Educationally Speaking – January 2019

Hebrew is the Language of the Jewish People

Racheli Morris, Director of Education

A “Big Idea” within Judaism is expressed in our Sh’ma. The word Sh’ma is a command in Hebrew that means “Listen!” or “Hear!” It is inscribed in our mezuzah, repeated when waking and retiring. It is often the first Hebrew word a student learns.

The notion that we human beings can communicate and understand other people’s words is a remarkable instinct. Generally, rules tend to restrict what we can do and come from other people. Instincts are biological and tend to expand or allow us to act. Our beautiful and ancient Hebrew is thousands of years old. At times in human history, it was relegated to being a language of Holy purposes only, and at other times, like more recently, it has become a living language.

As we learn a bit about the emergence of Hebrew as a modern language, think about what the English language looked like at the beginning of the United States in 1776. It has definitely changed much compared to our present-day English. Now consider the Sh’ma recorded first when Jacob, son of Isaac, was addressing his children in Egypt before the Hebrews were to be enslaved, approximately 1689 BCE. The words have meant the same thing for almost four thousand years. To place the age of written language into context, ancient Sumerian is around 5,000 years old. We have ancient roots indeed.

The roots of Hebrew planted among our people are a common means of understanding, listening, and communicating. There are texts of Hebrew found in the Dead Sea Scrolls that are 2,500 years old. The ideas first communicated in Hebrew are central to the makeup of all the world’s humans, but especially wherever Jews have lived and communicated.

Our school has as its mission the teaching and use of Hebrew. We follow in the footsteps of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who revived the Hebrew language and who thrust Hebrew into modernity and dreamed of yisrael be’artzo uvilshono, the rebirth of the nation of Israel in its own land speaking its own language. His largest contribution to Hebrew was writing his lexicon of Hebrew and starting to create words in Hebrew that pertain to anything not mentioned in our holy books, words such as doll, flexible, soldier, dictionary, pump, and newspaper, clock, discovery, observation, and many others.

When we learn Hebrew as a modern language at our temple, we are connecting to the words of Jacob.