Hebrew: Its History and Centrality

Hebrew has undergone many changes, but as the language of the sacred texts, it has always had a special place in Judaism.

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The two Talmuds, Babylonian and Palestinian, are largely in Aramaic but with portions and numerous quotations in Hebrew as well as loan words from Greek and Persian, and the same is true of the Midrashim [works that interpret the Bible], but with a greater preponderance of Hebrew in the latter works.

Post‑Talmudic Jewish literature, influenced by the Talmudic and Midrashic forms, is in Rabbinic Hebrew, an amalgam of Hebrew and Aramaic--that is, a Hebrew with many words and expressions taken from the Talmud. The Responsa literature [in which rabbis respond to specific queries about Jewish law] is in Rabbinic Hebrew, except for some of the earlier Responsa written in Arabic. For medieval Jewish philosophical writings, a new vocabulary had to be invented, since classical Hebrew is lacking in terms for the expression of abstract ideas such as "essence," "existence," and "categories."

A more or less successful attempt was made by the Haskalah [the Jewish Enlightenment] to produce poetry, novels, and other "secular" writings in Hebrew. This paved the way for the development of Hebrew as a modem language spoken now in the State of Israel and all over the Jewish world, and called Ivrit ("Hebrew").

This name, Ivrit, is not new. It is found in the Mishnah (Gittin 9:8) and has been described as "Hebrew reborn" but is, in many ways, a new language. In Ivrit, numerous new words and forms have been introduced into the language, many of them adaptations from earlier Hebrew forms and many based on European languages. In the context of religious discussion, Hebrew is not usually referred to as Ivrit but by the term found in the Talmud (Berakhot 13a; Sotah 49b): lashon hakodesh, "the sacred tongue."

Religious Aspects

The standard Jewish liturgy and the majority of the later additions to it are in Hebrew. The early Reformers introduced a new liturgy, a good deal of it in the vernacular. The Orthodox rabbis, while admitting that according to Jewish law prayers can be recited in any language, argued that this only applies to an individual worshipper who does not know Hebrew. To substitute German or other European languages for Hebrew in public worship involves a radical departure from tradition and cannot be tolerated. When a conference of Reform rabbis decided, on a majority vote, that the substitution was acceptable, Zechariah Frankel [the eventual founder of Positive Historical Judaism, the predecessor of Conservative Judaism] left the hall in protest.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.