HEBREW: THE ETERNAL LANGUAGE WILLIAM CHOMSKY HEBREW : THE ETERNAL LANGUAGE Varda Books 5761 / 2001 skokie, illinois, usa Copyright © 2001 by Varda Books Original copyright © 1957 by THE JEWISH PUBLICATION SOCIETY OF AMERICA All Rights Reserved Second Printing, 1958 New ISBN 1-59045-441-3 Library PDF
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage retrieval system, except for brief passages in connection with a critical review, without permission in writing from the publisher: Varda Books, 9001 Keating Avenue, Skokie, Illinois, USA Prepared as an ebook by Varda Graphics, Inc. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. : 57? 8140 PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA To My Children >
Home | TOC | Index PREFACE There has long been need for a book on the origin of the Hebrew language, its struggle for survival in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles, and its survival as a spoken vernacular in our own day. I confess to having for many years cherished the hope that it would some day be given me to write this story. At the same time, I shrank from undertaking a task so vast and important, so basic to the Jewish cultural heritage, and involving so many aspects of Jewish life and history.
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When, therefore, the Zionist Organization of America approached me several years ago with the request that I prepare a pamphlet on the subject, Hebrew, The Story of a Living Language, I allowed myself to be persuaded for the very reason that the discussion would be brief and tentative. Yet some of my friends at once began urging me to expand that pamphlet into a full-sized book, and this is the result. The account is far from exhaustive. It is designed primarily for the intelligent reader rather than for the scholar. In the process of popularization much had to be diluted, omitted or condensed.
In many areas the presentation is very sketchy, though, I hope, authentic and accurate. A more comprehensive account will have to await more auspicious circumstances. In the writing of this book I had to resort to various sources of information and to the help of individuals who are expert in certain specific areas, and I herewith wish to pay grateful acknowledgment. I am, of course, primarily indebted to Dr. Solomon Grayzel for his stimulation and encouragement, criticism and advice, in the preparation of this book.
My thanks are due to the following individuals for helpful counsel and information: Judah Lapson, Chairman of Hebrew Culture Service Committee for American High Schools and Colleges; A. Leo Oppenheim, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago; Cecil Roth, Oxford vii > Home | TOC | Index viii Preface University, England; E. A. Speiser, Chairman, Department of Oriental Studies, University of Pennsylvania. I also wish to make appreciative acknowledgment of the following publications from which illustrative materials were taken: The Hebrew Scripts, S. A.
Birnbaum; Millon ha-Lashon ha-Ibrit, Eliezer Ben Yehudah; The Field of Yiddish, edited by Uriel Weinreich, Linguistic Circle of New York; Semitic Writing, G. R. Driver, Oxford University Press; A Study of Writing, I. J. Gelb, University of Chicago Press. Recognition is also due to Historische Grammatik der Hebraischen Sprache, Hans Bauer and Pontus Leander, Verlag von Max Niemeyer, which provided a model for the illustration of Branches of the Semitic Languages, on page 22. It is my hope that this volume will stimulate new interest in the Hebrew language among those who know it as well as those who do not.
May the story of the ancient tongue prove as fascinating to my readers as it has always been to me. W. C . March 1, 1957 > Home | TOC | Index CONTENTS INTRODUCTION—The Role of Hebrew in Jewish Life, 1 PART I—How the Language Began to Be Spoken CHAPTER 1—Hebrew and the Languages of Mankind, 17 CHAPTER 2—How the Hebrew Language Began, 32 CHAPTER 3—The Early Non-Biblical Sources of Hebrew, 50 PART II—How the Written Language Took Form CHAPTER 4—How the Hebrew Alphabet Originated, 73 CHAPTER 5—How Did the Vowel-System Evolve? 3 CHAPTER 6—How the Study of Hebrew Grammar Began and Developed, 117 CHAPTER 7—How Was the Text of the Hebrew Bible Preserved? 139 PART III—How the Language Was Preserved CHAPTER 8—How Did the Hebrew Language Grow? 157 CHAPTER 9—How the Hebrew Language Has Kept Abreast of Changing Needs, 172 CHAPTER 10—How Hebrew Evolved as a Modern Vernacular, 184 CHAPTER 11—Did Hebrew Ever Die? 206 PART IV—How the Language Meets Modern Needs CHAPTER 12—The Struggle for Revival, 231 CHAPTER 13—Hebrew in America, 245 EPILOGUE—Hebrew for American Jews, 270 Notes and Bibliography, 281 Index, 313 ix gt; Home | TOC | Index > Home | TOC | Index LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS Page 1. Hittite Hieroglyphic Writing. Courtesy of I. J. Gelb, A Study of Writing (University of Chicago Press), 1952, page 83 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Branches of the Semitic Language . . . . . . . . . . . . . Geographical Distribution of the Semitic Languages . . 21 22 23 2. 3. 4. Transcription of the Mesha Stone. Courtesy of I. J. Gelb, A Study of Writing (University of Chicago Press), 1952, page 134 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5. Hieroglyphic Inscriptions found in Sinai. Courtesy of G. R. Driver, Semitic Writing (British Academy, London), 1954, page 94 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Hittite Hieroglyphic Writing. Courtesy of I. J. Gelb, A Study of Writing (University of Chicago Press), 1952, page 82 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 61 75 6. 77 81 7. The Contents of a Mezuzah. An example of hand-written Hebrew . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8. Inscriptions from the Sinaitic Peninsula.
Courtesy of G. R. Driver, Semitic Writing (British Academy, London), 1954, page 94 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . From Hebrew to the Latin Alphabets . . . . . . . . . . 83 87 9. 10. Three Vowel Systems: 1. Babylonian; 2. Palestinian; 3. Tiberian . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101 11. The Masoretic Text as prepared by the Ben Asher School. Courtesy of S. A. Birnbaum, The Hebrew Scripts, Fasc. 2, page 92 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111 12. A Page from the Rabbinic Bible . . . . . . . . . . . . . 151 xi > Home | TOC | Index xii List of Illustrations Between pp. 242 and 243 13. Hebrew Calendar from Gezer. Courtesy of S. A. Birnbaum, The Hebrew Scripts, no. 2 14. Sinaitic Writing. Courtesy of G. R. Driver, Semitic Writing (British Academy, London), 1954, pl. 38 15. The Siloam Inscription. Courtesy of S. A. Birnbaum, The Hebrew Scripts, no. 14 16. The Mesha Stone. Courtesy of The Louvre, Paris 17. Lachish Ostraca. Courtesy of S. A. Birnbaum, The Hebrew Scripts, nos. 23, 24 18. Coins of the Second Commonwealth.
