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  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

The Jewish Deep Nation VI—
Hebrew in Active Hibernation

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. Nationhood isn’t nationalism. Everyone, even those who loathe nationalism, has 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 promised to demolish the common depiction of Hebrew as a dead language miraculously revived by one man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who raised his son to speak it and wrote a dictionary full of new words of his invention (among others). The idea was to show that Hebrew had never died by dissecting the contents and practice of Jewish prayer, citing many non-devotional uses of Hebrew in Diaspora life, reporting the use of Hebrew as a lingua franca in the Land of Israel before Ben-Yehuda’s time, and more. I took a small first step in that direction by stressing Ben-Yehuda’s truly definitive achievement in the Hebrew awakening. That is, he established and sustained a “yellow” press for and among the Jews of Turkish Palestine. Without that, his dictionary would have been written, if written, only for a handful of scholars to ponder and his son would have had no one with whom to speak.

“Speak” is a key word in the argument that follows. Lay people and linguists declare a language dead if it has no native speakers. When we need to understand something written in a foreign language, we look for help in the form of someone who “speaks” the language. (Where Hebrew is concerned, digital translation in no way meets the need.)

That would qualify Hebrew as a dead language, wouldn’t it? Maybe not. All over the Jewish world, for centuries, Hebrew was spoken at length by masses of people on a daily basis. That is, they davened.

“Daven” is a Yiddish verb that denotes “pray.” Its adaptation in English includes the gerund and present participle “davening,” praying. I learned that word as a little boy. I also knew that some of the prayers were sung, and since the cantor of my acquaintance was named Yavne, I knew that what he did was called “yavening.” Oy.

And a double “oy” is due when one looks for the etymology of “daven.” Scholars tentatively trace the word to Middle French, Slavic, and Aramaic, among others—meaning that, collectively, they have no idea where it comes from. That frees me to endorse an explanation that I heard once. It must be apocryphal or tongue-in-cheek, but who knows?—It is: “daven” comes from the Old English lexeme that gives us the modern word “din,” as “to put up a din.”

Indeed, at least among Ashkenazim, for eons that’s been the first thing one notices about Jews who congregate for worship—they recite, intone, mutter, wail, or shout the liturgy aloud. Sephardim lend the matter more decorum, but not too much more. And it’s all in Hebrew.

The Talmud establishes, and the codes of law based on it confirm, that the prayers, or at least major passages in them, are to be vocalized, not cogitated. Here I must repeat a rule of this Jewish Deep Nation project: that the Talmud or another ancient source says something is insufficient. I have to show that Jews in significant numbers, in many places around the world, embraced the source and made it so normative as to suggest that it’s a Jewish national characteristic.

I think vocalized prayer passes this test. If so, lots of Jews spent lots of time speaking Hebrew.

This leads to two key questions: Did these masses understand the liturgical content with which they put up a din three times per day? And what is the nature of this content? (I use past tense for the first question because there is a deep national divide on both issues today. But that is for discussion much, much farther into the project.)

I’ll address only the first question today. There’s a notion in Western communities that reading Hebrew without comprehending it is a meaningful goal in Jewish education. I respond to this immoderately. It reminds me of the African American in the salad days of Jim Crow who, to pass the literacy test in order to vote, was handed a newspaper in Chinese. “I can’t understand it, but I know what it says,” he told the election official. “It says: ‘Here’s one African American who isn’t going to vote this year.’” Except that in the original, he didn’t call himself an African American, and neither did the election official.

Plainly there were Jews in the premodern era, in all reaches of the dispersion, who understood the Hebrew of the liturgy. It was the cardinal purpose of their whole training. As for their percentage, the few sources that I’ve seen—this is, after all, a retirement project for someone who’s far from retirement—are all over the field. At one extreme, it is argued that, with Hebrew being not used as a vernacular, all Jews had other native tongues and it was a rare bird who mastered the ossified texts of the devotional service. Then there’s the genre that I’d call national hagiography: contemporary writings that state flat-out that all premodern Jews were fully versed in the prayer service and attained levels of devotion almost unheard-of today. I cannot subscribe to this, having been raised in the United States, where functional illiteracy right now is estimated at around 20 percent.

To further complicate the matter, bear in mind that, in a crucial sense, Judaism comes from a tradition of zero literacy. Even the rabbinical elite based its knowledge exclusively on oral transmission. The commitment to writing and therefore to literacy was made around 200 CE, with the redaction of the Mishna. As it happens, Hebrew is very much the language of the Mishna, and the Mishnaic form of the language figured crucially in the modern revival of the tongue. Still, Hebrew as a vernacular counted for little by the time of the redaction. Traces of the Jews’ history as a non-literate people persist in two places. First, the religious codes take a rather exclusionary attitude in toward the deaf but not toward the blind. Second, education in “Oriental” communities tends to rely heavily on memorization, and prayer leaders recite the entire liturgy word for word for the congregation or rotate this function among a small number of congregants.

So before even venturing into the contents of the texts recited, I cannot speak with certainty about the level of understanding. However, next week, all things permitting, I will present two pieces of circumstantial evidence, centuries apart, that tip the scales heavily in favor of the belief that literacy in Hebrew was rather widespread. That is, Hebrew never died; it just went into active hibernation.

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