For new readers: The idea behind these submissions is to show that Jewishness has been during the exile, and is all the more today in Israel, a nationhood of which religion is but one of many components. Nationhood isn’t nationalism; however you may loathe nationalism, you have nationhood. Jewry sustained the essentials of nationhood for centuries until its Western branch abandoned them in favor of those of their countries of citizenship. By seeing it this way, we can understand so many contemporary Jewish phenomena that don’t make sense otherwise.
Last week, I argued among other things that Hebrew, although not used as a vernacular for some 1600 years, never lived up to the “dead language” reputation that it acquired. It simply went into hibernation. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, hibernating animals do wake up now and then to move about and fill their bellies. Hebrew did no less. My contention last week concerned the premodern use of Hebrew as the language of prayer—the only language of prayer in most of those centuries, I now add. It focused on the way Hebrew was used for devotional purposes: by speaking aloud, even by shouting.
I ran into some trouble on a key question: did the masses who put up a din in prayer understand the words that they enunciated? Intuitively I rejected responses on both extremes: that everyone understood and that no one understood. That leaves much room for an unequivocal answer that I don’t expect to find.
I promised to present this week two pieces of evidence in support of the idea that many ordinary premodern Jews understood Hebrew well enough to absorb detailed practical and abstract philosophical contents. By offering only two sources, I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t others. Simply, ransacking centuries of Hebrew output for more sources will have to wait for my retirement, which won’t happen tomorrow.
The first source is Moses Maimonides (1138–1204). Thinking about his life, I digress for a moment: Maimonides is routinely said to have lived during the “golden age” of Jewry in Muslim-ruled Spain. If so, one wonders why he found it necessary to flee to exile in Morocco in early adulthood and why his finished his life in Egypt. Never mind, for now. Anyway, he wrote prolifically on medicine and on Jewish scholarship, ethics, and philosophy. He produced most of these works—the Guide for the Perplexed is probably the best known—in the Judeo-Arabic dialect of his environment. The most monumental of his opuses, however—Mishneh Torah, the first encyclopedic code of Jewish law—was written in Hebrew, a straightforward, lucid Hebrew that almost any Israeli teenager (I don’t exclude Arab ones) can understand.
In his Introduction to Mishneh Torah, after describing the formation of the Jewish Oral Law and the weakening of its knowledge in his time due to the vicissitudes of exile, Maimonides explains the purpose of this unprecedented mammoth enterprise:
“For this reason I […] girded myself and relied on the Rock, Blessed by He, and on my understanding of [the Oral Law as recorded in writing] and saw fit to write a clear extract of all these works concerning what is proscribed and what is permissible […] along with the other laws of the Torah, *all of which in such clear and concise language* [asterisks added for emphasis] that the entire Oral Law will be so well ordered in everyone’s mouth [again, the primacy of enunciation] […] that it will be evident to young and old […] so that no one will need [to consult] any other composition in the world on any of the laws of Israel […].”
So Maimonides, capable of expounding on Jewish (and gentile) philosophy in Judeo-Arabic, chose Hebrew when writing for the Jewish masses (“young and old”).
One may object: you don’t need much Hebrew to follow a book of rabbinical rules on matters such as when to bow during the core prayer service. The objector is therefore advised to dip into, say, the laws of taking and giving interest in Mishneh Torah. A merger-and-acquisition lawyer who tries to follow their progression would probably pause repeatedly to make sure s/he got it all. Objection overruled.
The second source is Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the upright), written by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (“Ramchal”) in 1738 or 1740, depending on the source. Ramchal’s lifetime oeuvre blends two areas diverse of Jewish thinking: Kabbala and Jewish ethics. Mesilat Yesharim condenses his thoughts on the latter and shares them with Jewry. Today the book is studied intensively in rabbinical academies. When the author wrote it, however, he intended it for the masses:
“I composed this work not to teach people what they do not know but to remind them of what they already know […,] for you will find in most of my words only things that most people already know and have no doubt about […]” (from the Author’s Preface).
The stepladder path that follows, from the lowest to the loftiest of virtues, is based deliberately on elementary texts: a well-known tradition parallel to the Mishna, verses from the Pentateuch, quotations from Pirkei Avot (also recited cyclically during the year), and selected Proverbs. All are purely in Hebrew. There’s no Talmud, no homilies with Aramaic punchlines, and not a word in any other language to help the Hebrew-challenged reader to figure things out. (In one location, Ramchal does use a landscaping practice of the gentile Italian aristocracy to make a point.) Their purpose is one: to reach out precisely to the non-scholarly Jew who is daunted by the idea of trying to attain piety. You can do it on the basis of what you already know, Ramchal counsels.
And one thing you already know is Hebrew.
Which, I admit, is an improbable hypothesis that may be just plain wrong. After all, the praises of Mesilat Yesharim were sung most vigorously by towering rabbis, not by laypersons. Furthermore, the work implanted itself quickly and most firmly in the centers of high religious studies, not in the mellah or the shtetl. Even in Israel, with its millions of native Hebrew speakers, it is not taught in the public schools, even the religious ones.
Yet both Maimonides and Ramchal identified laypersons as their target readership and wrote in Hebrew works that are seminal in their fields. They creased awakenings amid hibernation. And they could not have been the only ones.
Next week: how premodern Jews who didn’t understand a word of Hebrew kept the language alive.