Holy and Unholy Use of Hebrew



An ancient term for the Hebrew Language is L’shon Hakodesh – the Holy Tongue. Regarding L’shon Hakodesh, the Midrash states:


Rabbi Pinchas and Rabbi Chilkiyah said in the name of Rabbi Seemon: “Just as the Torah was given in L’shon Hakodesh, so too, the world was created through L’shon Hakodesh.” (Genesis Rabbah 18:4)


Dear Friends,


As we discussed in previous letters, the dominant ideology of the modern Zionist movement was based on the assumption that the Land of Israel and the Hebrew Language guaranteed the survival of the Jewish people, even after all ties with the Torah and its precepts have been severed. This ideology led many Zionists to feel that all literature and all songs written in Hebrew are a valued part of our heritage, regardless of their content; moreover, this ideology greatly valued the Hebrew literature and songs of the modern Zionist movement.


There were even some Religious Zionists that were affected by this ideological approach to Hebrew. For example, I attended a Religious Zionist high school that had a required course on Hebrew literature, and some of the literature in this course contained ideas that were not in harmony with the values of our spiritual heritage. The teacher of this course, who was a Religious Zionist, would even remind us that some of the literature was hostile to the spiritual values of the Torah; however, he felt it was important that we study this literature, because it was written in Hebrew. In addition, much of the literature expressed the nationalistic spirit of the modern Zionist movement, and he, as a Religious Zionist, identified with this movement, even though he disagreed with the secular ideology that dominated the movement. One of the authors in the Hebrew literature course who was not a secular Zionist was Shmuel Yosef Agnon, a Torah-observant writer. Agnon later won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966.  I felt that the writings of Shmuel Yosef Agnon which we studied expressed the soul of our people, and I am grateful to this teacher for introducing me to a Hebrew author in Israel who understood that we, as a people, have a spiritual raison d’etre.


Although my high school had a Religious Zionist orientation, some of the teachers in this school, including my main rebbe, were Chareidim, whose critique of secular Zionism was discussed in a previous letter. My rebbe had a deep love for the sacred Hebrew language, and he encouraged me to write my spiritual poetry in Hebrew, but he disagreed with the idea that Hebrew literature without the spiritual values of our heritage is worthy of our study, just because it is written in Hebrew.


Years later, I found support for the view of my rebbe in the commentary of Maimonides on the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos which discusses the virtue of silence (the last Mishnah in the first chapter).  In this commentary, Maimonides discusses various categories of speech, from the lowest level to the highest, and he then offers the following comments regarding Jews who view the language of a song to be more important than its content:


“It is important to know that songs, irrespective of the language in which they are written, must be analyzed as to contents, to classify them in accordance with the above categories. Although this should be clear to everyone, I explain this because I have seen old and pious coreligionists assembled at festive meals where wine is served, such as weddings, and when someone wanted to sing a song in Arabic (their everyday language), even if the song sang the praise of God or of virtues – and this belongs to the meritorious category – or when the song was in praise of wine, they prevented it by all means and did not consider it permissible to hear. But when the singer sang one of the Hebrew songs, they did not prevent him, nor did they consider it bad, even if the content was undesirable or forbidden. This is completely foolish. Talk does not become allowed or forbidden, praiseworthy or undesirable or commanded on account of its language, but solely on account of its content. If the text of the song is virtuous, it should be pronounced in any language. But if the content is undesirable, the song is forbidden, whatever its language.”


Maimonides adds:


“If there are two songs of like content, namely to excite lusts and to praise them in a way to make people merry, this is faulty and belongs to the category of the undesirable, because it incites to a low desire. If now one of these songs is in Hebrew and the other in Arabic or some other language, the one in Hebrew is more undesirable from the point of view of the Torah, because it degrades the language that should only be used in virtue.”


Maimonides concludes his discussion of songs with the following observation:


“If then, in addition, a verse of the Torah or of the Song of Songs is woven into that song, then it moves from the category of the undesirable into that of the strictly forbidden. We are warned against that, as the Torah forbids the use of Scriptural verses in other than laudable songs.”


In order to better understand the above teachings of Maimonides on the importance of content, we need to remember that the Holy One said to us at Mount Sinai:


“You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).


In order to better understand why many Zionists rejected the above teachings of Maimonides, we need to remember the words of a leading Zionist thinker, Jacob Klatzkin, who said that Zionism is opposed to those who believe that the basis for our life is “the eternal content of Judaism” and that we are to be a “priest people, a nation of prophets” (cited in “The Zionist Idea”). He added: “Zionism is opposed to all this. Its real beginning is the Jewish State and its basic intention, consciously and unconsciously, is to deny any conception of Jewish identity based on spiritual criteria” (ibid).


I will conclude this letter with an excerpt from the speech that Shmuel Yosef Agnon gave at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, when he accepted the Nobel Prize in literature:


“As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile. I suspect that the angels in charge of the Shrine of Music, fearful lest I sing in wakefulness what I had sung in dream, made me forget by day what I had sung at night; for if my brethren, the children of my people, were to hear, they would be unable to bear their grief over the happiness they have lost. To console me for having prevented me from singing with my mouth, they enable me to compose songs in writing.”


The story of the Nobel Prize given to this Jewish author can perhaps serve as a reminder that when we are faithful to the spirit of our own people, we can gain the respect of other peoples.



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments:


1. A translation of the commentary of Maimonides on Pirkei Avos with added explanations is found in the following book published by Feldheim: “Maimonides’ Commentary on Pirkey Avoth” by Paul Forchheimer. Most of the translation in the above letter is from this book. For information on this book, visit: www.feldheim.com    .


2. A corrected edition of Letter 12, “A Defense of the Zionist Slogan,” appears in the archive of our series which appears on our website.


3. Letter 12b, “The Chareidi Critique of Secular Zionism,” has been added to the archive of our series.


Hazon – Our Universal Vision: www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/