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October 13, 2015 / 30 Tishri, 5776
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Speaking Only Hebrew?

Even Israel’s religious community today is a diverse one, and it’s my humble opinion that hearing different languages in the public thoroughfare adds to this beautiful tapestry.

Photo Credit: YY

A leisurely Shabbat stroll around town recently turned a calming experience into a rather upsetting one, as graffiti sprayed on quite a few buildings in my neighborhood defaced the beautiful Jerusalem stone with the words; “Dabru Ivrit/Speak Hebrew”!

While not naïve to believe that this is part of a constructed effort to enhance the speaking of Hebrew, its wording reminded me of the endless times that speaking to a family member or friend in the language of this article resulted in those passing by or eavesdropping saying the exact same retort as well.

While both seem to be an attempt to listen in and understand a conversation that, frankly, is none of their business, this two-word graffiti hit on a more essential issue that concerns almost any Oleh who devotedly went as Avraham  “from your land, from your birthplace, from the home of your ancestors, to the land…” (Beresheit 12:1) that is very different from whence they originated. Once the move is made, the challenge arises as to the extent of changing the habits and customs from the old country, amongst them the language in which one will speak at home (and in public) with those that comprehend your own mother tongue.

At the outset, I personally encourage and teach my rabbis and teachers in-training to learn the culture and language of the countries they will serve in the future. So too, I believe that when living in Israel, one should do all one can to learn the language of the land. In both cases, it would be almost impossible to feel the pulse of the people, and thus try to impact them, if one doesn’t speak the language of the locale.

All the more so when it comes to Hebrew. While modern Hebrew is not totally synonymous with the original “holy language,” many of the common words and terms we use are part of it. Thus, in the view of the Rambam when speaking Hebrew, one is fulfilling one of the “easy” mitzvot (Interpretation to Tractate Avot 2:1). Finally, there is no question that knowing modern Hebrew would make the study of Torah all the more easier and accessible.

Therefore, while born in the U.S., I am very happy that G-d has privileged me the ability to speak, write and teach equally in both.

Having said that, the majority of those who have made Aliyah (myself included) have decided to continue speaking in the language of their origin, be it at home or with friends.  It’s my humble opinion that, while learning the new language of the land should be encouraged, this decision is correct for a number of reasons.

First, I wouldn’t want to have an artificial conversation with a close family member or friend.   Forcing them to express themselves in Hebrew, rather than their mother tongue, in the most intimate conversations about the most private aspects of life, would be an experience that would be far from real and authentic. A home, or a profound conversation with a friend, should be a comfortable setting, where the conversation should flow naturally, something not always possible with a newly acquired language.

Second, knowing a foreign language is a useful and precious commodity to posses when living in a global village. New doors, otherwise closed, can open before an applicant for a job if one knows more than the formal language of the land. As one who is responsible for training and placing spiritual leaders around the world, I can personally attest that many families, equipped with a strong ideological motivation to “go on shlichut,” to serve their brothers and sisters abroad, is very limited to have not realized, as they don’t possess the language of the community they would like to serve.

But moreover, communities and schools around the world, together with many students visiting Israel for a short time, are sadly not the ultimate beneficiaries of quality bnei/bnot Torah families from Israel, interested in having the best of the Israeli educational system serve them for a few years, as the applicants, even when holding a foreign passport of that very country (i.e.- originating from there themselves or through their parents,) do not speak the language at a level in which a substantial impact can be placed.

Thirdly, I have argued before that the beauty of the Jewish People is its inner diversity within the boundaries of Halacha. I believe that the attempt for all to speak the same language joins other attempts since the founding of the state to have all residing in Israel be exactly the same. From the attempt to have just one state school system, to praying in one Nusach for davening in the IDF (known as Nusach Achid  or the “one” version), these attempts, amongst many, were thankfully not successful. Even Israel’s religious community today is a diverse one, and it’s my humble opinion that hearing different languages in the public thoroughfare adds to this beautiful tapestry.

But my main concern rests is my fourth and main concern when hearing the common “speak Hebrew” uttered frequently. As we all know, the Jewish months of the year have names, such as Tishrei, Cheshvan, etc., which make their way to our Jewish calendars as well as to formal Jewish legal documents, such as a Ketuvah. The Ramban (Shemot 12:2) is rather puzzled as the months in the Torah are numerated (i.e.- “First month, Seventh month” etc.), rather than named, and we are commanded to count the months from the first (our “Nissan”), something not possible when we brand names, rather than numbers to the months. But moreover, these names are not even Hebrew names, but rather Aramaic names that the Jews used in Babylonia of old! Accordingly, the Ramban askswhy do we use these non-Hebrew and non-Biblical names?

Responds the Ramban, our custom is to show that Jewish history didn’t end with the emergence from Egypt in that famous “first” month. Rather, years later, while so enriched in the Babylonian culture (so much so that we changed the names of the months to Aramaic), G-d still redeemed us yet again and brought us back to Israel. Thus, argues the Ramban, each time we use those non-Hebrew names, we are reminded of where we came from to get to where we are.

Those who have taken the huge step of Aliyah were not dropped from heaven into an Israeli neighborhood. Years of Torah and Zionistic learning and yearning, in their original home lands, and yes, not necessarily in Hebrew, led them to relocate to the Eternal Land, and be part of the miracle of a nation returning to their original land after nearly two thousand years.

It is suitable and expected to show proper gratitude to those before us, upon whose shoulders we stand to reach this milestone. I think it’s the most beautiful tribute to any Israeli to see the streets fill of Jews, speaking a multitude of languages, and thus knowing that their journey to walk the streets of the Holy-Land was a long and complex journey, starting far away from its shores. But more importantly, I would greatly fear that these precious additions to Israel society would not be able to communicate with their grandparents, parents and teachers, all of which have great “stock” in their current privilege of living in Israel.

Thrice daily, we plead that G-d “ingather our exiles.” Blessed is our generation seeing this happen before our eyes, with the diverse languages that fill the streets of Israel. I hope and pray that while they hopefully learn the language of the land, the land will continue to be privileged to hearing the languages of these dispersed returning to their borders, so that this miracle will be all the more felt and seen.

About the Author: Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein is Director of training and placement at The Straus-Amiel Institute at Ohr Torah Stone.

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5 Responses to “Speaking Only Hebrew?”

  1. Stephen Leavitt says:

    Rabbi, that graffiti was put up a long time ago.

  2. Rebecca Carman says:

    For some reason the links to the articles you post (which I really enjoy) keep coming up error. Any suggestions?

  3. Yehoshua Grunstein says:

    Hi Steve, could be it was put up a while back, guess I just didn't take a walk on Shabbat for a while….

  4. Yehoshua Grunstein says:

    Hi Rebecca Carman, many thanks for your warm words. The link to the article I was referring to is here; http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/lets-connectdiversely-2/2012/07/19/

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