Parshas Lech Lecha – Hebrew – The Holy Tongue

By: Rabbi Aryeh Citron

 

During the war between the four and five kings, the Torah says that a survivor of the war[1] came to inform Avraham that his nephew Lot had been captured. In this context, the Torah refers to Avraham as Avraham Ha’Ivri,[2] Abraham the Hebrew. There are various interpretations as to what “Ivri – the Hebrew” means.

  • Ever means side in Hebrew. This refers to the fact that Avraham was on one side and the entire world was on the other side.[3] This is referring to Avraham’s monotheistic beliefs and moral behavior which was unique in his generation.[4]
    • Some say that this refers to the fact that the righteous Avraham was considered more important than the entire rest of the world.[5]
    • According to these interpretations, it would seem that the survivor made a point to inform Avraham of his nephew’s distress because Avraham was such a special person.[6]
  • This also alludes to the fact that Avraham came to Israel from the other (east) side of the Euphrates River.[7]
  • As such, Avraham spoke the language of the other side of the river, the language of the Ivrim (Hebrew).[8]
  • In addition, it means that Avraham was a descendant of Ever, the righteous great-grandson of Shem, son of Noah.[9] While there were many other descendants of Ever, considering that he lived seven generations before Avraham, only Avraham and his descendants received this title of Ivri because Avraham emulated the righteousness of Ever.[10]
    • This is the reason that the survivor informed Abraham about Lot as he knew they were related in that they were both descendants of Ever although he was unaware that Lot was Avraham’s nephew.[11]
    • (Similarly, it can be said that the survivor informed Avraham of Lot’s plight because he knew that they were both from the other side of the river and spoke the same language although he may not have known that they were related.)

Hebrews

The Jewish people are referred to as Ivrim / Hebrews in various places in the Tanach (Bible). This was a term the Jews used to describe themselves as well as a term used by the gentiles to describe them, sometimes with a negative undertone (see footnote).[12]

This name denotes all of the meanings that it denoted for Avraham. i.e., that we are descendants of Ever, we originate from the other side of the river, our language is Hebrew, and we are unique and different than the entire rest of the world.

The lesson that we must take from this name is that just as Avraham had the moral character and determination to stand alone against a world of pagans, so, too, each and every Jew must have the strength to buck the trends of society, and, if necessary, to endure isolation in his quest to serve G-d sincerely.[13]

 

The Language of Creation

The Hebrew language preceded creation as it was with this language that G-d created the world.[14]

  • The ten utterances with which G-d created the world were uttered in Hebrew.[15] The energy in these words of the ten utterances is what created each particular creation. Since G-d’s words are everlasting, it is the energy in these words that continues to give life and existence to the entire world. Any animal or creation that is not explicitly mentioned in these utterances receives its energy from a transmutation or gematriah (numerical value) of these words. When Adam gave the names to all of the animals, he exhibited great wisdom in that he was able to grasp the character of each animal and thus arrive at its true name.[16]

History of the Hebrew Language

  • Adam and Eve, the first people in the world, spoke Hebrew, both when conversing with G-d and between themselves. This is evidenced by the fact that many of the names they gave are based on Hebrew words.[17]
    • Adam is called Adam because he was made from the adamah (earth).[18]
    • Chava (Eve) is called isha (woman) because she was made from the ish (man).[19]
    • Kayin (Cain) was called by that name because his parents acquired him (kaniti), with G-d’s help.[20]
    • Shet (Seth) was called thus because Adam said that G-d provided (shat) for me a son to replace Kayin.[21]
  • In addition, Adam also spoke Aramaic.[22]
  • Abraham spoke Aramaic when talking about mundane matters as this was the language of his birthplace. When he was involved in holy matters, however, he would speak Hebrew, the language of his righteous forbearer, Ever.[23]
  • The ancient Canaanites also spoke Hebrew.[24]
  • Yishma’el, Avraham’s oldest son, took the language of Aramaic with him when he moved to Arabia. This language influenced the Arabic language which is why the three languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic are so similar.[25]
  • Isaac, Jacob and his descendants, however, continued to use Hebrew as their spoken language.
  • Even when the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt, they continued to speak this language. This is one of the three reasons, according to the Midrash, that we eventually were redeemed.[26]
  • The Torah was given in the Hebrew language.[27]
    • o Nevertheless, when G-d spoke the Ten Commandments, he also said them in all of the 70 languages of the world.[28]
    • o In addition, when reviewing the Torah with the Jewish people before he passed away, Moshe Rabbeinu translated it into the 70 languages of the ancient world.[29]
    • o This was done so that the Jewish people would be able to impart the lessons of the Torah and the Seven Noahide Laws to the entire world.
  • During the era of the prophets and the first Temple, the Jews, both in the Northern and Southern kingdoms, spoke Hebrew.
  • When the Jews were exiled to Babylonia they chose to speak in Aramaic rather than continuing to speak Hebrew. The y felt that the Hebrew language was too holy and pure for the impure and pagan country of Babylonia.[30]
  • As a result, the Jewish people forgot many of the original Hebrew words.[31]
    •  See Nechemiah (13, 24) “Half the children spoke Ashdodian and did not know the language of the Jew.[32]”
  • When the Jewish people returned to Israel to rebuild the Second Temple, the Men of the Great Assembly composed the prayers and blessings in Hebrew which we still use today. They did this because the Jewish people were no longer fluent enough in Hebrew to compose their own prayers without making mistakes.[33]