Courtesy of S. A. Birnbaum, The Hebrew Scripts, nos. 56, 58, 61 19. Stamps of Modern Israel 20. The Nash Papyrus. Courtesy of Cambridge University Library 21. An Aramaic and Yiddish Version of Had Gadya. Courtesy of The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Yiddish Language, Folklore and Literature Published on the Occasion of the Bicentennial of Columbia University, ed. by Uriel Weinreich, Linguistic Circle of New York, 1954 22. Eliezer Ben Yehudah. Courtesy of Millon ha-Lashon ha-lbrit > Home | TOC | Index HEBREW: THE ETERNAL LANGUAGE >
Home | TOC | Index > Home | TOC | Index INTRODUCTION THE ROLE OF HEBREW IN JEWISH LIFE Hebrew as a Modern Vernacular Barely a decade or two ago there were people who maintained that Hebrew was not a living language. Now, the “sacred language” of the past is the daily vernacular of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Israel. There the language lives in the mouths of school children, bootblacks, busmen, cab drivers, cabaret singers, lawyers, doctors and officials, of the religious, irreligious and anti-religious—indeed, of everyone.
The thick horizontal strokes and thin verticals of the Hebrew alphabet are blazoned all over the country on posters, advertising signs, stamps and coins; on highways, shops, stores and hotels. Hebrew slang, colloquialisms and even curses are freely coined; while the Hebrew Language Academy (formerly, Vaad haLashon), composed of outstanding scholars and writers and sponsored by the Israel government, is vigilantly on guard against the intrusion of any solecisms or barbarisms that might impair the purity of the language.
From time to time, moreover, this Academy publishes lists of technical terms covering every branch and aspect of science, industry, technology and the like: some ten thousand new words have gained currency since the establishment of the State of Israel. At least four theatrical companies offer regular performances—all, of course, in Hebrew. Thou1 > Home | TOC | Index 2 Hebrew: The Eternal Language sands of books, magazines, newspapers and brochures on every conceivable topic are in daily circulation.
Close to two hundred periodicals are published there in Hebrew, including fifteen dailies and the rest weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies and annuals. Hebrew books are published in Israel at the rate of more than three a day. The air waves of Israel vibrate to the rhythm of the classical tongue. Outside of Israel, the most significant center of Hebrew culture is America. The language is read, understood and spoken by thousands of American Jews. There are Hebrew periodicals of popular as well as scholarly character; Hebrew books, fictional and scientific; Hebrew language instruction on elementary and college level.
Schools, camps and clubs encourage the speaking of Hebrew. Can there be any question as to the vitality of the Hebrew language? None of the modern attempts to revive old languages, such as Gaelic, Welsh and Indi, can boast of anything approximating the progress made by Hebrew. Yet the Irish, Welsh and Indians have been rooted on their own soil and are free from political, physical and economic difficulties with which the young struggling Jewish community in Israel has had to cope.
Sources of Vitality of the Hebrew Language How was the Hebrew language able to exist and function as an effective instrument of creative self-expression and intercommunication for about two thousand years, without such an essential ingredient for survival as a state or territory? How could Hebrew retain its vitality and elasticity over such a long period of time in the face of such adverse conditions? The answer to these questions may be discovered by considering the unique character of Judaism and its relation to the Hebrew language.
Hebrew has not been a denationalized universal tongue, the medium of a specific religion, in the sense that Latin has been the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. Nor has it been merely a folk tongue like other living languages. As a matter of fact, it has persisted as a living lan- > Home | TOC | Index The Role of Hebrew in Jewish Life 3 guage for many centuries after it had ceased to be a spoken vernacular in the accepted sense of the term, as will be demonstrated in a later chapter in this volume.
Hebrew has been the sacred language of the Jewish people—the language of its religion, culture and civilization. It has been, in sum, the language of Judaism and intimately identified with the national and religious experiences of the Jewish people throughout the generations. The Jewish people can no more be dissociated from Hebrew than they can be dissociated from their own spiritual identity—Judaism. Relationship between Language and Culture An analysis of the nature of language and of Judaism may help to clarify this point.
Language is not merely a means of expression and communication; it is an instrument of experiencing, thinking and feeling, as well as a means of self-expression and personal growth. In investigating the origin of language and “after tracing back its history as far as we can, we see that the earliest language was anything but intellectual, that it was indeed a sort of half-way house between singing and speech with long almost conglomerations of sounds, which served rather as an outlet for intense feelings than for an intelligible expression of them . . ”1 Indeed, even in modern days language is employed “by children (and often by grown people), not so much to formulate and express thoughts as to give vent to feelings . . . ”2 Our ideas and experiences are not independent of language; they are all integral parts of the same pattern, the warp and woof of the same texture. We do not first have thoughts, ideas, feelings and then put them into a verbal framework. We think in words, by means of words. Language and experience are inextricably interwoven, and the awareness of one awakens the other.
Words and idioms are as indispensable to our thoughts and experiences as are colors and tints to a painting. Our personality matures and develops through language and by our use of it. Defective linguistic growth is known to go hand in > Home | TOC | Index 4 Hebrew: The Eternal Language hand with stunted intellectual and emotional development. Deaf and dumb people are, as a rule, intellectually retarded and, in some degree, even callous, unless given means of adequate communication.
What is true of language in relation to individual growth is equally true in the case of the cultural growth and development of a people. Indeed, students of language have come to recognize that the experiences of a group, its mental and emotional habits, its modes of thoughts and attitudes are registered and reflected in the words and idioms of the group’s language. Thus, for example, the word shalom, usually rendered by “peace,” has in effect little in common with its English equivalent. Shalom does not have the passive, even negative, connotation of the word “peace. It does not mean merely the absence of strife. It is pregnant with positive, active and energetic meaning and association. It connotes totality, health, wholesomeness, harmony, success, the completeness and richness of living in an integrated social milieu. When people meet or part they wish each other shalom, or they inquire about each other’s shalom. Similarly, the Hebrew words ruah (spirit) and nefesh (soul) do not have the implications of a disembodiment, such as are indicated by their English equivalents. There is no dichotomy in the Hebrew mind between body and spirit or soul.
