Hebrew – development of

Selichah! Ha’autobus taku’a! – Sorry, the bus is taku’a,” an Israeli bus driver announces to commuters waiting at a bus stop. The driver then steps on the gas and zooms on.

Seated inside the bus, eighty-year old Tuviah Shachar is mildly surprised at the word taku’a, which is derived from the episode in which Yael pounds (vatiska) a tent peg into Cicero’s head (Shoftim 4:21). It generally connotes a vehicle that is “stuck” due to traffic or a malfunction, yet, in this instance the bus is in perfect working order.

Tuviah Shachar, who arrived in Israel during 5708/1948, after leaping off the burning Altalena, realizes that, once again, he is witnessing modern Hebrew in the making. Unaware of takua’s Biblical source, the driver assumes that it applies to any situation that prevents passengers from entering his bus, even when it is in perfect working order.

Of course, this is not the first such transmutation Tuviah has witnessed during the past sixty years; Hebrew is evolving at such an alarming pace that a special organization exists to ensure it doesn’t eventually morph into English!

Despite the proliferation of new words, Jews living two thousand years ago could probably understand the gist of a modern Hebrew paper as, on average, about 65 percent of the words used in a modern article are derived from the Tanach – which contains about 8,000 different words, a quarter of them appearing only once. Another 20 percent of the article’s words would derive from the Mishnaic literature that includes Mishnah, Gemara, Medrash, and suchlike.

Where did these extra words in the Mishnaic literature come from? What is the origin of many new words in the Mishnah that appear nowhere in Tanach?

The Chasam Sofer (Parshas Noach) writes that lashon kodesh is what Hashem revealed to His prophets in the Tanach and that new terms found in the Mishnah and the Gemara were innovated by the sages.

On the other hand, the Radak writes in his introduction: “Today, our fathers are exiled to a land that is not theirs, among the nations, and have learnt their languages and forgotten the Holy Tongue, and all that we have is what survives in the Tanach, and a few words in the Mishnah that indicate that we have lost many other seforim, which were not included in our Tanach.”

In other words, according to the Radak, many new words in Mishnaic literature are not new at all, but taken from ancient seforim that have since been lost.

Thousands more words were coined by payatanim in their poems, such as vetek from vatik, nofesh from yinofash, and thousands more in the writings of the Rishonim and Acharonim. The greatest word explosion was after Hebrew was adopted as the national language of modern Israel.

Theodor Herzl was originally adamant that Hebrew never be the language of his modern Jewish state: “It could perhaps occur to someone that it will be an obstacle that we no longer have a common language,” he predicted. “After all, we are not going to start speaking Hebrew to each other! Who among us knows enough Hebrew to ask for a train ticket in that language? This can’t happen.”

Instead, Herzl opted for German, hoping this would retain Jews’ link with their past. “Over there, we will remain exactly what we are now,” he wrote, “and we will not stop loving, with a sense of longing, our home countries from which we have been driven out.”

Yiddish-speaking Jews, too, would learn to speak pure German.

“We will rid ourselves of the ugly and stunted jargons, those ghetto languages that we now make use of,” he insisted. “They were the sly languages of prisoners. … Daily life will see to it that one language becomes established as the primary language, without any coercion …”

However, Herzl’s dream was wrecked by idealists, like Eliezer Ben Yehudah, who created the first Hebrewspeaking home after the birth of his first son, in 5642/1882. Sometime later, Ben Yehudah even pretended to be religious in order to attract frum Yidden to his circle. Later on, “wars” were fought over the Hebrew/German/Yiddish issue.

For example, in 5673/1913, the “Language War” erupted in Palestine after word leaked out that the German Hilfsverein (Ezra) Organization was planning to make German the language of instruction in its Technion Institute in Haifa. A rebellion of students and teachers successfully imposed Hebrew as the place’s language of instruction.

During the 5680s/1920s and 5690s/1930s, the Gedud Meginei Hasafah (the Battalion of the Defenders of the Language) organization went so far as to disrupt Yiddish meetings, help outlaw Yiddish papers, and damage print shops that dared publish Yiddish works. Hebrew took on the aura of a new religion.

“The new sanctity of language has to be as solemn in our eyes as the old sanctity of religion …,” a Hebrew scholar, Joseph Klausner, wrote at the time. “And whoever knows Hebrew but speaks a foreign language shall be in our eyes as an ‘apostate for spite,’ as a worshipper of idols, as a public desecrator of the Sabbath.”

