Q: Why is the original Hebrew called “the Holy Tongue”?

Prior to the First Exile of the Judean aristocracy to Babylon in 586 BCE, Israelites referred to themselves as ‘Hebrews’ (ivrim – עברים)—e.g.:

  • And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew [Gen. 14:13]
  • And there was there with us a young man, an Hebrew [Gen. 41:23]

    when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew [Exodus 2:7]

  • And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee [Deut. 15:12]
  • That every man should let his manservant, and every man his maidservant, being an Hebrew or an Hebrewess, go free [Jer. 34:9]
  • And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land [Jonah 1:9]

It stands to reason, therefore, that their language was known as ivrit (Hebrew)—although, in the century and a half after the fall of the Israel (northern) kingdom, since Judea was the sole remaining sovereign Israelite entity, the notion of a ‘Hebrew’ nationality lost its meaning, and its inhabitants began to refer to themselves as yehudim (Judeans), and their language as yehudit (Judean):

  • Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in Assyrian—for we understand it— and talk not with us in Judean in the ears of the people that are on the wall [II Kings 18:26]

After two or three generations in Babylon, the exiled Judeans naturally acquired Aramaic as their native language, and Hebrew might have been forgotten entirely, were it not so critical to preserving their cherished history and traditions.

It was clear that Hebrew would the language in which the written record of the oral traditions—which we now know as the Hebrew Bible—would be recorded. However, the notion of a Hebrew nationality had long been lost, and referring to the language as yehudit suggested that, as good Judeans, they should speak it as their native tongue—which they were loathe to do, because by this time, they felt more at home in Aramaic, which was also a more prestigious language, since it was the lingua franca of the region.

So to reflect Hebrew’s new special status, and to ‘compensate’ it for losing its status as the native everyday language, it was now referred to as leshon haqodesh (‘the holy tongue’). This state of affairs continued until the arrival of the first Zionists in Palestine in the late nineteenth century, who—as avowedly secular Jews intent on resurrecting the notion of a Jewish nationality, rather than religion—revived the concept of Hebrew as a nationality and as a language.

This mindset continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century: the Zionist Jewish community in Palestine referred to itself, its autonomous institutions and enterprises, and even the future independent state, as ‘Hebrew’.

In his declaration of independence of the newborn State of Israel in 1948, however, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion inadvertently referred to the new country as a medinah yehudit (‘Jewish state’). Although he meant it in the nationalist/Zionist sense of a ‘state of the Jews’, religious political parties were quick to seize upon this expression to mean a ‘Jewish state’ in the religious sense—whose agenda, therefore, was therefore implicitly theirs to dictate.

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Are Jewish men forbidden to farm pigs?

Many years ago, I was working for a while as ‘Deputy Food Manager’ (i.e., ‘the guy who schlepps the big boxes from the delivery platform at the back to the walk-in fridge’) at a kibbutz in southern Israel.

The kibbutz members frequently complained about the lack of variety of our meat offerings (basically, chicken, turkey, or beef)—so one day the Food Manager took me for a ‘research trip’ to another kibbutz in the southern Negev—Lahav, some forty km to the east, where, it was rumoured, members were very happy with their food.

The ‘research trip’ was a sham—he and I, and everyone else already knew why the Lahav members were happy with their food: they had pork alternatives almost every day, thanks to their pig farm.

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According to the Bible, did all Old Testament prophets perform miracles?

Broadly speaking, no. There is a clear difference between prophets in Judah/Judea, and those in Israel (the northern kingdom).

The Judahite prophets—such as Nathan and Isaiah—were dour, upper-class members of the court, who served effectively as the kingdom’s ombudsmen. They restricted their activity to emerging from time to time when the king did something particularly egregious and castigating him for inciting God’s wrath.

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How do Elohim and Yahweh differ?

Elohim was the name of God for the Israelite (northern) tribes.

IHVH was the name of the God of the Judeans (southern tribe).

Since both religions were based on the belief in a single, Creator, God, the two traditions were knitted into one when the refugees of the northern kingdom were absorbed into Judea following the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians around 725 BCE, at the instruction of the Judean King Ezekiah.

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Arabic Hebrew: An introduction to how modern Israelis really speak

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Join me on Sunday, February 19, 2017  2:30 pm, at Congregation Emanu-El synagogue, Victoria, B.C., for the second talk in its series Sketches of Israel and the Middle East, when I address the topic Arabic Hebrew: An Introduction to How Modern Israelis Really Speak.

(Can’t make it that day? State your interest in attending the talk on another occasion (and preferred day and time) in our online poll.

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