‘eiver’ (side) and Avraham on the other. The Kuzari, however, offers an alternative explanation.
Our nation is named Am Yisrael, or Bnei Yisrael, after our patriarch Yaacov (Yisrael). Examples for this are endless, the first being at the beginning of Chumash Shemot, when we first became a nation: “He (Pharaoh) said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are'”. (1:9)
Another name is used to refer to us: ‘Jews’, relating to the kingdom of Judea at the time of the first Beit HaMikdash (from which most of us descend). The first “Jew” was Mordechai: “איש יהודי”, “There was a Jewish man in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordechai” (Ester 2:5).
Finally, we are also named ‘Hebrews’. The first Hebrew was Avraham: “And the fugitive came and he told Abram the Hebrew” (Bereshit 14:13).
Whilst two of these three names are historic, connecting us to a common patriarch or kingdom, according to The Kuzari, the title ‘Hebrews’ (‘Ivrim’) links us to a language.
In most cases one may assume that the language is named after the nation, be it English, Chinese, Arabic or any other language. However, Hebrew, according to The Kuzari, is the exception. Why would a nation be named after its language?
Furthermore, a language is supposedly merely a means to an end; it is a method of communication agreed upon between people to enable everyday contact. Yet, we find that both the Midrash and Halacha state that it is a Mitzvah to teach the Hebrew language to our children.
The world was created in Ivrit. Hashem spoke to Adam in Ivrit, and Adam spoke it. Hebrew was used by the entire world for the first twenty generations of humanity. It was only when the united language of Ivrit was misused and abused to allow the building of Migdal Bavel, that Hashem used language to disperse and confuse the builders of the tower. For once the builders lost the ability to communicate – they were no longer able to build the Tower of Babylon.
Avraham was soon after to represent the original language of the universe, and was to be named after it. The language itself was named after the one who maintained it at the time when languages were confused – his ancestor Eiver. The Kuzari believes that different tongues have more in common than one might think, because they are all derived from one original language and all of humanity is descended from the same father.
After 2,000 years of exile, Ivrit remains the richest and noblest of languages; this can be demonstrated simply by opening any book of Tanach. The richness of the language is apparent in every book of the Tanach; in the exclusive language of the different prophets, in the psalms of King David, and in the wisdom of King Solomon.
Yet there is more to Ivrit than simply its beauty: Ivrit is the language of prophecy and the receptacle of Kedusha. When one learns or speaks Ivrit he is elevating himself.
The Midrash teaches us that just as the Torah can elevate us so too can the language of the Torah. When speaking a language a person is connecting to the essence of that language. For example, if a person were to learn Chinese and yet never go to China and never meet a Chinese person, they would nevertheless be connecting to the essence of the culture of the Chinese. Therefore when people speak Hebrew, they are connecting to the highest form of speech. As Hebrew is the language in which the world was created, Hebrew is the language of prophecy.
It is taught that one of the reasons why our ancestors merited the redemption from Egypt was because they preserved their language. How close are we to that today? Perhaps the time has come for us to prioritise the acquisition and use of our very own national tongue.