This idolizing of Hebrew and the propensity of Hebrew words to morph into new meanings are some of the reasons many Gedolim opposed the adoption of lashon kodesh as a modern language. Secular society was turning lashon kodesh from a sacred language into a vehicle of impurity and spiritual destruction.

The case of the word chashmal is symbolic of religious outrage. In earlier times, Jews felt a sense of awe when this mystical word was uttered during the haftorah reading of Shavuos, where it is mentioned in the Maaseh Merkavah (Yechezkel 1:4); nowadays, it is associated with the electricity sluicing through people’s appliances.

In Israel, the word bitachon, which always represented trust and faith in Hashem’s benevolence, is more likely to connote military security or life insurance (bituach chayim). The word, ulam, once reserved for the interior of the Bais Hamikdash, now refers to any large wedding or conference hall. When a sports event ends in a tie, modern Hebrew describes this with the Gemara’s venerable term teiku.

Another rationale for opposing modern Hebrew is the ruling of the Gemara that a sefer Torah written by a heretic must be burnt (Shabbos 116a)! Is a language created by a heretic any better? Also, whereas the Rambam writes that our language is called lashon kodesh, as it has no words for certain immodest concepts, this can hardly be said of modern Hebrew (Moreh Nevuchim).

While many Jews resisted speaking or teaching the new language, other Gedolim were aware that forbidding shiurim from being delivered in Hebrew might cut off a whole new generation from Torah, and thus Hebrew is widely used in the yeshivos of Eretz Yisroel. As the Brisker Rav said in later years, the whole intent of creating Hebrew in the first place had been to drive a wedge between the old generation and the new.

At the founding of modern Israel, its “Hebrew” was a polyglot of different languages, including much English. The solution to this problema (Hebrew for “problem” until the word ba’aya was coined) was the creation of Israel’s supreme court of the modern Hebrew, strangely known as the “Academy of the Hebrew Language.”

Since one primary goal of this institution is to root out foreign words, the first thing people want to know is why it is named the “academy,” instead of the Vaad or Mo’etzet (council). If the academy could not find a Hebrew word to fit the bill, why not invent a new Hebrew word?

The academy is often challenged with this question and has formulated a canned response. “Many are surprised by the name chosen for the supreme institute of the Hebrew language,” the academy writes. “Why until this day, has the academy not found a Hebrew substitute for the word ‘academy’? “Every language borrows and lends out foreign words,” their response explains. “Hebrew has borrowed many hundreds of words in earlier times, including those of important institutes and public forums. … A few examples are Sanhedrin, itztadyon (stadium), achsanyah (hostel), saneigoriah (legal defense), muzion (museum), tei’atron (theater), universita (university), and technion (technical school).

A few more examples the academy mentions are pisgam (statement), zug (pair), sefog (sponge), safsal (bench), alachson (angle), sandlar (sandalmaker), asimon (token), piyut (poem), adiv (generous), merkaz (center), and ofek (horizon).

“All these have no translation …,” the academy continues. “All languages of the world’s civilizations call institutes of learned people an academy. … In a survey held among the members of the Committee of the [Hebrew] Language, conducted before the establishment of the supreme institution for the Hebrew language (in 5753/1993), all participants replied that the institute should be called nothing except the name ‘Academy for the Hebrew Language,’ a name that expresses the full relevance and function of the institute …”

Although the academy felt it unnecessary to coin a new word for their institution, they have coined about 100,000 new words for other purposes, often by creating new words out of old. For example, rasham (write) has been integrated for a host of modern meanings, including mirsham (prescription), roshem (impression), tarshim (blueprint), and leheirashem (to register).

Among the latest additions to Hebrew are a number of computer terms. A hacker is no longer a hakker but a patzchan; spyware is no longer spyver but raglah; and the integrated memory circuit is no longer an integrated memory serkit but a shevav zikaron.

There are times when the academy leaves good enough alone. In reaction to rumors regarding changes to the words telfon (telephone) and pijama (pajamas), the academy categorically insists, “No such thing!”

Although Ben Yehudah called a telephone a “sach rachok” (distant speech), the academy has left telfon undisturbed. be’Pijamas, too, has the full backing of the academy, no doubt a great relief for the worldwide fans of the immortal ditty, “Paroh be’pijama be’emtza halaylah.”

(Sources: The Academy of the Hebrew Language; Katz, Dovid. Words on Fire, The Unfinished Story of Yiddish. New York: Basic Books, 2004.)

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