Apr 13, 2011

Hebrew Language and the Passover Connection

Passover is mere steps from our doorsteps, and its expecting no crumbs of bread or other wheat-filled goodies to greet it. Are you ready?

I've been busy doing research for looming papers (following in the steps of Pesach, of course), and the most interesting at this point is a paper on the Impact of Hebrew Language Education on Jewish Identity. I've got more sources than I know what to do with, but few actually appear to have talked to students or individuals on what kind of impact such education has or hasn't had on how they identify. One of the interesting things that I read in one of the many books I've got sitting around is about Passover and the role of language in the redemption of the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptians.

According to Rav Huna, in the name of Bar Kapara, in the Midrash on Shemot (Exodus), four things kept the Jews together and thus merited their redemption from Egypt, and one of those was that they didn't change their language. Hebrew held a utilitarian function: it helped (and helps) to maintain Jewish identity and identification.

For me, at this time of Passover, this bit of knowledge speaks volumes to me. It makes me wonder, as is my tendency, why we don't do more to encourage the learning and fluency of Hebrew in the Diaspora. If, at one time, the Israelites were united through a common tongue, why do we pay so little importance to it outside of Israel?

According to David Schers, "There are ways of belonging to a people without knowing it's main-historical-cultural-language(s), but in such circumstances, the implementation and maintenance of cultural, and social, dimensions face more difficulties." The great Chaim (Hayyim) Nahman Bialik once referred to language as a "repository of a culture's most cherished attitudes and values."

Ultimately, language is symbolic communication. It is symbolic of values and culture. It saved us once -- can it save us again?

An unrelated random thought:

The numerical value of chometz (חמץ) is 138. This is the same as the numerical value for pegimah (פגימה), the word for blemish. Whoever eats chometz on Pesach thus blemishes his neshama. ~ Rabbi Yaakov Culi

Some random Passover blog posts:

Last year, I wrote Passover haikus, highlighted some stomach-ache-filled cooking, and wrote Pesach Cometh, Have You Shaken Your Books?

In 2009, I did a poll about favorite matzah toppings, and I did two parts of a Passover roundup on my experiences in Florida with Tuvia's family. I also lamented the fact that I think we should all throw our chametz away or donate it to charity, not sell it (I don't get the selling bit ... ). As it turns out, I blogged A LOT in 2009 about Passover. There's like 10-12 posts on Pesach there, in case you want to peruse the Q&A and commentary (by moi).

And then, of course, there is the bizarre Chabad-inspired Pesach dream I had in 2008. Not to mention the interesting encounter I had during Passover 2008 in Chicago that I deemed the "Passover Paradox." My most favorite Passover memory, of course, is my first true Passover Seder in Chicago that really drew me further than ever into my desire to be Orthodox, as well as my failure at Shabbos and abiding by the Passover rules (sort of).

In 2007, I wrote about the miserable experience I had at a gigantic seder in Chicago. Talk about bad news bears.

Overall I'm blown away by how many blog posts I have on Passover. It seems 2008 and 2009 were big years for me as I learned how to observe and cook for Passover on my own. Since then, the chagim seem to come and go without notice or fanfare. Maybe I should do another poll this year -- the question is, what to ask?


Leah said...

I believe the language they didn't change was Lashon Hakodesh which differs from modern hebrew.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Leah Of course that's the language they didn't change -- there was only one Hebrew language then. Grammar and much of Hebrew as we know it is based on Biblical Hebrew. How much? We don't know. We don't know the dialectical specificities of spoken Hebrew circa many thousands of years ago.

Elle said...

Well, are you suggesting we try to hope for repeating Lashon Hakodesh? or that we more popularize the common speaking of modern hebrew? Because from what I can tell Hebrew is definitely on the upswing. I think it's going to take some time to get it back as a main language, but so many are pushing for it.

MokumAlef said...

Chaviva, I totally agree with your stressing the need to have Hebrew (even if it's lowly - aherm - Modern Ivrit) be a stronger factor in education and hence, identity formation/retention!!!! It doesn't matter that it's the current phase of the language. Mishnaic Hebrew wasn't Biblical either, nor was Medieval Hebrew. And don't forget the ancient Hebrew texts that didn't make it into Tenakh - such as the 8th-6th century BCE ostraca (letters and notes written on pot shards) and various inscriptions. The fact that we have a 'Modern' version just goes to show the vitality of the language. May there be a Future Hebrew as well!!! But that's only if we keep it alive today and further develop it.

S. said...

>For me, at this time of Passover, this bit of knowledge speaks volumes to me. It makes me wonder, as is my tendency, why we don't do more to encourage the learning and fluency of Hebrew in the Diaspora. If, at one time, the Israelites were united through a common tongue, why do we pay so little importance to it outside of Israel?

Americans don't value bilingualism, which is easy when half the world can or wants to be able to understand your language - including Israelis.

Ignore the propaganda about lashon ha-kodesh. That's a rabbinic term for biblical Hebrew. In Tanach itself the language is called "the language of Canaan" and "Judean," and Targum Jonathan calls it "the language of the Bet Hamikdash."

Anyway, the real issue isn't the spoken language. Almost half the Jews can speak modern Hebrew, probably close to half or more can speak English, and many hundreds of thousands can speak Yiddish, so there are common languages for Jews. The real issue today is the ability or inability to understand our own texts.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@S I totally disagree with you here. Jewish Day Schools emphasize the Hebrew of the texts, not the Modern language. I know plenty of people my age who can read the texts until they're blue in the face, understand them, but can't speak Modern Hebrew with me.

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