One is not the antithesis of the other. These Hebrew words have dynamic, life-giving and motor-urgent connotations. Every living being has a ruah, even the beast possesses a ruah (Ecclesiastes 3. 21). The same is true of the synonym nefesh, which is generally rendered by “soul. ” But nefesh, too, is the property of all living beings (Job 12. 10), including the beast (Proverbs 12. 10). Even the netherworld has a nefesh (Isaiah 5. 14). Furthermore, every living creature, man as well as animal, is designated as nefesh (Genesis 1. 0, 21, 24, 12. 5, 14. 21, etc. ). Both nefesh and ruah often signify strength and vigor, both in a material and a spiritual sense. Voracious dogs are said to possess a strong nefesh (Isaiah 56. 11); and the horses of Egypt, the prophet warns, are weak: they are “flesh and no ruah” (ibid. , 31. 3). > Home | TOC | Index The Role of Hebrew in Jewish Life 5 There is likewise a far cry between the Hebrew word tzedakah (from the stem tzadak, to be just or righteous), with its implications of social justice, and the English word “charity. In the case of “charity” the recipient sees himself beholden to the donor, whose action is voluntary. Tzedakah, on the other hand, has to be performed as a matter of obligation and the recipient is in no way indebted to the donor. The needy have a right to tzedakah, while those possessing means have a duty to give it. Indeed, even a poor person who receives tzedakah must in turn give tzedakah (Gittin 7b). There is, likewise, a wide semantic gulf between the Hebrew rahamim or rahmanut and the English equivalent “pity” or “mercy. The Hebrew word connotes love, family feeling (see Genesis 43. 30, etc. ), even motherliness, since it is related to rehem (mother’s womb) of the same stem. None of these connotations is implied in the English equivalents. Similarly, the richly meaningful and historically hallowed implications of the Hebrew torah are totally absent in the English equivalent “law. ” The Hebrew term torah embraces the totality of Jewish creative labor throughout the ages. Just as inadequate is the English translation “commandment” for the Hebrew mitzvah.
In one of his hasidic3 stories, the Hebrew writer Yehudah Steinberg depicts a hasid expressing astonishment at the ignorance and stupidity of the resha‘im (the wicked or the disbelievers ). The main motive for committing wicked deeds, reasons the hasid, is the search and pursuit of pleasure and enjoyment. But is any greater pleasure or joy conceivable than that of performing a mitzvah? Hence, he continues, if the resha‘im were sufficiently wise to realize this, they would abandon their wickedness and would all become tzaddikim (righteous or strictly observant Jews), just for their pleasure’s sake.
This type of reasoning was not unique among traditional Jews. Simhah shel mitzvah, the joy of performing a mitzvah, constituted an integral element in the pattern of the Jewish way of life. To be sure, the word mitzvah originally meant no more than a command in the accepted sense. But the specific reli- > Home | TOC | Index 6 Hebrew: The Eternal Language gious experiences of the Jewish people, their feeling of exultation in the performance of religious responsibilities, invested this word with a cluster of associations and connotations not originally inherent in it.
Is it conceivable that one could get a thrill out of performing a mitzvah if it were merely a “commandment”? Every language, including English, has a stock of words which are charged with the emotional and intellectual experiences of the people employing it. To illustrate, within our own experiences, the English word “fireside” came to assume a new connotation as a result of listening to the fireside chats inaugurated by the late president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Similarly, the word “filibuster,” originally signifying a freebooter or pirate, is now employed in the United States in the sense of hindering legislation by means of long speeches or other parliamentary tricks. One may also add, as examples, such expressions as “go to bat,” “strike out” and the like. The richer and the more intense the historical experiences of a people, the greater is the number of such words in its language and the more emotionally charged they are. When translated into another language, they become devitalized and almost meaningless.
Such words are not mere linguistic units; they are cultural deposits. But they cannot be transmitted in isolation. They take on their meaning and gain in richness of association and connotation only through the context of experience. In the past some Hebrew words and expressions survived in the vernacular of the people long after the Hebrew language had ceased to be popularly spoken. They were kept alive by the intimate contact which the majority of the people continued to maintain with the Hebrew literary sources and by the persistence of Jewish forms of living and habits of thinking.
Furthermore, one can readily quote a host of expressions and idioms which, though composed of words in the vernacular, encase, in effect, Hebraic thought-patterns. It would seem that as long as the Jews were rooted in their traditional patterns of life, they were sensitive to the inadequacy of the vernacular in expressing and conveying the emotionally charged meaning > Home | TOC | Index The Role of Hebrew in Jewish Life 7 of certain Hebrew words. They therefore persisted either in retaining the original words and expressions, or in investing the Hebraic mental pattern or idiom with the garb of the vernacular.
In this manner a great many words and expressions, as well as idioms, found their way into the various vernaculars employed by the Jews throughout the history of their dispersion. Such dialects arose as Judaeo-Greek, Judaeo-Arabic, JudaeoPersian and the like. The best known of these dialects, surviving to this day and incorporating a considerable proportion of these Hebraic elements, are Ladino, a Judaeo-Spanish dialect employed by the Jews in the Balkan States and Morocco, and, especially, Yiddish.
At present, however, especially in this country, Jewish patterns of life no longer provide a suitable functional context for these words and expressions. The distinctive features of the Jewish climate characteristic of traditional Jewish ghettos, especially those of Eastern Europe, have almost completely disappeared. The specific vocabularies and idioms of Jewish life no longer function; they have been translated into English equivalents. Yamim nora’im are High Holy Days, a siddur is a prayerbook, a mahzor is a High Holy day or Festival prayerbook.
Yom tov has been replaced by holiday. Such traditional Hebrew terms as hazzan (cantor), shammash (sexton),’aron kodesh (holy ark), menorah (candelabrum), sefer torah (scroll of the Torah), gabbai (an elder in the synagogue), etc. , once commonly employed, have fallen into desuetude. A good Jew is no longer mekayyem a mitzvah, or is a shomer shabbat. Instead, he is performing a command or good deed and is a Sabbath observer. He does not drink le-hayyim (to life or health); he drinks to happy days, and so on.
The contact with the literary Hebraic sources remains, therefore, the only avenue to these cultural deposits. The Meaning of Judaism The meaning of the terms “Jews” and “Judaism” has, likewise, been a source of confused thinking. Are the Jews a race, > Home | TOC | Index 8 Hebrew: The Eternal Language a nation, a religious group, or what? Is Judaism only a body of beliefs and practices, or of nationalistic symbols and slogans, or of cultural ideas and literary compilations, such as could be conveyed by one linguistic vehicle or another?
