Knowing Your Aleph-Beit

The Code of Jewish Law rules that one may recite the Shma in any language as long as one understands that language. The commentaries point out that Hebrew is an exception to this rule and that one may recite the Shma in Hebrew even if one does not understand the language.  The Chafetz Chaim explains that all other languages only have the status of a language if they are used and understood.  However, Hebrew as the Holy Tongue, has intrinsic meaning and is not the result of usage or consensus.  Since G-d created the world using the Hebrew language, we believe that Hebrew has a special holiness and status.   In addition, since Hebrew is the language of the Torah and its cultural association is with Judaism and only Judaism, it is therefore the ideal language in which to convey Torah thoughts.  David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, was not a religious man, yet he understood the value of Hebrew in a very profound way. Here is what he wrote in the Jewish Frontier Anthology in 1949:

“I am far from being unappreciative of the importance of diffusing in the Diaspora, not to speak of Israel itself, the knowledge of Hebrew, modern, spoken, so to say, practical Hebrew. I see this, first of all, a sort of “social cement,” a bridge or social medium of contact between Jews in Israel and Jews abroad, as well as between Israeli Jews themselves, speaking as they do such a multitude of languages brought over from their old homes. But may I be permitted to say that a Jew who can name all the plants in Israel in Hebrew, or call all the parts of a tractor or some other complicated machine by their correct designations (in new Hebrew coinage) possesses one qualification for useful service in the State of Israel. And who among us could fail to see in this not merely a technical or utilitarian but a cultural value as well? But if he does not know to their deepest sounding, and in their context of spiritual tensions, such Hebrew expressions as mitzvah, averah, Geulah, tikkun, tum’ah, taharah, yirah, ahavah, tzedakah, chesed, mesirut nefesh, kiddush ha-Shem, d’vekut, teshuvah, he cannot carry a part in that choir that gives voice, consciously or not, to what I have called “the Jewish melody.” Even so-called secular Jewish education in Israel and the Galut as well, if it is not to be drained of those powers that build a Jewish personality, must therefore be nourished from sources which are regarded, at least formally, as religious.”

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