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Let My People Know!

September 9, 2009 – 8:22 pm7 Comments

alephbetThe Hebrew Bible should be taught like a foreign language, argues Assoc. Prof. Ghil‘ad Zuckermann, endorsing Avraham Ahuvia’s recently-launched translation of the Old Testament into what Zuckermann calls high-register “Israeli”.

In 1996 President Ezer Weizman visited the University of Cambridge to familiarize himself with the famous collection of medieval Jewish manuscripts known as the Cairo Genizah. He was introduced to the Regius Professor of Hebrew, who had been nominated by the Queen of England herself. Hearing “Hebrew,” the friendly president clapped the don on the shoulder and asked má nishmà, the common Israeli “what’s up?” greeting, which is, in fact, a calque – loan translation – of the Yiddish phrase vos hért zikh, usually pronounced vsértsekh and literally meaning “what’s heard?”

To Weizman’s astonishment, the distinguished Hebrew professor didn’t have the faintest clue whatsoever about what the president “wanted from his life”. As an expert of the Old Testament, he wondered whether Weizman was alluding to Deuteronomy 6:4: “Shemá‘ Yisraél” (Hear, O Israel). Knowing neither Yiddish, Russian (Что слышно chto slyshno), Polish (co sÉychać), nor Romanian (ce se aude) – a fortiori Israeli – the Cantabrigian don had no chance whatsoever of guessing the actual meaning of this beautiful, economical expression.

Semiticist Edward Ullendorff has claimed that Isaiah could have easily understood Israeli. Compared with Ullendorff I am “ul-yamím” (very young) but I propose that his statement is false – unless of course he referred to Isaiah Leibowitz, yet another prophet. To begin with, Isaiah the Biblical would have found it extremely difficult to even decode the European pronunciation of Israeli speakers. But the more important – and much less hypothetical – question is: Do Israelis understand Isaiah?

In the last 10 years, I have sadly and most unfortunately acquired many enemies inter alia because I insisted that Israelis not only do not understand the Bible, but much worse: they misunderstand it without even realising it! By and large, Israeli speakers are the worst students in advanced studies of the Bible. Against this background, I was delighted to hear about the project launched by the impressively-experienced Bible teacher Avraham Ahuvia, as well as the insightful publisher Rafi Mozes, acronymized in the biblionym “Tanakh RAM.

Israeli, somewhat misleadingly a.k.a. “Modern Hebrew,” is a fascinating and multifaceted 120 year-old Semito-European hybrid language. It is mosaic rather than Mosaic tout court. Its grammar is based not only on “sleeping beauty” – or “walking dead” – Hebrew, but simultaneously also on Yiddish, the revivalists’ máme loshn (mother tongue), as well as on a plethora of other languages spoken by the founders of Israeli, e.g. Polish, Russian, German, Ladino and Arabic. Notwithstanding, Israel’s Education Ministry axiomatically assumes that Israeli is simply an organic evolution of Hebrew and that the Bible is thus written in the very same language – albeit in a higher register, of course – spoken by Israeli pupils at primary and secondary schools. Needless to say, the publishers of Hartom-Cassuto, and other volumes providing numerous glosses to the unfathomable Biblical verses, have benefited a lot from such purism prism, which might be somewhat related to self-righteousness, hubris or simply conservatism or blindness on behalf of Israel’s educational system.

The otherwise perspicacious intellectual Avi Ravitzky, whom I have great respect for, wrote in 2000 that “Modern Greek, for example, boasts many similarities to its ancestor, yet a speaker of the current language must struggle to read ancient texts. The modern Hebrew speaker, however, moves smoothly through the Bible”. Leaving aside the crucial difference between the evolution of Classical into Modern Greek and the qualitatively-unparallelable Israeli genesis (rather than evolution), the alleged smoothness is a mere myth. Israelis might understand the most general meaning of “bereshit- bara ’elohim ’et hashamayim we’et ha’arets” (Genesis 1:1: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth) but very few would be able to explain the construct-state nomen regens (nismákh) bereshít-: in the beginning of what? And how many Israelis could fathom this sentence from the perspective of the temporal sequence of creation: were the heaven and the earth created at the same time? Is it, therefore, possible that the expression ‘the heaven and the earth’ here refers to ‘the world’ in general? And which Israeli-speaker uses a Verb-Subject-Object constituent-order as in ‘created God the heaven and the earth’? Ask Israelis what “’avaním shaħaqú máyim” (Job 14:19) means and they will tell you that the stones eroded the water. On second thought, they might guess that semantically it would make more sense that the water eroded the stones. Yet such an Object-Verb-Subject constituent-order is ungrammatical in Israeli.

