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Shabbat Parashat Emor 5779

Parashat Hashavua: Jew Speak Hebrew!

Harav Yosef Carmel

We will continue to explain the great obligation to thank Hashem for the miracles we have seen, as Hashem and Am Yisrael have returned to Zion and we have merited the establishment of State of Israel, the beginning of the growth of our liberation.

The “Torah World” and Torah study in general has flourished throughout large sections of the nation since the establishment of the State, and especially in more recent years. This phenomenon is closely linked to another one – the renewal of the Hebrew language as a living, spoken language. It has really been a “resurrection of the dead.”

The mishna in Avot (2:1) instructs us to be careful with a “light mitzva” like with a severe one. The Rambam gives, as one of the examples of a light mitzva, speaking the “holy language.” So he counts speaking Hebrew as a light mitzva (I don’t know if all olim agree that it is light and easy). There are many indications that already in the middle of the Second Temple period, many Jews, even in Eretz Yisrael, started speaking foreign languages instead of Hebrew. Once the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael was destroyed and the great majority of Jews were dispersed throughout the Diaspora, Hebrew stopped being used as a spoken language. True, many Jews davened and learned in Hebrew, but few people understood what the Rabbinic texts that were written in Hebrew meant. A small group of talmidei chachamim continued to produce written works in Hebrew (although even some Torah works were written in foreign languages – most of the Rambam’s sefarim were written in Arabic). In any case, those who learned the Hebrew sefarim had to first translate them in their minds to their spoken language.

When the words of Torah were learned through translation, much of the meaning and nuance of the works were lost. It became impossible for many to connect one source to another based on the words used, which is most impactful in the study of Tanach. We will illustrate with the help of the first pasuk of our parasha. The words “emor,” “kohanim,” “l’nefesh,” “yitama,” and “b’amav” can all be understood in different ways. Kohanim is a great example. At first glance, a kohen is always a descendant of Aharon through the male side. However, we find in Tanach: “the sons of David were kohanim” (Shmuel II, 8:18) even though they obviously were not descendants of Aharon and did not receive portions given to kohanim. Rather, it means that they served in David’s government, as is clear from context and from Divrei Hayamim (I, 27:32-34).

This generation’s high level of Torah scholarship is aided by the fact that Hebrew is now a spoken language, so that people understand the sources directly. (Learners should be careful not to assume that every use of a word in a classical source is the same as people use it in our times). So this cultural miracle can be seen as part of the fulfillment of the dry bones being brought to life (Yechezkel 37).

In conclusion, we point out that the great amount of translations that exist for classical sources, on the one hand, lets non-Hebrew-speakers “off-the-hook” from learning Hebrew, but on the other hand opens up much Torah to easier access. Let us pray that we will merit seeing to an even fuller degree: “For from Zion Torah will come forth, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem” (Yeshayahu 2:3).

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