Hebrew has a structure of correspondences between words by their root (shoresh) that provides layers of subtlety and multiple meanings. Comparison of passages that use words similarly or in special ways gives scholars opportunity for a range of interpretations. In kabbalistic thought, the letters themselves have meanings, and gematria (numerology) provides another relatedness between words and phrases from different parts of the Bible. For these reasons, Biblical Hebrew has been described as lashon hakodesh, a ‘holy tongue’, believed by many to have spiritual or even supernatural properties. Yet it is also a human invention; even the Rabbis permitted much translation of Biblical text, suggesting that the Hebrew was not sacrosanct. After all, that would be idolatry. I love what beauty and wisdom the Hebrew holds, and I love that we can wrestle with finding holy expression in – and translation into – English, which is itself a multi-layered language.
Is there a holy tongue?
blessed is the Name.
The words have power,
whatever the language.2 3
© Alexander Massey, 26 Mar 2011
- A glance at the footnotes for my midrash on these words from second line of the Shema show how beautiful, deep and rich the Hebrew is. At the same time, I believe it is important for us to find a way to express the ideas and kavannah of the Shema in our own language, whatever that is.
- As for how the Rabbis felt about translating the Shema, there is a whole section of the Mishnah*, a core halachic* text, devoted to the Shema. Berakhot 2:3 states that, in order to fulfill the obligation of reciting the Shema, it can be recited in any language the worshipper understands. The consistent implication appears to be that the Rabbis wanted it to be in the whatever the local language might be, the word shema (‘hear’) implying that those who recite it need to understand what they are saying (Berachot 13a; Sotah 32b). In other words, there are instances either where translation to the worshipper’s language is clearly permitted, or, in order to ward off failure to pray with kavanah* (proper attention and intention), where it is insisted upon. These two themes can be found in later times as well. Judah The Pious (c. 1150-1217) wrote: “Prayer takes place only when the mind understands, and if the mind does not know what proceeds from the lips, what good is that to the worshipper? Therefore it is better that [those who don’t know Hebrew] should pray in a language they understand (Sefer Chasidim, #588).” And Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad* wrote that it is better to pray in the vernacular than to pray in the Holy Tongue (lashon hakodesh) of Hebrew with no kavanah, “because prayer without kavanah is no prayer at all” (Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Part 1, 101:5).
- Translating or interpreting the Bible is fraught with controversy.“[T]he text of Scripture as handed down to us consists of gems of God and diamonds quarried out of prophetic souls, all set in a human frame. Yet who shall presume to be an expert in discerning what is divine and what is but ‘a little lower’ than divine? What is the spirit of God and what the phrase of Amos? The spirit of God is set in the language of man, and who shall judge what is content and what is frame?” (Heschel, Abraham Joshua (1955) God in search of man: a philosophy of Judaism, p.259)