How many Israelis can really fathom “tohu wavohu” or “tIhom” (Genesis 1:2), the Israeli misleading senses being “mess” and “abyss” respectively? Or “haşvi yisra’el ‘al bamotekha ħalal” (II Samuel 1:19: The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places)? Most Israelis understand “yéled sha‘ashu‘ím” (Jeremiah 31:19, King James 20) as “playboy” rather than “pleasant child”. “Bá’u baním ‘ad mashbér” (Isaiah 37:3) is interpreted by Israelis as “children arrived at a crisis” rather than as “children arrived at the mouth of the womb, to be born”. “’Adam lI‘amal yullad” (Job 5:7) is taken to mean “man was born to do productive work” rather than “mischief” or “trouble” – this sentence stands as an accusation of the inherent wickedness of mankind.

Since I am writing this piece from Bris bane (haBesorim) – cf. “covenant between (the parts)” – let me provide an example from Genesis 15:9: Who knows what “‘egla meshulleshet” is?: a triangular heifer? three calves? a third heifer? a cow weighing three weight units? a three-legged heifer?… If you studied the RAM Bible, you would know because its translation into Israeli is as egla bat shalosh (“an heifer of three years old”, see also the King James Version, which is, obiter dictum, often more accessible to Israelis that the Hebrew Bible itself). And I have been rebuked being told so many times the red herring that if we correct Israelis’ alleged “grammatical mistakes”, they would be more likely to understand Classical Hebrew. Does an Israeli saying “asara shkalim” (10 shekels) have more chances to understand “‘egla meshulleshet” than if he stuck to the actually more commonly grammatical “eser shekel”? Just as the “Jerusalem artichoke” has to do with neither Jerusalem nor artichoke (even though some Jerusalem restaurants take pride in serving it), what Yossi Sarid – to mention but one linguistic right-winger – calls ‘mistaken Hebrew’ is neither mistaken nor Hebrew: it is grammatical Israeli!

Obviously, one could give thousands other examples, and from post-Biblical Hebrew too: for instance, how many Israelis can follow the meaning of the Passover Haggadah or the Hanukkah hymn Ma‘oz Tsur Yeshu‘ati? So is Hebrew menabeaħ ‘blaspheming’ indeed related, after all, to Israeli novéakh ‘barking’?

Most importantly, however, the available examples are far from being only lexical: Israelis are incapable of recognizing moods and aspects in the Bible. For example, “nappíla goralót wened‘á” (Jonah 1:7) was thought by some Israelis I have examined to be rhetorical future rather than cohortative, the latter apparent, for example, in Israeli “yeushar hataktsiv!” (may the budget be approved!).

Despite 11 years of Biblical training, Israeli-speakers still understand the perfect aspect (e.g. ’amar “said” as in “I will have said…”) as if it were past tense. The imperfect aspect (e.g. yomar “would/will say” as in “I thought I would say…”) is misunderstood to be the future tense. In reality, a Biblical verb in the perfect aspect – which Israelis take to be past tense – can refer to a completed action in the future – cf., mutatis mutandis, the Israeli colloquial question “záznu?” (literally, “have we gone/moved?”), utterable instead of “yala bay”, i.e. “let’s go”. I remember my tironut (IDF recruit training) commander ordering us in a sadaút session (“fieldcraft”, etymologically unrelated to sadism): “od khamésh dakót hayítem kan!” (Within five minutes you will have been here), hayítem being in Israeli grammatically past but actually referring in this specific colloquial case to an action in the future. In the Bible, heyitém refers regularly – not only colloquially – to an action that has been completed, regardless of whether or not it is in the past or future – hence the term “aspect” rather than “tense”. Such Biblical mindset is in harsh contradistinction to the Weltanschauung of the Homo sapiens sapiens israelicus vulgaris and to the way Israelis read the Bible.

Negating the Diaspora, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda would have been most content had Israelis spoken Biblical Hebrew. Had the Hebrew revival been fully successful, we would indeed have spoken a language closer to ancient Hebrew than Modern English is to Chaucer because we would have bypassed more than 1,750 years of natural development. On the other hand, let us assume for a moment that Hebrew had never died as a spoken language by the second century CE and it continued to be the mother tongue of generations of Jews. They eventually returned to the Only Land, continuing to speak Hebrew. It might well be the case that that Hebrew would have differed more from Biblical Hebrew than does Israeli, but this fact says nothing about the genetics of actual Israeli.

