Hebrew: our Leshon Ima

Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin

By Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

This is a column for reflection. A column designed to briefly analyze Hebrew words, to look for their roots and their meanings in order to better understand concepts we sometimes take for granted.

The hope is that through this exploration we will better appreciate the ideas we share and deepen our insight into the culture we love.

We call this column Leshon Ima, mother tongue, knowing full well that for most of us Hebrew is a second language or even a foreign language.

However, Hebrew — Ivrit — is the Jewish mother tongue, our people’s leshon ima.

Our Bible was written in Ivrit, and our prayers are recited in Ivrit. And although Ivrit went through great changes across the years in vocabulary, sounds and grammar, a person can read contemporary and old texts with a fairly good understanding in an alphabet formed at about the second century B.C.E.

It is true to say that Ivrit, the language of our people, defines us historically and culturally. It was spoken in the streets of biblical Israel and Judea and became the literary language of Jews for centuries.

Ivrit reemerged over the last 200 years as a vibrant, spoken and literary language, once again to be heard in the streets of the state of Israel.

There, people speak Ivrit, read Ivrit, transact business in Ivrit, laugh and cry in Ivrit.

Yet, the origin of the name Ivrit is puzzling. Ivrit is a Northwest Semitic language, related to Aramaic, Phoenician and other Canaanite dialects.

Surprisingly, even though it was spoken in Israel from early antiquity, the proper noun Ivrit, as a name of the language, was not mentioned in the Bible.

As a matter of fact, the language spoken in the geographical region of Judea was called Yehudit, Judean, even to the late date of Nehemiah (II Kings 18:26,28; Is. 36:11,13; Neh. 13:24).

In Rabbinic literature, the language of the Bible is called leshon hakodesh, the holy tongue, and Ivrit was used only in reference to a dialect spoken by Jews in the Land during the period of the Second Temple. So why do we call the language Ivrit?

The earliest reference to Ivrit as the language can be found in writings of the Greek era (300-200 B.C.E.) connecting Ivrit to a Semitic tribe called Ever. Much later, in the Middle Ages (800-1200 C.E.) the term Ivriya and Leshon Ever were used to connect biblical Hebrew with the same Semitic tribe of Ever.

Why? Who was Ever? How are we connected to this tribe? According to the Bible, Ever was a great-great-grandson of Noah (Gen. 10:21), whose most prominent descendent was Abraham our patriarch.

The biblical writer reminds us that our forefathers lived be-ever ha-nahar, “on the other side of the river (Josh. 24:2).” Ever, means beyond or on the other side.

The name of the Semitic tribe to which our patriarchs are traditionally connected, echoes the fact that the tribe originated on the other side of the Euphrates River, the same region where Abraham started his trip to the Promised Land.

Biblical tradition stresses this connection by reminding us that Abraham was called Ivri, the Hebrew (Gen. 14:13) and his descendents were Ivrim, Hebrews (Deut. 15:12, Jonah 1:9). It is not surprising that with the years, the language of the Ivrim became known as Ivrit.

Ivrit, then, a language identifiable with Jewish culture, has a long history. From early biblical times to the Greek era, from The Church into the Middle Ages and on, the grammar, the syntax and the meaning of words in Ivrit were studied by Jews and non-Jews alike, as part of the effort to understand the Bible and the culture.

With the revival of Zionism, Ivrit became the language spoken by most Jews active in the movement and with the establishment of the state of Israel, it was recognized as its official language.

I invite you to join me in the quest for the meaning behind words and concepts of this beautiful language we all share. Let Ivrit be our guide to better understand our culture and our values.

Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida. She lectures and writes in the fields of Hebrew language and biblical literature.

To read the complete January 2014 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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