Spreading the Hebrew word

Hebrew’s influence penetrated Western civilization through words like adventure, freedom, progress, and spirit

Yale University logo 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yale University logo 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Of the 6,000 extant languages, half will disappear in less than a century; half of the world population speaks 10 languages alone. Gaging a language’s importance according to how many native speakers it numbers would place Hebrew at number 70, yet its influence is much broader.
Of the almost 300 languages that have Wikipedias, Hebrew is among the top 30. With more than 100,000 entries, it is considered the second best in the quantity and quality of its articles, and has the highest number of bytes per article among the top Wikipedias. The Hebrew version is used daily by almost 40 percent of the population of our country, one of the highest percentages in the world.
Cyberspace aside, Hebrew’s presence is felt in most languages, which include dozens of words like amen, hallelujah, jubilee and sabbatical, and more than 100 everyday sayings and phrases such as broken heart, drop in the bucket, nest of vipers, breath of life, flesh and blood, and a voice crying in the wilderness. Adages like a leopard cannot change its spots, a soft answer turns away wrath, my brother’s keeper, and eat, drink and be merry are all of Hebrew lineage.
More interestingly, the influx of Hebrew semantics is indirect. For instance, the Greek word kirios used to mean just “chief,” but after it was used in the translation of the Hebrew Bible it started to bear the meaning of a universal dominium. Linguist Antoine Meillet explained in 1928 that from Greek to Latin, and hence to all the European languages, “Without Hebrew, many common words and phrases would... have quite another meaning.”
A third way to appreciate Hebrew’s influence is to trace the origins of the alphabet. William Chomsky showed how the Phoenicians, Semites close to the old Hebrews, disseminated the Hebrew-type alphabet among the Greeks, and the 22 letters, before Ezra the Scribe adopted our present block Hebrew writing, were ultimately adopted in most European languages.
Traveling west, the Phoenician sailors were impressed by the Greeks’ accomplishments – which did not include reading and writing. Therefore they facilitated aleph, bet and gimmel to become alpha, beta and gamma.
EVEN MORE than in words and alphabets, Hebrew’s influence stems from the ideas and narrative that penetrated Western civilization, or what Thomas Cahill sums up as “most of our best words: new, adventure, surprise; unique individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice... individual destiny, morality, inter-generational accomplishment, personal repentance.... We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes.”
The national book of the Jews has indeed become a sacred text for mankind, the first and most widely published and translated into no less than 1,850 languages (no other book has been translated into even 250 languages.) Since words are cultural storehouses, to speak Hebrew today is like traveling several millennia to the past. Certainly one of Israel’s unparalleled successes is that a Jewish child can read with relative ease texts over a thousand years old.
Since the 16th century Hebrew learning increased, as an inherent part of classical studies. Even Columbus’ interpreter, Luis de Torres, knew Hebrew well, as did the Renaissance scholars, and major poets like William Blake. It became prominent in Puritan England, especially in John Milton’s days.
The eccentric religion of Anglo-Israelism went so far as imagining the Hebraic roots of English, explaining the term “Brit-ish” as “man of the Covenant.” Their French competitor in creative imaginary, the poet Guy de la Boderie traced the word “Gallia” (the original France) to the Hebrew for “waves,” and the name of the French capital to the Hebrew for “man’s glory – pe’er ish.”
The Hebrew impetus arrived in America, where the first published book was Psalms, in 1640, and where Governor William Bradford (one of the Mayflower’s pilgrims) was a devout Hebrew learner.
John Cotton established Hebrew in the educational curricula, and when the first North American university, Harvard, was founded in 1636, Hebrew was compulsory for all. The inauguration speech of every academic year during two centuries was read there in Hebrew, until the year 1817.
A Hebrew teacher, Ezra Stiles, was the first president of Yale University, whose emblem is still in Hebrew, a language so admired by early Americans that William Gifford argued in his Quarterly Review that some members of the Congress wanted it to become the national language rather than English.
During its meteoric Jewish revival during the past two centuries, the Hebrew language had to overcome several other rival languages. In 1880 Lazar Ludwig Zamenhof foresaw his Esperanto becoming not only an international language but also the language of the Jews; in 1908 the Congress of Czernowitz proclaimed Yiddish as “the Jewish national language;” in 1913 teachers at the newly-opened Technion battled over which language should be used for instruction in the new university - Hebrew or German. They called it the “Battle of languages.”
Hebrew won every battle, and in 1921 was recognized as official language of Palestine, spreading rapidly and giving birth to new, thriving literature.
Nowadays, strengthening its status as a classical language abroad will not only promote its appreciation but also the recognition of Israel’s unique contribution to culture. Last and not least, it will also build bridges between the reborn Hebrew nation in its land and mankind as a whole.
Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs should include among its aims abroad, through our many cultural attachés, promoting the inclusion of Hebrew as a classical language in the Humanities studies as part of the educational curricula of Europe.
European classical studies refer to the literary languages of the Mediterranean world in Classical Antiquity; therefore there is no reason to limit these languages to Greek and Latin alone.
If high schools and colleges abroad were to enable the study of Hebrew within their Humanities curriculum, foreign youth would have the opportunity to be aware of Jewish history, so often distorted by a hostile media.
As a side effect, Hebrew will also be more valued within the framework of Jewish education, where our language is not always of high priority.

The writer is the author of 14 books on Jews and modernity, and has lectured in more than fifty countries on Jews, Jewish Civilization and Israel. He ran the Four-Year Program at the Hebrew University and was head of the Jerusalem Institute for Youth Leaders.