Given such a magnificent hybridic yíkhes (heritage), as well as the omnipresent misunderstandings of the Hebrew Bible by lovely Israelis, Ahuvia’s translation should be cherished and embraced – rather than chastised – by the establishment. Israel’s Education Ministry should revise the way it teaches the Bible and treat it as foreign language classes – just like Latin, employing the most advanced alternative teaching methods of second language teaching, which can be most joyful and memorable. Such a measure has the potential of reducing Israeli pupils’ disdain for Bible lessons, as well as of attracting more secular Jews to Biblical scholarship. In fact, established and accomplished Biblical scholars would benefit from such a move immensely.

Tanakh RAM fulfills the mission of “red ’el ha‘am” not only in its Hebrew meaning (Go down to the people) but also – more importantly – in its Yiddish meaning (“red” meaning “speak!”, as opposed to its colourful communist sense). Ahuvia’s translation is most useful and dignified. Given its high register, however, I predict that the future promises consequent translations into more colloquial forms of Israeli, a beautifully multi-layered and intricately multi-sourced language, of which to be proud.

Ghil‘ad Zuckermann, D.Phil. (Oxford), Ph.D. (titular) (Cambridge), M.A. (summa cum laude) (Tel Aviv), is Associate Professor and Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Fellow in Linguistics at The University of Queensland. His most recent iconoclastic book Israelit Safa Yafa “Israeli – A Beautiful Language. Hebrew as Myth” was published by Am Oved (Tel Aviv) and became a controversial bestseller. His website is www.zuckermann.org . The first Australian Workshop on Afro-Asiatic Linguistics (AWAAL), an international conference that he is organizing, will take place in Brisbane on 11-13 September 2009, concurrently with the Brisbane Writers Festival (9-13 September) and  QBE Riverfire (12 September).

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  • ariel says:

    I heard a story about 10 years ago from an Australian rabbi who lives and teaches in Jerusalem…
    This rabbi was born in Australia to Polish-Jewish parents. They sent their son to a Jewish dayschool where he learnt Ivrit (or Israelit) along with Tanach and the array of Jewish subjects.
    Over time, the father of the house taught himself Hebrew from the Tanach so that he would be able to converse whenever he would meet an Israeli.
    One day, this family invited the Israeli principal of the dayschool for dinner with his wife and child and the host decided to practice his Hebrew with his new Israeli friends.
    After hearing the adults speaking for a few minutes, the Israeli child asked his father, “Abba, hu navvi? (“Dad, is he a prophet?”).

    I acknowledge that this is a convoluted story…

  • cyberjew says:

    Hello there.

    Is the translation a good one? Do they tend to preserve Israeli understandings of the text (e.g. “vahamushim ‘alu bené yisrael me-eretz mitzrayim” with “hamushim” as “armed”), or are there notes that point to ambiguity of meaning and such things?

    I can’t help but feel that such a project will render the often narrow scope of spoken Israeli Hebrew (please let my use of “Hebrew” slide, I have understood your point and decided quite consciously to call it Hebrew) yet narrower. The fact that Shakespeare’s or even Dickens’ English does not accurately reflect contemporary spoken varieties of the language does not mean that there isn’t a value in reading the “English classics.” On the contrary: One who isn’t exposed to that literature can not understand today’s literature and film in its fullest depth. Whether or not you wish to call “Israeli” a distinct language, that language continues to draw on the Tanakh, rabbinic and even kabbalistic literature (yes, it is most often idirectly so: via contemporary literature via earlier authors via the maskilim via via via – but still).

    As it is, most secular Israelis find it very difficult to read Shay Agnon, let alone anything earlier. Exposure to the language of Tanakh is pretty much the only broadening influence on the language of young Israelis today (I’m not talking about the richness of a spoken language, I’m talking about access to a cultural heritage). I can’t help but imagine that this project, if it is successful and becomes popular, will only serve to further sever Israelis from the heritage of their grandparents and reduce the depth of cultural literacy.

