The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Yeshivat Har Etzion
#29: Hebrew Language and Poetry
One of the topics remaining to be discussed is R. Yehuda Halevi's
attitude toward the Hebrew language and Hebrew poetry. This is not a central issue in Rihal's
thought, but it gives rise to important principles.
Khazar king: Is Hebrew superior to other languages? Do we not see distinctly
that the latter are more finished and comprehensive?
Rabbi: It shared the fate of its bearers, degenerating and dwindling with
them. Considered historically and
logically, its original form is the noblest. According to tradition, it is the
language in which God spoke to Adam and Eve, and in which the latter
conversed. It is proved by the
derivation of Adam from adama, isha from ish; Chava
from chai; Kayin from kaniti; Shet from
shat, and Noah from yenachamenu. This is supported by the evidence of the
Torah. The whole is traced back to
Eber, Noah, and Adam. It is the
language of Eber after whom it was called Hebrew, because after the
confusion of tongues it was he who retained it. Abraham was an Aramaean of Ur
Kasdim, because the language of the Chaldaeans was Aramaic. He employed Hebrew as a holy language
and Aramaic for everyday use. For
this reason, Ishmael brought it to the Arabic speaking nations, and the
consequence was that Aramaic, Arabic, and Hebrew are similar to each other in
their vocabulary, grammatical rules, and formations.
superiority of Hebrew is manifest from the logical point of view if we consider
the people who employed it for discourses, particularly at the time when
prophecy was rife among them, also for preaching, songs, and psalmody. Is it conceivable that their rulers,
such as, for instance, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon, lacked the words to
express what they wished, as it is the case with us today because it is lost to
us? Do you not see how the Torah, when describing the Tabernacle, efod
and breastplate and other objects, always finds the most suitable word for all
these strange matters? How beautifully is this description composed! It is just
the same with the names of people, species of birds and stones, the diction of
David's Psalms, the lamentations of Job and his dispute with his friends, the
addresses of Isaiah, etc. (II,
Rihal tries to prove the superiority of Hebrew over all other languages
in two ways:
first is by way of tradition. Rihal
argues that Hebrew was the language spoken by Adam and Eve. To support this assertion, he adduces
A) Tradition attests to the fact that their names are connected to words
in the Hebrew language. This
teaches that these names are derived from Hebrew. We see, then, that the Hebrew language
existed from the very beginning of creation.
B) Eber, for whom the Hebrew language is named, received it from Noah and
Noah received it from Adam,
and it was he who preserved it during the generation of the dispersion, when the
languages became confused, and passed it down to Abraham.
second way is by "rational proof:"
tries to prove the perfection of the Hebrew language from the fact that the
language served the people of Israel for all its needs, from exalted Divine
speech by way of prophecy, through the Torah's detailed descriptions of the
Tabernacle's vessels, to poetry and prophetic rebuke. In all these areas, the Hebrew language
was not limited in any way in its ability to describe what its users wished to
say. Rihal feels that in his time,
when Hebrew is no longer a living language, it is no longer capable of
expressing all that he wishes to say.
This feeling reflects the deficiency and limits of the language. When, however, Hebrew was still a living
language, no one ever had this difficulty – and this attests to the language's
side comment is in order here.
Rihal seems to be parting from his usual custom in trying to bring proof
based on the power of logic. Rihal
adopts a similar method in his words about the Divine origin of the
details of these regulations would fill volumes. He who studies them carefully will see
that they are not of human origin.
Praised be He who has contrived them. (II, 56)
It seems, however, that in both passages, Rihal is not trying to offer
proof that is "manifest or proven," but merely to adduce additional support to
CONNECTION BETWEEN LANGUAGE AND HISTORY
In the framework of his account of the development of the Hebrew
language, Rihal asserts that in Ur Kasdim, Abraham spoke the local language –
Aramaic, and that in essence Abraham was the first to turn Hebrew from a spoken
language into a "holy tongue," while assigning Aramaic for "everyday use."