Much futile argumentation relative to these matters may be found in our recent literature. The disputants seem to ignore the fact that a feeling of kinship exists among Jews of all “races” and colors, of all parts of the world, regardless of whether they are orthodox, reform or even atheistic. To be sure, some or all of the elements mentioned above may be found in the Jewish group or in Judaism, as the case may be, not in an additive sense, but rather in an integrative or chemical sense.
Hence, the whole is not like any of the parts, just as common salt is not in the least like the sodium and chlorine of which it is compounded; or just as water is nothing like its elements, oxygen and hydrogen, of which it is a compound. The compound ABC is larger than the sum of the parts and different in character from each of them as a result of their integration and reciprocal influence. In such a compound the individual component elements are changed and modified. Removing one of these elements or substituting one for another will destroy or change the whole compound.
All this is equally true of the cultural, national and religious elements that make up Judaism. Jewish religion is, in effect, a distinctive, dynamic life-pattern, constantly and progressively adapting itself to changing needs and circumstances; it is accordingly intimately bound up with the Jewish people, their history, culture and civilization. It is in this vein that Judah Halevi interprets the very first Commandment, where the Lord is referred to as “thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt,” and not as the God who created the universe and humanity.
This purports to emphasize, Halevi asserts, the close identification of the Torah with the Jewish people and their historical experiences. 4 It is significant that neither biblical nor mishnaic Hebrew possesses a term for either “religion” or “Judaism. ” To this day > Home | TOC | Index The Role of Hebrew in Jewish Life 9 no specific term for “religion” is to be found in Hebrew, while the concept “Judaism” (Greek Judaismos) stems from alien soil. It was invented by the Jews of the Hellenistic Diaspora to indicate the contrast between their faith, or way of life, and “Hellenism” (Hellenismos). The Hebrew term for this concept (yahadut) was probably coined by Rashi (1040–1105). The traditional term for this concept, employed in the Bible and in the Talmud, is “Torah. ” Now this term, as has been said, embraces the totality of Jewish beliefs and practices, ideals and ideas, in fact, all the products of the Jewish creative genius through the centuries. “The Commandments,” according to one source, “imply all that is included in the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud, whether legal or homiletic in character.
In fact, any interpretation which at any time a faithful student is likely to offer before his teacher was already presented to Moses on Mount Sinai. ”6 When the rabbis were in doubt about the legality of certain rituals and practices, they would say: “Go and see how the people conduct themselves. ”7 The conduct of the people in a normal traditional environment served as a guide for establishing and codifying certain laws and rituals; indeed “a custom may nullify a law. ”8 No religion in the accepted sense of this term would permit such latitude.
Significantly, the Hebrew term for law, whether ritual, ethical, criminal, or civil, is halakhah, a word which signifies “conduct. ” Peculiar historical circumstances, the analysis of which is outside our province, have operated in the case of the Jewish people in such a manner as to merge race, nationality, culture and religion into a composite unit, which is articulated in a distinctive language, with the result of modifying the individual characteristics of each of the components. Hence, the laws applying to each of them in isolation will not apply to any or all of them in integration.
Thus, although Christianity may continue to function without a distinctive language, the Jewish religion cannot do so, because it is too intimately fused with elements of race, nationality and culture, all of which are in turn rooted in the Hebrew language. It is inconceivable that any of the > Home | TOC | Index 10 Hebrew: The Eternal Language traditional Jewish prayers, in translation, could evoke the same historical associations, cultural allusions and national memories, as they do in the original Hebrew. Because Jews of old wanted those associations they continued to pray in Hebrew and study their literary sources in Hebrew.
They preserved the language and the language preserved them. Hebrew as the Language of Judaism In sum, Judaism may be defined as the ongoing historical experience of the Jewish people, in which are compounded religious, national and cultural elements. This unique historical experience has been articulated in distinctive words and idioms of the Hebrew language, with which it has become inextricably blended. Disassociate this historical experience from the Hebrew language, and the result is a pale, anemic reflection, a dilution and sometimes even an adulteration of the original experience.
Indeed, some Jewish scholars maintained that the deviations of Christianity from Judaism may be directly traceable to the translations of the Bible into Greek. The original Hebrew words took on, in the Greek translation, connotations which were not intended by the Hebrew authors, with the result that they suggested views and ideas entirely alien to the Jewish spirit. One of the many glaring examples is the origin of the virgin-birth dogma in Christianity, a concept which was associated with the mistranslation of the word ‘almah (Isaiah 7. 14).
In Hebrew the word merely means “young woman”; in the Greek translation it was rendered by parthenos which means “virgin. ” Another example is the word ruah, which in the Greek translation connoted the un-Jewish concept of spirit-versus-body. In the course of their long and rich history, the Jewish people have gone through intensive intellectual and emotional experiences. They have experimented with life and its problems; problems of the relationship of man to man, of man to God, problems of human destiny and of the impact of cosmic forces upon mankind. They have known joys and suffering, hope and despair.
They have given voice to all these experi- > Home | TOC | Index The Role of Hebrew in Jewish Life 11 ences in their own distinctive Hebrew idiom. Language and experience have become intertwined so that one cannot be fully mastered without the other. Who can render in suitable translation the overtones, the cluster of associations and allusions attached to such expressions as shema‘ yisrael, kiddush ha-shem, hillul ha-shem, mesirut nefesh, and a host of others? It cannot be done. Yet such expressions symbolize the warp and woof of our historical religious and national experiences.
These expressions stir in every conscious Jew feelings and images such as could never be evoked in any other language. In the words of Shema‘ Yisrael, for example, we hear echoes and reverberations of the agonized cries of our martyrs from the days of Akiba down to the “rebels” of the Warsaw Ghetto. In comparison the English equivalent, “Hear, O Israel,” sounds flat and insipid. Similarly, the terms kiddush ha-Shem (sanctification of the Name) and hillul ha-Shem (profanation of the Name) are the obverse and reverse of a concept which epitomizes Jewish martyrology throughout the ages.
This concept has been a mainspring of traditional Jewish conduct, by word or act, with the view of hallowing God’s name, even at the risk of death, through proper conduct and avoiding deeds which might profane the name of God. The term mesirut nefesh, likewise, connotes the idea of self-sacrifice and readiness to devote one’s life to an ideal. The English equivalents of these terms fail completely to convey even a shade of the meaning of these repositories of Jewish experiences. Language is, of course, the symbol of meaning, or the expression of ideas by means of articulate sounds or graphic representations of these sounds.
