Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein was kind enough to send me a copy of his most recent book, Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew. Rabbi Klein has done an admirable job of presenting the multi-faceted history of the Hebrew language within Jewish tradition and culture. This is not a critical history of the Hebrew language, for that I would recommend either Angel Sáenz-Badillos’s A History of the Hebrew Language (which is cited by Klein) or Joel Hoffman’s In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language. Klein’s book does contain a lot about the history of the Hebrew language, but I think that this book addresses other questions.
A look at the table of contents will give you some idea of the issues that are addressed by this book.
Chapter 1. The Language of Adam
Chapter 2. The Tower of Babel
Chapter 3. Abraham the Hebrew
Chapter 4. The Jews in Egypt
Chapter 5. Replacing Lashon Hakodesh
Chapter 6. The Language Wars
Chapter 7. Foreign Influences on Lashon Hakodesh
Chapter 8. Development of Aramaic
Appendix A: The Scripts of Lashon HaKodesh
Appendix B: Egyptian Names in the Bible
Appendix C: Prayers in Aramaic
Appendix D: Maharal on Aramaic and Lashon HaKodesh
The discussion of any of the topics in Klein’s book is comprehensive and filled with a copious amount of sources from traditional Jewish literature ranging from the Talmud and Midrash, traditional parshanut (interpretation), halakhic and responsa literature, and works of Jewish thought and philosophy. All throughout the book Klein also brings modern scholarship about Hebrew, referring to the research of such scholars as Gilad Zuckerman and Gary Rendsberg.
In addition to enjoying all of the information and sources that are found in Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew, I think that I can say that I had two important takeaways from this book.
The first is how important the Hebrew language has been for traditional Jewish scholars and rabbinic authorities. Whether it was thinking about which language was spoken in the Garden of Eden or what was the script (Ancient Hebrew or Aramaic) of the Ten Commandments that Moses received at Mount Sinai, it was an important question that had to be addressed. The second takeaway, and in my opinion the more important one, is how intertwined language and identity have been throughout Jewish history. Whether it was which languages Jews at any given moment were speaking, writing, or reading, or which languages they weren’t speaking, writing, or reading, be it because of ideology or history, these helped shape both who we have been and often who we would like to be.