by: Ilse Strauss, Assistant Editor
It wasn’t love at first sight for me and Israel. Oh no. I fell in love with the Promised Land, her people, history and significance long before I caught my first glimpse of the strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
My relationship with the Hebrew language started off differently. Even while Israel stirred my heart to passion, I regarded the mother tongue of its people with ambivalence. And with Hebrew, a wholly uncommon phenomenon in my neck of the woods, I had no exposure—and no clue, for that matter. As a result, I came to the Promised Land with a vocabulary that extended to a tentative shalom (salutation meaning peace) and the first line of Hava Nagila (Jewish traditional folk song), which, in hindsight, I had all wrong.
No, Hebrew and I didn’t fall in love at first sight—or sound. It was a slower courtship. At first the signs were subtle. I’d catch myself swaying to the hypnotic, guttural rhythms or swooning over the rise and fall of staccato sounds punctuated by passionate hand gestures. Before long my heart skipped a beat at the soft purring “r” that rolls from the tongue like a contented cat and I knew the proverbial writing was on the wall. I fell in love with Hebrew slowly, cautiously. Yet once I fell, I fell hard.
Looking back, I should have expected as much. Hebrew is, after all, not just another language. Woven into the hypnotic rhythms, the rise and fall of staccato sounds and the soft purring “r,” we find proof that God is faithful to keep His promises.
The sages say the Almighty used Hebrew to speak the world into existence. It is also the tongue in which Joseph revealed himself to his brothers; Moses received God’s instructions; Joshua led Israel into the Promised Land; Samuel admonished Saul; Boaz courted Ruth; and David penned his psalms. Hebrew served as the language of Israel from as early as the 14th century BC, its guttural rhythms and staccato sounds echoing around dinner tables, on street corners and in market places, synagogues and schools.
Yet the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC and the Babylonian exile marked the disappearance of the spoken language from everyday use. For the next two-and-a-half millennia, the language in which the world was created and the tongue of biblical judges, kings and prophets was confined to liturgical and scholarly settings, reserved for prayer, study and blessing.
Still, God promised restitution—for a banished people and a seemingly dead language. Ezekiel 36 and 37 detail the future rebirth of the land and its people: the exiles would come home, the barren hills would flourish and the scattered nation would be as one. Yet a unified nation cannot exist without a common language. If national identity is encapsulated in the language and idiom of speech of its people, a nation can, after all, only be considered a nation if it has its own language. The implication? If God was to restore Israel, He would also resuscitate Hebrew.
For over 2,000 years, the revival seemed wholly unlikely. Throughout the course of humanity, languages have come and gone, linked to the fate of the society that breathed life into them. Yet once a language fell from use, once everyday life no longer echoed with its sounds, it was at worst dead, at best banished to academic and religious archives. Never before has a dead language been taken from the shelf of history, dusted off and brought back to life. Then again, Hebrew isn’t just another language.
The promises in Ezekiel 36 and 37 lay dormant for years, decades, centuries and then millennia—until God’s appointed time arrived. In the late 1800s a steady trickle of Jews began making their way back to the Promised Land. They came from a multitude of countries and brought with them a multitude of languages. This fact piqued the interest of visionary linguist Eliezer Ben Yehuda. Known today as the Father of Modern Hebrew, he believed that the language of Israel’s forefathers would serve as a unifying force to draw together the Jews from a vast array of backgrounds, countries, cultures and tongues to forge a national identity.
Ben Yehuda left Lithuania for Jerusalem in 1881 to set about his dream of turning Hebrew into the everyday language of the Promised Land. He campaigned to have it as the language of instruction for students, encouraged parents to speak only Hebrew in their homes, compiled the first Hebrew dictionary and launched the first Hebrew daily newspaper. Moreover, he worked to adapt an ancient language to a modern world, using words from the Bible and other rabbinical literature to fashion over 300 new words to describe concepts unheard of in millennia gone by. For instance, hashmal (electricity) comes from the term describing “the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire” in Ezekiel 1:4.
Ben Yehuda’s efforts paid off. His son became the first child in modern times to grow up with Hebrew as his mother tongue. In 1922, the British Mandate Authority of Palestine recognized Hebrew as one of the official languages of the Promised Land. And in 1948, when God’s promise in Isaiah 66:8 was fulfilled and a nation was born in a day, the language that fell from everyday use two-and-a-half millennia ago was reinstated as the official tongue of Israel.
Today, more than nine million people speak Hebrew. That’s nine million voices. And with every guttural rhythm, every staccato sound and every purring “r” that rolls from the tongue like a contented cat, these nine million voices stand as evidence. They bear witness that the Promise Maker of Israel remains faithful to His promises. What He says, goes. Even if it takes some 2,500 years.
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