Yet, meaning is not inherent in the sounds or the words, but rather in our personal and group experiences which are fused with the particular words. In themselves words have no meanings; it is our reactions to them or our experiences with them that lend them their meaning. What the words “mean” or convey to us depends on the nature, extent and intensity of our experiences, direct or vicarious, with > Home | TOC | Index 12 Hebrew: The Eternal Language them. The word “democracy,” for example, means one thing to an American, and something entirely different to a Russian communist.
The term “crusade” awakens in the minds of Jews clusters of historical memories and associations totally at variance with those in the minds of Christian peoples. Words are set in the orbit of the experience of the people employing them. When transposed from one experiential orbit into another by means of translation or borrowing, the words change their “meaning. ” Sometimes our experiences are blended and associated with specific forms of the word, with its particular pronunciation or configuration, and only these forms will convey to us meaning to its fullest extent.
A radical change in the form, even of the same word, such as a difference of pronunciation or spelling, may at the outset fail to evoke our experiences associated with the particular word. Hence there is often resistance to spelling reforms or to changes in pronunciation, as for example, in the case of Hebrew, from Ashkenazic to Sephardic, and vice versa. An attempt by Itamar Ben Avi and others, several years ago, to change the Hebrew to Latin script proved abortive in the face of serious opposition. It should therefore be clear that language cannot be taken as a sort of currency or medium of exchange.
Words in one language cannot be rendered by their equivalents in another language without losing something vitally and essentially peculiar to the mentality and genius of the people employing the tongue. It is a delusion to assume that one can fully understand the essence of Judaism in any language but Hebrew. As indicated previously, one cannot get the pristine and genuine message of the Bible in a translation, however effectively executed. Our Sages likened the day on which the Bible was translated into Greek to the day when the Golden Calf was made, “for the Torah does not lend itself to an adequate translation. Dr. Max L. Margolis, editor of the Jewish Publication Society Bible translation, asserted: “It frequently happens that the translator, vainly seeking an equivalent for a Hebrew word or phrase, > Home | TOC | Index The Role of Hebrew in Jewish Life 13 realizes that translation deals not so much with words as with civilizations. ” Consequently, some of the most significant and indispensable sources of Judaism must remain in a certain sense “sealed books” to those who do not know Hebrew.
The wisdom of the Sages, the poetry of Ibn Gabirol, Judah Halevi, Bialik and Chernichovski; or the prose of Mendele, Peretz and Agnon can never be rendered adequately in English or any other language. Nearly every word, every turn of expression or locution employed by these masters of Hebrew literature, springs from the bed-rock of Jewish experiences, literary sources and Jewish folklore, and stirs within us memories, associations and images, such as no translations, however artistically done, can duplicate. > Home | TOC | Index > Home | TOC | Index
ART PART ONE How the Language Began to Be Spoken > Home | TOC | Index > Home | TOC | Index CHAPTER ONE HEBREW AND THE LANGUAGES OF MANKIND Ancient Attempts to Identify the Original Language How many languages are there in the world? How did these languages arise? Did they evolve from one primeval language, or are they to be traced to several basic languages? What was this primeval language, or which were the basic languages? These questions have attracted wide attention among the inquisitive minds of the ancients as well as of modern scholars.
The Greek historian Herodotus reports an experiment conducted by Psammetichus, king of Egypt (sixth century B. C. E. ), with the object of discovering what race of men was first created or evolved. He took two newborn babes, haphazardly selected, and placed them in the charge of a goatherd with strict instructions to bring them up on goat’s milk and to isolate them from any human contacts, so that no word of human speech might reach their ears. In this manner, the king hoped, the children would eventually yield to the promptings of nature and break out into human speech representing the primeval language of the original human race.
The experiment succeeded, according to Herodotus. One day, after two years had passed, as the 17 > Home | TOC | Index 18 Hebrew: The Eternal Language goatherd opened the door of the lonely hut to serve the children their daily portion of milk, they cried out “Bekos! ” and held out their hands. The goatherd reported this to the king, and upon investigation the king discovered that bekos was the Phrygian word for bread. He thereupon concluded that the Phrygians were the first race of men.
The story bears, of course, the earmarks of pure racial propaganda. It is calculated to demonstrate the superiority of the Grecian race, the kinsmen of the Phrygians according to Greek tradition, by attributing to them a higher rank in antiquity than that of the Egyptians. But this experiment was not unique. Similar experiments are said to have been conducted in later ages: by the Mongol emperor Akbar Khan (sixteenth century), the German emperor Frederick the Second (thirteenth century), and King James IV of Scotland (fifteenth century).
The last-named is reported to have shut two infants up with a dumb woman on the island of Inchkeith and ordered them kept there until they were old enough to speak perfectly. These children are said by some to have spoken a pure Hebrew, although the chronicler himself entertained some doubts on the subject. Hebrew—the Mother of Languages There was, indeed, a time when Jews as well as Christians believed that all the languages of mankind derived from Hebrew, the language spoken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This is, of course, to be inferred from the biblical accounts.
Thus Eve was called Hawwah “because she was the mother of all living” (hai, Genesis 3. 20). Similarly, the woman was called ishshah “because she was taken out of man” (ish, ibid. , 2. 23). 1 In no other language besides Hebrew, the rabbis argued, do we find the terms for man and woman derived from the same root. The Hebrew language, it is therefore to be assumed according to them, was created simultaneously with the world and was the language employed by God in his conversations with Adam and Eve. 2 When Abraham was born, all > Home | TOC | Index Hebrew and the Languages of Mankind 19 he dignitaries of Nimrod’s court wanted to destroy him, says an old midrashic account, and he was hidden in a cave for thirteen years. When he came out of the cave he spoke Hebrew. 3 “It (Hebrew) is, according to tradition, the language in which God spoke to Adam and Eve and in which they spoke between themselves” (Judah Halevi). This traditional view is reiterated time and again during the Middle Ages and later by both Jews and non-Jews. Among the theses offered by the first class of Harvard graduates in 1642 was one entitled Hebrea est Linguarum Mater (Hebrew is the mother of the languages).
