By ALEXA DAYAN
“Lashon HaKodesh History, Holiness, and Hebrew” examines the Hebrew language as well as its history to bring forth a greater understanding and appreciation of the language. From a historical perspective, this book examines what languages were spoken during different time periods in the Bible and how the modern Hebrew language evolved. Klein’s analysis provides passion that truly distinguishes the Hebrew language from any other ancient or spoken language. This book is easy to follow, while leaving the reader with a comprehensive understanding of the history and modern breadth of Hebrew.
The book begins with a discussion of the earliest languages. It explores the language of Lashon HaKodesh, “the holy tongue,” and Aramaic – both spoken by Adam and Eve. Then we learn about the languages in the time of Noah and the Tower of Babel. It discusses which languages were spoken by what people at what point in history.
The book analyzes the similarities and differences between Lashon HaKodesh and Aramaic. We learn that Aramaic is a language that consists of a collection of Semitic languages; it consists of a vast collection of dialects that evolved long before Abraham and the Torah. The book also asks questions about different biblical figures and which of these Jewish languages they spoke, questions that we forget to ask when studying them.
For example, Klein ponders the question of whether Adam spoke Lashon Hakodesh or Aramaic before or after eating the forbidden fruit? Did we stop speaking Lashon Hakodesh in regular life because humans are no longer holy enough to speak it, making us have no choice but to develop an alternative collection of Jewish languages?
Klein shows the dynamic nature of the language in Chapter 5, “Replacing Lashon Hakodesh,” when he discusses how the dialects of Mishnaic Hebrew developed from the original biblical Hebrew. It also talks about how Jews replaced this form of Hebrew with one of three languages; Mishnaic Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. The book’s most interesting chapter regarding the significance of Lashon Hakodesh is Chapter 6, in which he gives us insight on the rabbinic reaction to secular attempts to establish modern Hebrew as a spoken language. Titled “The Language Wars,” the events were initiated when Eliezer Ben‐Yehuda attempted to modernize Lashon HaKodesh by replacing it with a modern version of the Hebrew language.
Because it was met with so much opposition, the language wars went on from around the late 1800’s until the mid-20th century. The controversy arose from the similarities between modern and biblical Hebrew, leading to many rabbinic concerns in adopting modern Hebrew as an everyday language. The casual use of the holy language for mundane matters made them incredibly uncomfortable. They were unsure if it was proper for Hebrew to become a language used in everyday matters like in the supermarket, the movie theater, or just walking down the street.
Klein sets out to answer the question of what the motives and goals of those who pushed for the revival of Hebrew were. While exploring the relationship between these opposing sides, Klein’s neutrality and accuracy gives us clarity as we delve deeply into this subject.
There are five appendices at the end of the book, which due to their length and format, could easily be considered as additional chapters. Especially in Appendices A, B and C, he sheds light upon matters regarding the use of foreign words in the Bible, as well as discussing whether or not foreign-sounding names in Jewish literary works, were actual Hebrew names.
He continues to give a neutral approach in his discussions, giving insight from both sides of each argument, never siding with one that he believes is right by the Torah. This approach gives more accuracy to his writing, since he is just stating fact without opinion, which allows it to be read more univerally and used both for educational and religious interests.
“Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness & Hebrew” is an incredibly well written, informative book. The author provides the reader with explanations to questions that appear to be ostensibly impossible to answer. He unpacks and resolves a number of issues related to the history of Hebrew and its development as a language in the modern era. For a reader who is interested in learning about the historical background and development of Lashon HaKodesh, Aramaic and Hebrew, this is a perfect starting point.
(Alexa Dayan is a student at Tulane University enrolled in an independent study program associated with the Department of Jewish Studies.)