Rihal does not trace the development of the Hebrew language past Abraham,
but it seems to me that his distinction between "holy tongue" and "spoken
language" has much to teach us about the later development of
Throughout the First Temple period, Hebrew served as both the spoken
language and the official language of the kingdoms of Judea and Israel. Religious books were also written
exclusively in Hebrew.
After the destruction of the First Temple, there was a decrease in the
use of Hebrew and an increase in the use of Aramaic, the dominant language of
Throughout this period, however, and even during the time of the Second
Temple, Hebrew never disappeared, and it remained especially widespread among
the Sages, and first and foremost among the Tannaim. The mishna, as we know, is
written in Hebrew. Even though
there are differences between biblical Hebrew and the Hebrew spoken by the
Sages, their common elements are far more numerous than the differences between
A critical turning point was reached during the Amoraic period, when the
Sages discontinued lecturing in Hebrew.
At that point, Aramaic assumed absolute rule, and Hebrew became the "holy
language." Throughout the period of the exile, the holy language was used for
poetry and prayer, whereas the spoken language was the local vernacular –
Spanish, Italian, English, Arabic, or the like.
When we examine the history of the Hebrew language, we find an
astonishing correlation between that history and the history of the Jewish
The Hebrew language peaked during the period of the kingdom of Israel,
and the further we move from that glorious era to the dark days of exile, the
more the Hebrew language was pushed into the corner and used exclusively for
Torah study and prayer.
What follows from this is that the separation that Rihal attributes to
Abraham between spoken language and holy language later came to symbolize Jewish
life in the exile.
This division is not merely a technical matter. The general phenomenon, according to
which a Diaspora Jew learns, prays, and conducts his religious life in one
language – one that is "dead" or, put differently, "archaic" - while he manages
his daily life, speech, poetry, and writing in another language - the local
tongue - reflects the people of Israel's situation in the exile and their
foreignness. This situation does
not allow them to live their lives in a harmonious manner, but rather forces
them to distinguish between their state and their religion.
If we accept this correspondence between the state of the Hebrew language
and the state of the Jewish people, we cannot but be amazed by the resurrection
of the Hebrew language together with the blossoming of
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and others tried to revive the Hebrew language by
turning it into a spoken language.
In their eyes, the Jewish people's exit from exile and return to the land
of Israel reflects their ability to restore their language as a living
We saw above that Rihal sees Hebrew's limited capacity to describe all
situations, feelings, and objects as a clear sign that Hebrew is no longer the
people's spoken language.
Those who resurrected the Hebrew language also saw its ability to fulfill
every need and describe every situation as a necessary condition for Hebrew's
restoration as a living, spoken language.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the Academy of the Hebrew Language strove to find
an answer and solution to every difficulty and every object. The phenomenon of Jews sending a
question to the Academy of the Hebrew language asking what to call the
"tzuptzik of a kumkum" became commonplace.
It seems to me, however, that this approach, which was the driving force
behind those who resurrected the Hebrew language, is missing something
The Hebrew language, as we have seen, symbolized the connection – or lack
thereof – between the Jewish people's heritage, culture, and religion, which had
always been conducted in its own language,
and its national, communal and social life.
When the Torah and tradition were the foundations of the Jewish people's
national and social life, the Hebrew language was also its
When the Jewish people lost its independence, and with it its ability to
conduct its national life in accordance with the Torah and the prophets living
in its midst, the use of the Hebrew language also became constricted, and use of
the language of the conquering nation which dictated Israel's national and
social life expanded.
The restoration of independence to the Jewish people and the end of its
subjugation to alien powers at the time of the establishment of the State of
Israel was supposed to restore the Hebrew language's role as a bridge between
its national and communal life and its religious and cultural
Reviving the Hebrew language without resurrecting Jewish national life in
light of the religious heritage of the Jewish people is like fashioning vessels
without filling them with content and meaning.
