Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The Magic of Hebrew

The Hebrew language... is the only glue which holds together our scattered bones. It also holds together the rings in the chain of time.... It binds us to those who built pyramids, to those who shed their blood on the ramparts of Jerusalem, and to those who, at the burning stakes, cried Shema Yisrael!”

I love languages. I speak six and teach three.  These factors, I believe, have provided me with a rather fair and objective way to study and evaluate the wisdom of languages. Furthermore, it has given me a tool to better understand and more greatly appreciate my own as the wise words of Johann Wolfgang van Goethe lucidly articulated it: “He who knows no foreign language does not know his own.”

Of course, everyone should love their own language first. I do. I love Hebrew, the few millennia old language of the Jewish People. I love it not merely because it is my language and the language of my People that connects our Jewish past, present and future as Y.L. Peretz suggested in the quote above. I love it because, I found that of all the languages that I know and teach, Hebrew is, by far, one of the most cogent and sensible.

And before anyone accuses me of being “an elitist” or being “biased,” please allow me to explain.

Hebrew, one of the most ancient languages in the history of mankind, is based on the root structure. What this means is that every word consists of basic three letters (sometimes four). These three letters are called Shoresh (root).

Just like the root of a tree that spawns a stem and branches, so does the root of a Hebrew word produce and create words (I understand that Latin is another language, albeit classical, that utilizes root etymology). Similarly, just as a root of a tree forms branches that are linked to it and resemble each other, so does the root of  Hebrew words help form words that, in most cases, share a similar meaning and are hence related.

Let me expound on this unique attribute of Hebrew with a few examples.

Zachor  זכור, which means remember, is a word almost every Jewish person is familiar with. Remember is not only a word, it is a central tenet in our Jewish culture, one that is an integral part of the DNA of the Jewish People, past and present
The three-letter root of  the word זכור is:   ז כ ר

A brief look at the list below will reveal that these three letters appear in all of them. Hence it is their root. Ensuing the logic that I tried to render above will help us see how these words are related.

זכרון,  zikaron: memory
 מזכרת, mazkeret: souvenir
 זכר zachar: remember
 זכר zecher: remnant
זכר  zacahar: male
מזכירה mazkira: secretary

To any non-Hebrew speaker, in this case, English speakers, some of these words would seem unrelated. And this is where the magic of Hebrew comes into play. Ensuing the logic that I tried to render above will help us see how these words are related. The simple fact that they all share the same Shoresh implies that they are related in their meaning, as I suggested above.

We can all agree that the English words: memory, remember, souvenir (which is supposed to remind us of places and people) remnant (which refers to that leftover that is supposed to remind us of something or someone) are related.

However, what do “male” and “secretary” have to do with memory, or remember, you may ask.

Let us start with the easy part. A secretary shares the same root of זכר  because he/she are expected to remember and remind their bosses of their schedule and other important issues.

There are, though, two possible explanations as to why the word “male” shares the same shoresh with “memory.” The first is found in the Reuveni essay which compiles a collection of Midrashim (the sages’ interpretation of Jewish Holy Scriptures). There, we are told that G-d names man “male” so that he can remember His Creator and his Commandments, for that is what man was created for.

The second explanation can be discerned through comparing semitic cultures.
In those cultures, the male was the provider, the one who inherited the family assets, whose name was passed on to posterity. That is how he was going to be remembered
No wonder then that Hebrew is also called לשון הקודש” (Leshon Hakodesh, the Holy language). קודש (Kodesh) is derived from the shoresh  ק ד ש which means to dedicate, to sanctify. It is the language of Am Yisrael and the Jewish People, עם קדוש (Am Kadosh, Holy nation) the ones who G-d sanctified and dedicated to Himself.

Am Yisrael Chai

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