The Obligation to learn Hebrew


Should Jews and non-Jews learn Hebrew?

Rabbi Evan Hoffman of Congregation Anshe Shalom in his always learned weekly column emphasizes the values of learning Hebrew and decries the view of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), the Grand Rabbi of the Satmar Hasidic sect who was the foremost ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist rabbi of the twentieth century. Rabbi Teitelbaum, wrote a treatise, “Ma’amar Lashon Ha’Kodesh.” In it, he offered up these six reasons for not learning Hebrew: (a) The literal meaning of Scripture often contradicts the Oral Tradition. Were people to be aware of these contradictions, they would summarily reject the legitimacy of the Oral Law. (b) The revival of Hebrew is a secular nationalist aim associated with the evil Zionist movement and is therefore to be vigorously suppressed. (c) Were commoners to speak in Hebrew, they would occasionally utter something inappropriate and disgrace the Sacred Tongue. (d) Hebrew knowledge was necessary in an earlier era when students were first given a thorough grounding in Tanakh before proceeding to learn Talmud. But pedagogical methods have changed; students now skip Bible study altogether, and plunge directly into Talmud study. And engaging in the latter does not require proficiency in Biblical Hebrew, since the Talmud is, instead, written in Aramaic and Rabbinic Hebrew. (e) Modern Hebrew is not identical with the holy language of the Bible. Thousands of foreign words have been incorporated into Hebrew, making it the most corrupted of all languages, certainly not the holiest. (f) Were Hebrew to become the vernacular, then even women would speak and understand it. They would then have access to Talmudic knowledge that is supposed to be exclusively for men.

In contrast to this view, Reverend Richard Gist, a Protestant minister wrote in his just published very interesting and informative book, “You Don’t Understand the Bible because you are Christian,” that there are many reasons why Christians are unable to understand the Bible,  and one of them is that they do not understand Hebrew. For example, translators translate Exodus 2:3 that baby Moses was placed in a “basket.” However, the Hebrew uses a word that means “ark.” Moses was placed in an ark, just as Noah, where the same word is used, and the wordplay emphasizes that Moses also became a savior of people. In the book of Ruth, Ruth lies down at Boaz’s “feet.” But the Hebrew term for feet appears only one other time in the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah 6:2 where angels covered their faces and feet with their wings. Why did they cover their “feet”? Gist shows many examples where “feet” is used as a metaphor for genitals. This nuance is missed in translations. These are just two of many examples that Gist offers.

There are hundreds – yes, hundreds – of examples that could prove Gist’s point. For example, the word “Lord,” referring to God, does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew words for man and woman, ish and ishah, are spelt the same, except that ish adds the letter yud and ishah, the letter hay. When the two letters are together they spell one of the names of God; and when the two letters are removed from ish and ishah, each spell eish, “fire.” The Hebrew word vaetchanan in Deuteronomy 3:23 is translated as “prayed,” but the Hebrew is in the reflective form, meaning an internal activity, not an outside one as suggested by “prayed.” The word nefesh is generally translated as “soul,” but it means a person, so in Leviticus 2:1; a disembodied soul did not bring an offering, but a person brought the sacrifice. The concept of a soul does not exist in the Hebrew Bible, neither do “faith” and “religion.” Many biblical words do not mean what translators think they mean. “Heart” in the Bible is the “mind.” Loving God with all your heart is an intellectual not an emotional activity; it means with all your thoughts.   

In short, people say the Bible is important and should be understood, but as Reverend Gist rightly notes, the only way to truly understand what the Bible is saying is to read it in Hebrew.