Holy Tongue Part II

A horse of a different color

Hebrew is the language of Creation: The Mishnah in Avos tells us “Ba’asarah ma’amaros nivrah ha’olam — The world was created with 10 utterances.” Hashem created the universe using one set of tools: Hebrew words.

The Torah says Adam called his wife ishah (woman) because “she was taken from ish (man).” Rashi explains, based on the Midrash, that this derivation teaches us that “The world was created with Lashon Hakodesh — the Holy Tongue — Hebrew.”

Adam later “called his wife Chavah (Eve) because she was to be mother of all chai (life).” The name Adam itself comes from the Hebrew word adamah (earth), because G-d created Adam from the earth.

A Horse is a horse, of course. But is it, really? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says the etymology of horse is: “Common Germanic: Old English hors = Old Frisian hors, hars, hers (Frisian hoars), Old Saxon hros (Middle Low German ros, ors, Middle Dutch ors, Low German and Dutch ros), Old High German hros, ros, Middle High German ros, ors, German rosz, all neuter, Old Norse hross masculine; not recorded in Gothic. The affinities of the word outside Germanic are uncertain. …”

In other words, nobody knows for sure. So, “You pays your money and you takes your choice.” Or, as Mark Twain said, “It is difference of opinion that makes horse-races.”

On the other hoof, the Hebrew word sus is a horse of a different color. The Torah says that Hashem brought all the animals before Adam, “…and whatever the man would call each living creature — that was its name.”

Adam didn’t “give” the animals names. He prophetically connected with the spiritual essence of each animal and called it by its name. Thus, the Hebrew word sus isn’t a mere label. It definitively identifies the creature we call a horse.

More to the point, all other languages are nothing more than collections of arbitrary sounds that enough people got together and agreed on to refer to a specific object. In our case, that object is a mammal that has hooves, pulls loads, runs races and helped win the West. All things being equine, there is no intrinsic meaning to the juxtaposition of phonemes riding on horse.

Since Hebrew is the language of Creation, by corollary, it is the language of prophecy. As my brother said, “In prophecy, there is an absoluteness to diction and syntax. We scramble to catch the bobbing and weaving sparks of kedushah hidden elsewhere. Yet the phrase ‘V’romamtanu mikol ha’leshonos — He lifted us above all other tongues’ — means just that.”

And so, only Hebrew is “Lashon Hakodesh — the Holy Tongue.”

When I was in Lakewood (back in the days when “Lakewood” meant the yeshivah, not a town in southern New Jersey), I would sometimes spend lunchtime in the yeshivah library, reading Sefer HaCarmel — a dictionary/thesaurus based on the commentary of the Malbim.

The Malbim wrote in the introduction to his commentary on Yeshayahu that the Nevi’im (Prophets) never used two different words to mean the same thing. There are no “synonyms” in Hebrew. That is, there are no interchangeable words. Each word is precise and essential. In his commentary, he defines seeming synonyms explaining the fine differences in meaning. (If you ever have to give a speech at a sheva brachos, do yourself a favor and see how the Malbim defines the terms gilah, rinah, ditzah and chedvah. They are a joy to read.)

Yehuda Leib Gordon, the poet, and Pinhas Rutenberg (founder of the Israel Electric Corporation) were both irreverent enough to name electricity for a Malach in Yechezkel’s vision: “Chashmal.”

It is ironic that the fathers of Modern Hebrew couldn’t come up with a more creative word in Ivrit for Alexander Graham Bell’s “harmonic telegraph” than telefon.

Lamentably, Modern Hebrew continues to deteriorate. How sad that the glut of Western media led to Israelis giving up “Shalom” for “Bye.” But there is still hope. The OED says the etymology of “goodbye” is “A contraction of the phrase G-d be with you”!

For Part 1 Click here


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