Non-Jewish sources resorted to all sorts of whimsical etymologies to prove that the origin of European languages is to be found in Hebrew. 4 In his introduction to the Pentateuch, Moses Mendelssohn restates the view of the primacy of Hebrew and attempts to adduce additional proof in its corroboration. It was only after the fiasco of the Tower of Babel, according to the biblical tradition, that “the Lord did there confound the languages of the earth; and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11. ). Thus, says rabbinic tradition, evolved the languages of mankind, numbering seventy-two (or seventy), twentytwo of which were spoken by the descendants of Japheth, twenty-four by the children of Ham, and twenty-six by the children of Shem. 5 Modern Studies of Indo-European Languages Toward the end of the eighteenth century the study of linguistic science was given strong impetus by the discovery of Sanskrit and the recognition of the relationship of this language to Greek and Latin. It was then and during the major part of the ineteenth century that the Aryan or Indo-European languages were identified and subjected to careful study and scrutiny. No one knows how many languages there are in the world. They certainly can be counted in the thousands. Many of them > Home | TOC | Index 20 Hebrew: The Eternal Language are unrecorded in writing and may disappear without leaving a trace, as many unrecorded languages have undoubtedly disappeared already, while others are known from very scanty records. The majority of the languages of the world are probably those which have never been committed to writing by any of their native speakers.
The most thoroughly investigated language family is the IndoEuropean. This family includes such languages, and language groups, as Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Armenian, Albanese, Celtic, Slavic, Baltic and Germanic. The Germanic group, to which English belongs, is probably the most widely employed, and English is now the most widespread of all languages in the world. However, the language which is known to have retained the greatest number of original forms of the Germanic dialect is Icelandic, a language spoken today by about 100,000 persons.
Similarly, Lithuanian, one of the two surviving languages of the Baltic branch, spoken by several million people who live on the borders of Prussia and Russia, is said to have “preserved many of the forms of Indo-European speech in a less corrupted condition than any of its European cogeners, aye, than any dialect of the entire family which is not at least two thousand years older”6 All these language groups have been identified as divergent forms of a single prehistoric language, hypothetically named Primitive Indo-European.
No records of this primitive language are available, but this may be a mere historic accident. The oldest known member, or near relation, of this family is an extinct language, spoken by the Hittites, a people widely mentioned in the Bible and even regarded by the prophet Ezekiel as among the ancestors of the Hebrew people (Ezekiel 16. 3, 45). The available documents in that language already deciphered are written in a form of the cuneiform syllabary—a wedge-like form of characters having syllabic rather than alphabetic value. These documents date back to about the fifteenth century B.
C. E. Other Hittite documents, written in hieroglyphic script, have already been virtually deciphered. > Home | TOC | Index Hebrew and the Languages of Mankind 21 Hittite Hieroglyphic Writing From I. J. Gelb, A Study of Writing (University of Chicago Press), 1952, page 83. Semitic Languages The language family which concerns us most at this time is that designated since 1781 as Semitic. The origin of this designation is the genealogical record of Genesis 10. 21–31, according to which the peoples employing these languages were descendants of Shem, son of Noah.
These peoples occupied a territory extending from the Mediterranean to the other side of the Euphrates up to the Tigris, or Mesopotamia, and from the mountains of Armenia to the southern coast of Arabia. Through conquests and migrations these languages spread also to parts of Africa and Europe. The Canaanites (Phoenicians, etc. , Genesis 10. 15–20) are traced in the Bible back to Ham, probably on account of their being a mixed race and also because, owing to their paganism, they were regarded with contempt by the biblical writers. However, their language is clearly a branch of the Semitic family, and the prophet Isaiah (19. 8) refers to > Home | TOC | Index 22 Hebrew: The Eternal Language Branches of the Semitic Language > Home | TOC | Index Hebrew and the Languages of Mankind 23 Geographical Distribution of the Semitic Languages > Home | TOC | Index 24 Hebrew: The Eternal Language Hebrew as the language of Canaan (sefat Canaan). Most of these languages are now dead, some having left important literary legacies. The only languages of this family still spoken, besides Hebrew, are: Arabic, Ethiopic, and, to a limited extent, Syriac or Aramaic.
The Semitic languages are generally divided into the following branches: A. East Semitic: Assyrian-Babylonian or Akkadian. This language is known now from inscriptions on stone and clay, in cuneiform writing, dating back to about 2500 B. C. E. In this language were written the Code of Hammurabi (around 1800 B. C. E. ), the Amarna letters (1400 B. C. E. ) and other important documents. It was at one time widely in vogue in the Orient in official circles. It was there a sort of lingua franca, an international language. Later, around the middle of the first half in the last millennium B.
C. E. , it was superseded by Aramaic. B. Northwest Semitic 1. Aramaic Branch. a. Eastern Aramaic or Syriac, of which the language of the Babylonian Talmud is a Jewish modification. b. Palestinian or Western Aramaic, which is represented by portions of the Palestinian Gemara and the Targumim (Bible translations generally included in the traditional Jewish editions of the Bible). The Aramaic portions of the Bible may also belong in this category, although some modern scholars challenge the possibility of establishing the local identity of these portions.
At that early period, when these documents were written, no distinction between Eastern and Western Aramaic existed, according to these scholars. The oldest documents in the Aramaic language date from the eighth century B. C. E. A few centuries later, especially around > Home | TOC | Index Hebrew and the Languages of Mankind 25 the beginning of the Christian Era, Aramaic gained wide currency over large tracts of Western Asia, superseding several languages, among them Assyrian, and to a considerable extent also Hebrew.
The theory held by some Jewish and non-Jewish scholars that Aramaic had completely displaced Hebrew is without any foundation and has been effectively disproved. But Aramaic undoubtedly exercised a tremendous influence on the evolution of the Hebrew language, and left its impress upon it. For about a millennium (from about 700 B. C. E. to around 650 C. E. ) Aramaic was employed as the official language of the Near East, until it was replaced by Arabic as one result of the Mohammedan conquests (of the seventh century C. E. ). When Assyria conquered the Aramean states and incorporated them into its empire, it adopted the language of the anquished. The spread of this language was facilitated especially by the Persian Empire which flourished during the fifth to third centuries B. C. E. The imperial policy of Persia was generally favorable to the preservation of the national mores and culture of its subject peoples. The Persian chancery accordingly chose to correspond with the provinces of Western Asia in their own peculiar dialect, Aramaic. Aramaic is still spoken by a few thousand Syrian Christians and Jews in Kurdistan, and various other isolated localities in the Orient on the borders of Persia, Iraq, Turkey and in Syria near Damascus.
