Histroy, Holiness and Hebrew
By Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Reviewed by Ruth Judah.
This elegantly presented book is an easy read and provides a detailed texture of the three essential Jewish languages; Lashon HaKodesh, Aramaic and Modern Hebrew. Using a structure that is decidedly textbook, the information is simple to grasp. At times original, interesting but factual, the reader is left with a comprehensive understanding of the history of our ancient languages and their mystical magical nature as interpreted and debated by wise Rabbis of old.
Did Adam speak in Lashon HaKodesh from his creation, did he speak it after eating the forbidden fruit, did he speak it in Gan Eden, did he speak other languages as well? Is Lashon HaKodesh the language that angels understand because it is the supreme language that was created by G-d Himself? Have we stopped conversing in prayer book Hebrew because we are not so holy? Have our negative traits necessitated an alternative collection of languages? Rabbi Klein discusses these questions and presents several answers but withholds from passing judgment. As a result, the book moves us to understand how and why the rabbinical debate is ongoing.
Lashon HaKodesh is the purest language that Jews have had available from the very start of creation, when Adam could actually speak directly with Hashem. As we have fallen further from the lofty heights of our ancestors, the language has been destined to prayer, where we can still aspire. Modern Hebrew by contrast, with its adoption of Yiddish, German and Arabic sounds, is the language of our mundane lives. Rabbi Klein leads us to believe this is all for the best.
Other languages have been taken up by generations before us and these are all a melting pot of many words so that Modern Hebrew, Yiddish and Aramaic, as well as Arabic, Greek and other ancient dialects, frequent word structure which is an amalgamation of Lashon HaKodesh with the additional language. In fact, Rabbi Klein provides a delightful presentation that reminds us of the history of words with trilateral and quadrilateral syllables and sounds. Even the Torah uses foreign words to express to the reader the possibility of interpretation and explanation.
The book works its way to an analysis of Aramaic, a language which is essentially a collection of Semitic languages. Although there is still dispute about the origin and importance of Aramaic, the language comprises a vast collection of dialects which evolved so long ago, as far back as Abraham, and even further to the Torah. Aramaicisms are found in the Torah, it is the language universally accepted for a kosher Get, and it is still spoken in an estimated 19 varieties by pockets of Jews around the world, yet it is undoubtedly dying out, spoken by few. While this linguistic history is not part of the book, the material that is presented encourages the reader to consider these facts and the history of our languages in more depth.
The practical ramifications of understanding the interconnection between the earliest Jewish languages are few. Does this matter? Rabbi Klein’s book allows us to learn a little more on the subject so we can be conscious and cautious of the languages which are our ancestor’s legacy for us.
Rabbi Klein is a fellow at the Kollel of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem and received rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem, but his routes lie in Valley Village where he was schooled at Emek Hebrew Academy and Yeshivah Gedolah of Los Angeles.
The book is available for purchase on Amazon.com and at Mosaica Press’s website, mosaicapress.com.