    I have always been fascinated by the fact that Turks today can not access the literature and culture of the Ottoman Empire. Their cultural consciousness usually begins in the 1920’s, but even the speeches of Atatürk have had to be updated into the ever-purged Turkish language multiple times in order to render them intelligible. I fear that, far from reflecting a less rejectionist stance towards diaspora Jewish culture, this project will only result in a more final break from the Jewish literary heritage. (Which might be fine if it came along with sense of Israeli identity that is not conflated with Jewish identity – at least something might be gained with the loss. As it is, I doubt that’s about to happen.)

  • ariel,

    I have a similar story that I can tell first-hand of a close friend who was well read in Jewish studies, and wanted to make conversation with a new immigrant from Israel in our class, so he asked him: “kamah y’mai shnei chayecha?” (Genesis, somewhere) rather than the contemporary “ben kama atta?


    Great point. Biblical Hebrew is no more to modern Ivrit as Shakespearean English is to modern English.

    Although in both cases, it is reasonable to translate (and use the simple pshat) into a more accessible language. I’ve seen this in siddurim as well, that translate some phrases into more contemporary Hebrew.

    Isn’t this actually about Israelis wanting to have greater “ownership” of their identity and have a clear break from our fantastic heritage?

  • I’ve sat in Tanakh classes before with lazy Israelis (that has a pleasing alliteration, but I do mean it), whose ability to read the Hebrew has been markedly sloppier than the non-Jews who likewise participated. As a teacher of mine once observed, the greatest obstacle to understanding the Bible is thinking that you already do.

    I know for a fact that there are countless Israelis who understand the Bible far better than I do, but am inclined to agree with Ghil’ad that this is because they have learnt to understand the Bible, and not because their language shares the degree of affinity with Biblical Hebrew that they might suppose. I therefore disagree with David, who suggests that the difference between the two is akin to the difference between Modern English and that which was written by Shakespeare.

    But, I heartily disagree with Ghil’ad in his supposition that it is another language entirely, as the differentiating elements to which he adroitly calls attention can be found in numerous languages when treated diachronically (= over time). What is more, to suggest that Modern Hebrew should be called by another name, simply because it no longer possesses the same grammatical, syntactic or even semantic structure of its primary ancestor, would be similar to arguing in favour of renaming the state on the grounds that it no longer occupies the same borders.

  • You make some very good points in your article, showing many passages where Israelis would misinterpret the Hebrew Bible due to some phrases not quite meaning the same today. It is very similar to how many native English speakers find the KJV translation of the Bible difficult to understand and could misunderstand some passages. However, I still believe that Israelis, native speakers of Hebrew, and despite misunderstanding the specific passages you mention, are at a huge advantage over foreigners learning the Hebrew Bible. It takes years for foreigners to learn and understand the Hebrew of the Tanakh well enough to understand it at an intuitive level better than Israelis. Actually speaking the language makes a huge difference.

  • ariel says:

    Simon makes a good point. Most Ivrit teachers I know tell me that the kids at dayschools who struggle the most with reading/comprehension skills are the Israelis. They have no idea what the nekudot mean grammatically, let alone how to prounounce them! In this way “the greatest obstacle to understanding the Bible is thinking that you already do” rings true.

    So Hebrew Scholar’s claim that Israelis are at an advantage when it comes to learning Tanach might be true theoretically, but not in actuality. For if they are not even literate in their own modern version of the language, how can they begin to understand Tanach?

    It all boils down to the dumbing down of education all over the Western world. Israelis can’t speak their own language much like Australian high schoolers today can’t string an English sentence together. Mind you, they’re very good at SMS grammar…

  • Almoni says:

    I notice in the intro at the top of the article, that you use the term ‘Old Testament’. It’s preferable these days, to refer to the Hebrew Bible, or else it appears to subscribe to the view that the Hebrew Bible was theologically superceded…just a tiny point.

    There are many funny stories of Biblical or Mishnaic Hebrew being used by speakers who learned Hebrew in Europe, startling speakers of Ivrit.

    Amoz Oz tells of his childhood in his wonderful A Tale of Love and Darkness, when Begin said, at a political meeting, in formal Hebrew ‘arm yourself’ (tizdayyen or the plural). Oz was the only child atthis revisionist meeting and burst out laughing to his parents’ eternal shame. To sabras it meant, ‘go fuck yourself’. Of course, because Begin and his audience were such prigs they only spoke finer Hebrew and swore in Yiddish or Russian. Perhaps someone has a Hebrew copy of the book to cite the passage.

    My grandfather spoke the same sort of Hebrew, though I did not know enough Ivrit at the time. He got a lot of smiles from Israelis, however,

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