A considerable number of the Aramaic-speaking Kurdish Jews have recently immigrated into Israel. 2. Middle Semitic or Canaanite Branch. a. Moabitic, known especially from the famous inscription of King Mesha, ninth century B. C. E. The character and significance of this inscription will be discussed in a subsequent chapter. b. Phoenician, the language spoken in Phoenicia, as well as in the Phoenician colony of Carthage in North Africa, close to the present site of Tunis. The Phoenicians continued to identify themselves as Canaanites down to the Roman period.
Its oldest known inscriptions are of the > Home | TOC | Index 26 Hebrew: The Eternal Language twelfth or fourteenth century before the Christian Era. Around the early part of the first millennium B. C. E. , Phoenician enjoyed the status of an international language in Syria and nearby coastal Asia Minor, until it was replaced by Aramaic by the end of the eighth century. It continued to flourish in Carthage until several centuries into the Christian Era, and was still spoken in the time of Augustine in the fifth century C. E. c.
Hebrew. The oldest portions of the Hebrew Bible probably date back to about 1300 B. C. E. , and the language has never ceased to be employed in most Jewish localities as a literary medium, as well as for purposes of written (if not spoken) intercommunication. In oral use it has been restricted largely to houses of worship and study, although there is ample evidence to prove that even for conversational purposes oral Hebrew has been employed, in a limited degree and in certain localities, throughout the history of the Jewish people.
Furthermore, many words and expressions dealing with intimate personal and national experiences have been incorporated into the various languages spoken by the Jewish people in the lands of their dispersion. Similarly, many Hebrew idioms have infiltrated, in translated forms, into the various Jewish dialects, such as Yiddish and Ladino (a Judaeo-Spanish dialect), and have persisted there to this day. In modern times the vitality and adaptability of the Hebrew language have been demonstrated to a remarkable degree, as a spoken language in Israel, and in many Jewish communities outside of Israel. . Ugaritic. A vast and significant literature has been > Home | TOC | Index Hebrew and the Languages of Mankind 27 unearthed since 1930, shedding much light on biblical literature and language, in modern Ras Shamra, on the coast of Syria, opposite Cyprus. This Canaanitic literature was written in an alphabetic cuneiform script, indicating consonants and even some vowels. It contains epic poems typical of ancient Canaanite religion and civilization during the Late Bronze Age, when Ras Shamra was the site of Ugarit, the wealthiest Canaanite city.
In language and style, this literature resembles to a remarkable degree the poetic portions of the Bible. Biblical literature and language must have been influenced tremendously by the highly developed culture and civilization of Ugarit. 3. South Semitic. a. Arabic and its various dialects. The earliest records of Arabic are of the third century B. C. E. Since the seventh century C. E. the territory of the language has extended, as a result of the Mohammedan conquests, to embrace large tracts of Asia and Africa. It is now in oral and written use by nearly forty millions of eople, besides serving as the sacred and official language of Islam. b. Ethiopic and its dialects. This language is used on the east coast of Africa (Abyssinia). It emerged into the light of history towards the beginning of the fourth century C. E. , immediately after the conversion of the Abyssinian Kingdom to Christianity. The language is still used in Abyssinia in modern dialects. Uniformity vs. Diversity in Languages Attempts were made by students of language to discern relationships between the Indo-European and the Semitic lan- gt; Home | TOC | Index 28 Hebrew: The Eternal Language guages. These attempts stem from the assumption that both these language families evolved from the same parental stock. In proof of this assumption scholars adduce the examples of the Hebrew banah (built) and the Latin pono (compare English “exponent,” “expound”); also ba‘ar and Greek pyr from which originate the English “pyre,” “pyro-,” and “fire”; Hebrew yayin (wine), Greek oinos, Latin vinum, Arabic waynun; Hebrew sheba, Sanskrit saptan, Latin septem, English “seven. A medieval Jewish scholar collected over two thousand Hebrew words, which, in his opinion, were the basis of a similar number of words in Latin, Greek and Italian. 7 Such attempts are now largely discredited. If there is a relationship between the two language families, and there may be, the available evidence is inadequate and inconclusive. Mutual borrowing and mere accident may account for these relationships. The division of languages is, according to biblical tradition, a curse or punishment inflicted upon mankind for the daring attempt of the people of Shinar to erect there “a tower, with its top in heaven” (Genesis 11).
To this day the multiplicity of languages is viewed by some people as an affliction responsible for misunderstanding and dissension among individuals, groups and nations. If people spoke a common language, it is held, discords would disappear, wars would be eliminated, peace and good will would reign in the world. Unsuccessful attempts have accordingly been made to devise a universal language, or to urge the adoption of one of the most widespread languages as a common language. That the adoption of a common language will serve as an effective instrumentality of peace is highly questionable.
History can record many wars among peoples employing the same language. But it is a matter of grave doubt whether the adoption of a common language is feasible. Even if the peoples of the world would consent to adopt such a language, it would in the course of time split up into various, mutually alien languages and dialects. We may note, as an illustration, the tendency of American English to deviate in its development, both > Home | TOC | Index Hebrew and the Languages of Mankind 29 in idiom and vocabulary, from British English.
Even in the same country the people of certain generations find it difficult or impossible to understand the language of their ancestors several generations back. It may, incidentally, be seriously questioned whether the adoption of a common language would be desirable from a cultural point of view, even if it were possible. A common language would impose, to a considerable degree, common cultural and literary patterns. Witness the influence of English culture and literature on early American life and literature. Such a language would certainly result in the impoverishment of world culture and civilization.
The Trend in Language towards Diversity Language (Sprache in German, lashon or safah in Hebrew), as indicated by its etymology, is basically a speech experience. It is transmitted by word of mouth from parents to children. We speak and pronounce words as we hear them spoken and pronounced by our elders, who in turn learned them from generations preceding them. It seems quite obvious to us that we speak exactly as do our parents and elders, and they believe they do the like with reference to the generation which preceded them. Yet, over a period of several generations there have been evident linguistic changes and modifications.
The language of Shakespeare is no longer the English we speak; while the fourteenth century English of Chaucer, and far more so the English of Alfred the Great of the ninth century, are to us virtually foreign tongues. When, for example, was the Latin senior reduced to the French sire and the English “sir”? When did the Anglo-Saxon deofol (Latin diabolus) evolve into the modern English “devil”? How did these radical changes in form and pronunciation occur? When did they inject themselves into the language? Each generation of speakers would certainly disclaim responsibility.