The Holy Tongue

Several reasons are given as to why the language of Hebrew is called the Holy Tongue (Lashon HaKodesh).

  • It is a language that does not contain any words for the sex organs or the sex act. All of these are referred to with nicknames.[34]
  • Hebrew is called the holy tongue (lashon hakodesh) because it is the language in which the Torah, the prophecies and all the holy matters were said. It is the language in which G-d spoke the Ten Commandments and the one which contains His ineffable name. It is the language with which G-d created the entire world including the heavens and earth, the angels and all of the stars. The names of the angels, the patriarchs and many other holy people are in this language.[35]
  • In addition, it is called the Holy Tongue to indicate that this language is not one simply chosen by man, but is rather a language that relates to the soul of every item. For this reason, our sages explained the significance of the shape of every letter as well as the meanings of each spike and crown. All of these allude to certain spiritual forces and supernal Attributes. Each letter has a spiritual form that is exceedingly elevated and emanates from the G-dly attributes.[36]

Qualities

  • “Whoever lives in the holy land,  eats his food in a state of purity, speaks the holy tongue and recites Shema in the morning and evening is assured to have a place in the World to Come.”[37]
  • The reason that those who built the Tower of Babylon had great (initial) success is because they were speaking in the holy tongue.[38]
  • According to the Zohar, whoever speaks lashon hakodesh, the Divine presence rests on him.[39]

Other Languages

The language of the Jewish people was formed by G-d and is His creation.[40]

All of the other languages are simply made up by the people of various countries for their convenience.[41]

Some say that each of the 70 languages of the ancient world is the language of the protecting angel of that country.[42]

 

Limited Words

The reason that (ancient) Hebrew has such a limited number of words is that it is a G-dly language to which man cannot add. People add to other languages as new items are discovered or invented. The holy tongue, however, cannot be added to, as it is G-d’s own language.[43]

 

Praying in Other Languages

It is best to pray in the holy language of Hebrew since the Men of the Great Assembly used lashon hakodesh to compose the prayers. They imbued great spiritual power in each blessing, word, and letter combination, all of which contain many mystical secrets.[44]

When praying privately it is especially important to pray in Hebrew as some say that the angels needed to elevate one’s prayers do not understand foreign languages.[45]

One who does not understand lashon hakodesh should put in an effort to learn it so that he can pray in Hebrew and understand what he is saying.

Despite this, if one does not understand Hebrew, it is better to pray in a language that he or she understands rather than say the words in Hebrew without comprehension them. Prayer without kavanah (meaning or concentration) is not considered prayer.[46]

Some say that even one who does not understand Hebrew should pray in Hebrew (if he can read Hebrew or if he has the prayer in phonetics). He should glance at the translation as he reads each blessing so that he can understand the content of his prayer.[47]

 

Public Prayer

Public prayer should always be done in lashon hakodesh as it was originally instituted. This will ensure that the Jewish people remember the language that will bring about the redemption.[48]

 

Grace after Meals and Other Blessings

The main Halacha follows the opinion that one may recite the Grace after Meals and other blessings in Hebrew even if one does not understand what he is saying. It is best, however, to learn the meaning of the words (or to recite these in one’s own language) as some say that it is essential to understand what one is saying while reciting these blessings.[49]

 

Repeat Blessings

One who says a blessing in any language has already fulfilled his obligation to recite that blessing. He should not then repeat the blessing in Hebrew as it would be a blessing in vain. The same is true if one recites it first in Hebrew and then in another language.

One who wishes to say a blessing over food for himself in Hebrew and then say it in another language for the benefit of other people who do not understand Hebrew, should first say it in Hebrew and eat a little bit.[50] He should then repeat the blessing in the other language and continue to eat. It is best if those listening repeat the words of the blessing as he says them.[51]

May we soon merit the redemption in the merit of lashon hakodesh.

