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Another Look at "The Life of 'Dead' Hebrew": Intentional Ignorance of Hebrew in Nineteenth-Century Eastern European Jewish Society
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Book History 7 (2004) 171-214



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Another Look at "The Life of 'Dead' Hebrew"

Intentional Ignorance of Hebrew in Nineteenth-Century Eastern European Jewish Society

The study of language had always stood at the forefront of every Jewish movement of revitalization and cultural renewal. It served as bridesmaid as each new spiritual period began, accompanying it along up to its full ascendancy.
—Reuven Fahn (1937), 31

The Hebrew Language—A "Lost Tongue"

One hundred and fifty years of arduous attempts to revive Hebrew as a modern literary language preceded its revival as a spoken language. Yet, from its incipience to the end of the nineteenth century, modern Hebrew literature could barely gain itself a narrow circle of devoted readers. One of the more acute expressions of the distress of Hebrew authors in the last third of the century was voiced by Yehudah Leib Gordon (1830-92), the greatest of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) poets.1 In 1871 Gordon published the poem "For Whom Do I Labor?" out of a sense that, lacking an audience, he was perhaps the last of the Hebrew poets: [End Page 171]

For Whom Do I Labor?

Whilst poesy's muse upon me comes stealing
Whilst heart conceives and with right hand composing
Poems composing and in a language forgotten
Where triumph, what bliss, may ever prevail
And for whom do I spend my best years in travail
Depriving my person of quiet and gain?
My parents—adhering to their Lord and nation
Commerce, Commandments, their life's occupation
Reason revolts them, good taste never found
"Deathly is poetry, and rhetoricheathen!
"To lodge near a poet is strictly forbidden!"
Thus do they taunt us, viciously hound.2

Gordon avers that his best years have been devoted to composing poetry in a "language forgotten"—a language in demand by no one. His lament is that the traditional Jewish society of his day treats writing poetry in Hebrew as an act of apostasy and attacks and isolates those engaged in it.

This lament may strike the modern reader as odd. Scholarship on the origins of Hebrew, like research on the traditional Jewish educational system, rejects as superficial the characterization of Hebrew as a "dead language." Yet if Hebrew was not dead, why were there no readers for modern Hebrew texts? The conventional view can accommodate this difficulty: traditional education indeed prepared potential readers in the Hebrew language, but the community also imposed strict social sanctions on those who read the new Hebrew literature.3

Indeed, many researchers dwell on the preservation mechanisms that sustained the Hebrew language over the generations and kept it in continual use.4 Benjamin Harshav's "Essay on the Revival of the Hebrew Language" is a case in point.Harshav expounds on "the life of 'dead' Hebrew" and claims that explication of Hebrew texts, a central activity in religious life, served to sustain "awareness of the meanings of words and of the parallels between various texts in the Hebrew library."5 In his opinion, such "Education emphasized the understanding of texts" (his emphasis), both in the heder and in the yeshivah. Language comprehension was reinforced by the methods of study employed within the education system, which included reading and translating the Torah in the heder, quoting texts and interpreting them as part of Talmudic studies, and the dialogic method of study employed in the yeshivahs. Hebrew, furthermore, was the language used in religious literature, in responsa, in rabbinic decisions, and in community documents. All these, along with the Hebrew component of Yiddish, show, [End Page 172] in Harshav's opinion, that "unlike Latin, which the common folk did not know and whose primary students were monks, all Jews were required to study texts in the Holy Tongue. ... Even if in the lower classes of society the level of study was not advanced, in fact every male knew—or was supposed to know—how to read. Hebrew texts served also for daily prayer, blessings and so forth. Hebrew was understood well...