Evidently the process of language transmission is imperfect. Both our hearing and our capacity for articulating or imitating > Home | TOC | Index 30 Hebrew: The Eternal Language the sounds which we hear are imperfect and inexact. Hence language is subject to modification and change. Both growth and decay are characteristics of language development, as they are of biological development. Some phonetic elements gradually disintegrate and disappear, while new ones sprout and emerge. Occasionally, the variations are so great as to produce an entirely new offshoot, a new dialect or a new member of the language family.
Two main factors generally operate as controls in the process of linguistic change: (1) isolation and (2) possession of written records. A people occupying a circumscribed territory and relatively unexposed to contacts with other races or peoples is more likely to preserve the original forms of its speech than a people bent on expansion, migration or collision with other races and peoples. Similarly a common literature often exercises a strong conservative influence on the language and shields it from the intrusion of alien elements and from radical phonetic and dialectical divergencies.
For this reason, the changes in English since Shakespeare’s time are not as pronounced as those during the interval between his period and that of Chaucer, and they are especially less significant than the changes during the five centuries preceding Chaucer, when England was assimilating the Normans. 8 Reason for Relative Unity in the Hebrew Language The literary control on linguistic change is particularly marked when, as in the case of the Hebrew language, the common literature is integrated with the religious traditions and experiences of the people.
The Hebrew people were thrown into contact and collision with other people. Its vocabulary was considerably enriched by the admission of numerous foreign words borrowed from the many peoples among whom they dwelt. Yet the original linguistic pattern of Hebrew remained more or less intact. Thus we speak of biblical Hebrew as a unitary phase of the language, distinguished by typical characteristics of grammar and style. Yet, the interval between the earliest biblical documents, such as the Song of Moses or the > Home | TOC | Index Hebrew and the Languages of Mankind 1 Song of Deborah, on the one hand, and the books of Koheleth and Esther, on the other, is as long as the interval separating the period of Alfred the Great from our own day. Furthermore, the twenty-two centuries subsequent to the biblical period failed to impair the pristine pattern of the language. The result is that modern Hebrew writers may choose to employ biblical Hebrew as the medium of their literary expression, without the need of apology and without fearing that their writings will be incomprehensible or even regarded as unduly archaic.
What is the explanation, in the case of Hebrew, of this unique linguistic phenomenon? How did the Hebrew language escape the transmuting effects of time which are in evidence in other languages? To be sure, the fact that the ancient biblical texts lacked a fixed system of vocalization and were very scantily supplied with vowel-signs is in large measure responsible for the seeming phonetic uniformity of the Hebrew language. But it cannot be doubted that the Bible and the esteem with which it has been cherished throughout the centuries, counteracted and prevented fundamental changes in the structure of the language.
Unlike Latin, which has been the language of the Catholic church, that is, of the clergy, without becoming the language of the faithful or of the multitude, the study of biblical Hebrew has been pursued throughout the generations by young and old with more or less zeal and assiduity. A great many new wordcoinages, word-forms and idioms have indeed been added to the language since the days of the Bible. Yet the original organic pattern of the language remains intact.
To this day children in elementary grades are trained and grounded in the intricacies of biblical Hebrew, while in the writings of practically every Hebrew author one may find a goodly number of word-structures, phrases, and turns of expression typical of the Bible. As a matter of fact, modern Hebrew sometimes shows preference for biblical usages over mishnaic or medieval usages. The biblical phrases and expressions of thirty-five centuries ago pulsate with vitality and vigor almost on a par with the language spoken in Israel today. >
Home | TOC | Index CHAPTER TWO HOW THE HEBREW LANGUAGE BEGAN Aramaic Background of Hebrew Some forty centuries ago, during the first half of the second millennium B. C. E. , a family or clan led by a chieftain named Terah, emigrated—so the biblical tradition has it—from UrKasdim, a city of immemorial antiquity in Babylonia, to Haran in northwestern Mesopotamia, with the intention of proceeding from there “into the land of Canaan” For unspecified reasons Terah and his clansmen settled in Haran and apparently abandoned the idea of journeying on.
It must have been a long time after settling in Haran that one of the sons of Terah, named Abram (later renamed Abraham), after his father’s death, received a call from God saying: “Get thee out of thy country . . . unto the land that I will show thee. ” Whereupon Abram, heeding the call, resumed the journey into Canaan, taking with him “Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran . . . and into the land of Canaan they came. ” This clan, headed by Abram, was by no means a nomadic or bedouin band.
It was made up of settled or semi-settled herdsmen, who migrated with their wives and children and with their servants, cattle and other belongings. Abram must, ac32 > Home | TOC | Index How the Hebrew Language Began 33 cordingly, have achieved in Haran considerable status and authority. Jewish tradition explains his departure from there by attributing to him a revulsion from the idolatrous practices prevalent in his native land and by the “call” to go forth and establish a new and “great nation” in the “land of Canaan. ” It was to be a rather peaceful venture.
Yet, we find Abram capable of mustering fighting forces among his clansmen and allies adequate to attack and defeat the armies of four victorious kings, and thus retrieve his nephew Lot and all the booty that had been captured from five defeated kings headed by those of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 14). Furthermore, Abimelekh, the Philistine king of Gerar, was eager to conclude with him a treaty of peace; the native Amorites, Mamre, Eshkol and Aner, were his confederates; while the Hittites accorded him honor and referred to him as “a mighty prince” (ibid. 23. 6). In the traditions of the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and other peoples, Abram would undoubtedly have been described as a mighty chieftain leading a victorious invasion. His heroic exploits and glorious feats of conquest would have constituted the theme of epic sagas and poems. But the Torah, as the etymology of the term implies, is primarily designed to teach moral and religious lessons, not to tell stories or report historical events.
Hence, all these warlike exploits in the life of the “fathers” of the Jewish people are glossed over and mentioned only incidentally. During a period of famine, Abram and his clansmen traveled to Egypt, but only for a brief sojourn. As soon as conditions improved they returned to Canaan, where they were to make their permanent home. They were part of a wave of migration that gravitated from the north and the east during the first half of the second millennium B. C. E. toward the grasslands of the more fertile South, with the object of conquest and occupation.
This desire to seek “fresh woods and pastures new” was undoubte
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