Rabbi Aryeh Citron was born in California and learned in Yeshivahs around the world before receiving his Smicha in Melbourne Australia. He lives in Miami where he teaches Torah to Jews of all ages. He sends out a weekly email called Parsha Halacha and recently authored a book called “The Practical Parsha” Weekly Halacha for Daily Living. To subscribe to his email you can contact him at rabbicitron@yeshivahcollege.org.


[1] The simple meaning of the verse is that he was a survivor of Sodom (Ibn Ezra). According to the Talmud (Niddah 61a) and Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah, 42, 8), this is referring to Og who was a survivor of the flood.

Another Midrash (Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer, 27)  says that this was the archangel Michael, who survived an encounter with the angel known as Samach mem (Ba’al HaTurim) He is also the survivor described in Ezekiel, 33, 21 (Rabbeinu Bachayeh).

[2] Gen. 14. 13

[3] Rabbi Yehudah in Bereishit Rabbah, ibid

[4] Eitz Yosef and Pirush MaHarzu

[5] Matnot Kehunah

[6] But see Midrash Rabbah (ibid) that Og’s intention was for Avraham to be killed so that he could marry the beauteous Sarah.

[7] The sages in ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Rav Nechemiah in ibid

[10] Pirush Maharzu on ibid

[11] Seforno

[12] Da’at Mikra (Mossad HaRav Kook) on Gen. ibid

  • Gen. 39, 14 and 17 “See that he has brought a Hebrew man to sport with me.”
  • Ibid, 40, 15 “For I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews.”
  • Ibid, 43, 32 “The Egyptians were unable to eat bread with the Hebrews.”
  • Exodus, 1, 15 and 16″The Hebrew midwives… When you birth the Hebrews.”
  • Ibid, 5, 3 “The G-d of the Hebrews.”
  • Samuel I, 4, 6 “What is the sound of this great blast in the camp of the Hebrews?”
  • Ibid, 29, 3 “And the Philistine officers said, ‘What are these Hebrews doing here?'”
  • Ibid, 13, 19 “The Philistines had said, ‘Lest the Hebrews produce a sword or a spear’.”
  • Jona, 1, 9 “He said to them, ‘I am a Hebrew and I fear G-d’.”

[13] Rav Samson Rafael Hirsh on Exodus, 3, 18 cited in the Artscroll Kleinman Edition of Midrash Rabbah, vol. 2, page 43(2)

[14] Rashi on Gen. 2, 23, based on Bereishit Rabbah, 18, 4

[15] See Avot, 5, 1

[16] See Sha’ar HaYichud VeHa’emunah of the Alter Rebbe

[17] Kuzari, 2, 68

[18] See Gen, 5, 2

[19] Ibid, 2, 23

[20] Ibid, 4, 1

[21] Ibid, 25

[22] Sanhedrin 38b as explained by Ben Yehoyadah as well as Maharsha on Bava Batra 75b D.H. Atidin

[23] Kuzari, ibid

[24] See Isaiah, 19, 18 and commentaries

[25] Kuzari, ibid, See Rama on Even Ha’Ezer, 126, 1

[26] Vayikrah Rabbah, 32, 5

[27] Sanhedrin 21b, Bereishit Rabbah, 31, 8

[28] Shabbat 88b

[29] Rashi on Deut. 1, 5

[30] Hagahot Chatam Sofer on O.C. 85

[31] Ibid, Rambam in the Guide for the Perplexed, 1, 67, Kuzari, 2, 67

[32] Cited in Rambam, Laws of Tefillah, 1, 4

[33] Ibid

[34] Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, 3, 8

[35] Ramban, 30, 13

[36] Shela in Bayit Ha’acharon, 10b

[37] Yerushalmy, Shabbat. 1, cited in Lashon Kedosha by Rabbi Yoel Shwartz page 11. (Much of this article is based on the sources quoted in this book).

[38] Zohar, Parshat No’ah, 75 as explained by VaYoel Moshe page 422

[39] Shemot 129

[40] Kuzari, 2, 72

[41] Biur Halacha, 62

[42] Rabbeinu Bachayeh, Gen. 11, 9

[43] Chatam Sofer Al HaTorah, new edition, Gen. 11, 1

[44] Biur Halacha, 101, D.H. Yachol

[45] O.C. ibid, 4

[46] Shulchan Aruch HaRav, 101, 5

[47] Piskei Teshuvot, 101, 5 from sources quoted there in note 45

[48] Mishnah Berurah, 101, 13

[49] Shulchan Aruch HaRav, 185, 1 and 2

[50] Igrot Moshe, 2, 49

[51] Piskei Teshuvot, 185, 1

 

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