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Torah Sparks

December 6, 2003 - 5764

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Annual Cycle: Genesis 28:10-32:3 - Hertz, p. 106; Etz Hayim, p. 166
Triennial Cycle 3: Genesis 31:17-32:3 - Hertz, p. 114; Etz Hayim, p. 181
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13-14 - Hertz, p. 118; Etz Hayim, p. 188

Discussion Theme: Language and Jewish Survival

Then Laban spoke up and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children…. Yet what can I do now about my daughters or the children they have borne? Come, then, let us make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.” Thereupon, Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. And Jacob said to his kinsmen, “Gather stones.” So they took stones and made a mound; and they partook of a meal there by the mound. Laban named it Yegarsahadutha, but Jacob named it Gal-ed. Laban declared, “This mound is a witness between you and me this day.” That is why it was named Gal-ed. (Genesis 31:43-48)


  1. This is the first appearance of Aramaic in the Bible. (Nahum Sarna, Etz Hayim, on Genesis 31:47)
  2. “But Jacob called it Gal-Ed.” Although both men gave the place the same name, the Torah includes each to teach us that Jacob would not abandon the holy language even though he lived with Laban for a number of years. (Sforno on Genesis 31:47)
  3. Also at that time, I saw that Jews had married Ashdodite, Ammonite, and Moabite women; a good number of their children spoke the language of Ashdod and the language of those various peoples, and did not know how to speak Yehudit (Hebrew). (Nechemiah 13:24)
  4. For three things the Israelites merited redemption from Egypt, that they didn’t change their language… (Midrash Mechilta Bo #5)
  5. Just as speech constitutes the form of Man, so language is considered the form of nations; when it perishes, the nation has lost its form. (Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague)
  6. Just as the Torah was given in “leshon ha-kodesh” (the language of holiness), so the world was created with “leshon ha-kodesh.” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 18:4)
  7. One quickly senses, while listening outside, if someone is talking alone with a woman or a man, and it is called the Holy Tongue because it protects Jews from immorality. (Y. Eibeschutz, Yaarot Dvash 2)
  8. The language (Hebrew) created by God, which he taught Adam and placed on his tongue and in his heart, is without any doubt the most perfect and most fitted to express the things specified. (Yehudah Halevi, Kuzari 4:25)
  9. From here it was said that when children learn to speak, the parent should speak to the child in Hebrew and teach the child Torah. And if the parent does not speak in Hebrew and does not teach the child Torah, it is worthy for that parent to die, as it says, “You shall teach them to your children to recite them… to the end that you and your children may endure… (Deut. 11:19-21). From the obligation to teach and the incumbent reward, one learns the consequences of not doing so. (Sifrei, Ekev)
  10. It is told that five elders wrote the Torah in Greek for King Ptolemy, and that day was as hard for Israel as the day the golden calf was made, for the Torah could not be adequately translated. (Tractate Soferim 1:7)
  11. Hebrew language… is the vehicle of a sacred past, of eternal Jewish values. At the same time, it is a major expression of contemporary Jewish vitality… Many religious leaders vigorously combated efforts to de-Hebraize Jewish life, to develop a Judaism in translation, to use the languages of the lands of Jewish residence as the vehicles of Bible study and Communion with the Almighty. These leaders helped transform Hebrew into a religious-national value of Jewish life in exile. As such Hebrew became the ethnic-national ingredient ingrained in the consciousness of the Jewish people, a sustaining feature of a landless nation. For the disappearance of the Jewish community of Alexandria, a vibrant community of Jewish life several hundred thousand strong at the turn of the first century, was ever in their minds. The basis for Alexandrian Jewish culture was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible. The Jews of Alexandria became fully Hellenized as they studied the Bible and other Judaic sources in Greek translation. Philo, the leading Jewish philosopher of the first century CE in Alexandria, studied, wrote, and taught in Greek. It is doubtful whether he had a working knowledge of Hebrew. And what happened to this formidable Jewish community? Its decline began with the process of Hellenization and de-Hebraization. Several centuries later, after other unfortunate events, the Jewish remnants of Alexandria were absorbed into Islamic culture… The combination of Jewish religion, literature, and language has been the Jewish people’s portable property after the exile began with the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. And when the Holy Land would become once again the physical center of the Jewish people… the Hebrew language would be the bridge between the Land and the Diaspora… This means considering the use of Hebrew in the synagogue, educational settings, the home, business, the arts, culture, professions, and the street Hebrew’s multi-dimensionalism is its distinctiveness as a survival mechanism. Indeed, it demonstrates clearly that the survival of Hebrew as a Holy Tongue, the survival of the Jewish people in its homeland and in the Diaspora, and the continuity of Jewish nationalism are interdependent. (Dr. Alvin Schiff, the Journal of Jewish Communal Service Winter/Spring 1999)


The 16th century commentator, Sforno, argues that one of Jacob’s virtues was that he never ceased his hold on Hebrew. In many respects, Hebrew has been key to our survival as Jews. How so? Consider the fact that most Jews understand only a fraction of the Hebrew words in a prayerbook. Most non-Israeli children read Hebrew more fluently than they speak it. Unlike instruction in any other language, we consider Hebrew reading — even without comprehension -- to be a defining characteristic of our identity as Jews. Why?

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