Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Three Languages- One People



   Kol Yisroel Chaveyrim, “all Israel are brethren.” This fundamental dictum of Jewish unity is visible in the use of Hebrew in all Jewish communities throughout the world. While Hebrew is the language of  Torah and the language of Israel, Jews have used two other languages, Yiddish and Ladino, during the many years of our exile. Yet, even as Yiddish and Ladino were spoken together with the language of the country of one’s birth, Hebrew was also used in prayer, in writing books and for a few, in conversation.

   The English word Hebrew is a corruption of the word Ivri, to ford, and refers to the first Jew, Abraham, who came across the river Euphrates from the city of Ur where he was born.

   Hebrew is one of several Semitic languages. These languages were named Semitic by linguists who classify languages because one of the sons of Noah, Sem, reputedly settled in those countries in which these languages are spoken. Likewise, some African languages are called Hamitic on the grounds that the Torah tells us that the son of Noah, Ham, moved south of Mt. Ararat. Evidently, Africa is south of the so-called “Middle East” named so because it is half way between Europe and India.

   Hebrew was never a “dead” language. After the destruction of the second Temple and the Dispersion, Hebrew was used in Spain, France, Germany and in all of Eastern Europe by poets, scholars and in prayer in every synagogue. The Spanish Jew Samuel ibn Nagdela wrote Hebrew poetry as did Jehudah Halevi. The great Moses ben Maimon. (1135-1204) codified the Talmud. Born in Spain, he spent his mature years in Egypt.

   Christians also studied Hebrew during the Middle Ages. Among these was Martin Luther who translated the Torah from Hebrew into 16th century German. He studied the language with rabbis. Thereafter he became so malicious a Jew hater that it is no exaggeration to say that Luther taught what Hitler did. Go to any library and get my book, The Jew in Christian Theology.  This book illustrates the extent of Luther’s hatred.

   There were some other Christian Hebraists during our long Galuth. One of these was Johannes Reuchlin, who defended the Talmud against the calumnies of a former Jew, converted to Christianity, who sought to ingratiate himself by denouncing his erstwhile brethren.

   In the Yiddish speaking world of Eastern Europe there were some great Hebraists. Among these were Nachman Krochmal and Solomon Rappaport, the rabbi of Prague.

    Moses Mendelssohn, the German-Jewish philosopher, a contemporary of George Washington, translated the Torah from Hebrew into German and also founded a Hebrew journal called HaMeassef or the Gatherer. In Russia, other Hebrew journals were founded and during the Enlightenment (Haskalah), a good deal of Hebrew writing took place.

   In 1882, when the Return of the Exiles was just beginning, the Russian-Jewish scholar, Perelman, who called himself Eliezer ben Yehoodah, made Hebrew a living language by his lexicographical research. Hebrew had been mostly a literary language until then. Ben Yehoodah coined numerous new words which fitted the needs of everyday expressions. He and his family spoke only Hebrew and set an example for other Exiles who followed him into Aliyah.

   Today, Hebrew is the language of Israel and of a good number of American and other Jews who have learned it in our day schools. Modern Hebrew differs from Torah Hebrew in some ways. Yet, it is one of the most ancient tongues spoken by man, a language ever evolving and yet the language of Torah.

   Be sure to go to the library and read more about Hebrew and its origins. Next week I will say a few words about Yiddish, the language of our European forebears, a language of literature, poetry, song, prayer and daily events. 


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