It seems to me that this deficiency relating to the revival of the Hebrew
language and its restoration from a holy tongue to a spoken language also
reflects the shortcomings of secular Zionism, which tried to restore the Jewish
people to its historic independence and even spoke of "Jewish heritage and
culture," while at the same trying to preserve the artificial separation created
in the Diaspora between state and religion in the renewed kingdom of
separation between state and religion is an idea that arose in exile. It resembles the revival of the
Hebrew language in its attempt to have "Jewish words," but not their contents,
fashion our national life. No
longer should you say, "Be a Jew in your house, and a German outside," but
rather, "Be a Jew in your house, and an Israeli outside."
The attitude toward the Hebrew language, as reflecting the relationship
between the people of Israel's culture and religion and its national life, finds
expression not only in the debate between religious and secular Zionism, but
also in the debate between religious Zionism and the Charedi
The attempt of segments of the Charedi community to preserve the language
used in the Diaspora – Yiddish – as their spoken language, while preserving the
Hebrew language as a holy tongue, also serves to perpetuate (according to them,
until the Messiah's arrival) the separation between the Hebrew language and
mundane life. It also preserves the
separation between the world of Torah and religion, on the one hand, and
national and social life, on the other.
The Chareidim who do not see the State of Israel as a spiritual and
religious herald connected to the redemption of Israel are not prepared to
abolish the primary marker of exile – the separation between holy and mundane
language, which is essentially a separation between holy and mundane life.
POETRY AND SONG
In the framework of his discussion about language, Rihal relates to
poetry, as well. He distinguishes
between two objectives:
Khazar king: You will only succeed in placing it on a par with other languages
thus. But where is its preeminence?
Other languages surpass it in songs metrically constructed and arranged for
Rabbi: It is obvious that a tune is independent of the meter, or of the lesser
or greater number of syllables. The
verse hodu la-donai ki tov can, therefore, be sung to the same tune as
le-osei nifla'ot gedolot levado.
This is the rule regarding tunes that are meant to act upon the
soul. Rhymed poems, however, which
are meant for public recitation, and in which a good meter is noticeable, are
neglected for something higher and more useful. (II, 69-70)
Rihal distinguishes between tunes that are meant "to act upon the soul"
and those that are meant for "public recitation."
Here, Rihal lays the foundation for the fundamental distinction between
art that is meant to enlighten and art that is meant to
Rihal asserts that the songs of his day, which are meant for "public
recitation," must be written according to the strict rules of meter, as was
common in medieval poetry; this is evident even in the piyyutim and other
poetry that Rihal himself wrote.
In contrast, the songs and psalms recorded in Scripture were intended to act
upon the reader and leave a mark upon his soul. These, according to Rihal, are not
subject to the rules of rhyme and meter, and they only adopt that which will
serve their objective – to enhance the effect of the message that they
Even though poetry's accountability to the rules of rhyme and meter has
passed from the world, it seems to me that Rihal's fundamental argument remains
The principle underlying Rihal's argument is that when art comes to
entertain, it must conform to the accepted norms of the time. When an artist's aim, be he a painter, a
sculptor, an author, a poet, or a singer, is to entertain his audience, he is
obligated to adopt the norms and the dominant cultural spirit of the time. If the audience wants pop music, he must
give them pop music, and if the audience wants to dance a waltz, he must give
them a waltz, for if he fails to do so, he will achieve his goal – to amuse and
When, however, art wishes to educate, to bear tidings, and sometimes even
to object to some accepted norm, it is not trying to find favor in people's
eyes. It wishes to influence and to
leave an impact, and the very use of artistic language serves this goal, but
there is a world of difference between the desire to influence and the desire to
entertain and find favor in the eyes of others. Art of the second type is not obligated
to, or more precisely, is not
subject to any norms; as was noted earlier, sometimes the very opposite is
Such is the art found in the Torah and in the Prophets, and perhaps this
is what gives these works of art their eternal quality.
Countless novels and poems have become obsolete, or at the very least,
their relevance, both in their substance and in their style, has become greatly
diminished, whereas Shlomo's Song of Songs and the Psalms of David continue to
flow through the hearts of those who study them, and presumably will continue to
do so for all time.
by David Strauss)