Saturday, January 24, 2015

Book Review: Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, and Hebrew

If I tell you that there's a book that is blowing my mind at every page turn, it means that you need to stop what you're doing, don't even read the rest of this post, and go out and buy the book. It's called Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, and Hebrew, and I got the book as a review copy, but I would happily pay a few hundred bucks for this book. Why?

Okay, if you insist.

I'm only about 50 pages into this book about lashon hakodesh -- "holy language," also known as classic or biblical Hebrew or the language of prayer in Judaism -- but I've already uncovered a few fascinating things that have me poised for discovery. These will (hopefully) work themselves into much longer blog posts or articles over on's Judaism page, but for now, let me blow your mind.


Did you know that there is an understanding of Aramaic as a language of mourning? You probably never thought about it, but ask yourself this: What language did Adam, the first human, speak? The rabbis toil over the topic, with my favorite theory being that Adam spoken lashon hakodesh in the Garden of Eden. After all lashon hakodesh was the language of G-d, right? What better language for Adam to speak? But what did he speak once he was booted from Gan Eden? Aramaic, evidently.

Lashon hakodesh became affiliated with the Land of Israel, with any use of Aramaic earning its user a negative outcome. Jacob, for example, agreed to a pact with Laban over an area that Jacob referred to in Hebrew but that Laban referred to in Aramaic. As a result, the rabbis say, Jacob was exiled to Egypt. Even Rachel suffered after she referred to her son in the Aramaic as Ben Oni (Jacob used the Hebrew, Binyamin or Benjamin), which earned her a swift death once she entered Israel. Yikes. Harsh! But thought-provoking, no?

I can't wait to explore this more. I have to hand it to Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein for the intense and through footnotes and diversity of sources he has to offer on this topic (and others throughout the book, of course). My brain sparks are flying off in dozens of directions with every page turn.

Tower of Babel and Language Dispersion

The great thing about this book is that it provides unique perspectives on otherwise mundane aspects of language. Yes, the Tower of Babel is far from mundane, but how much have you really considered the language dispersion following the whole episode?

Think about it: The text says,
And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
There are so many theories and discussions about this by the rabbis, you'd be amazed. The ultimate discussion surrounds whether there was really one language prior to the Tower of Babel or if there was one shared language. You see, there is a classic understanding in Judaism that there were 70 nations, based on Noah's descendants. The rabbis go into a textual, cultural, and archaeological  discussion of whether there could be 70 languages at that point in time depending on where the descendants were. 

The two theories main approaches I like from Rabbi Klein's book: 
  • The people of the world spoke 70 languages prior to the Tower of Babel and when G-d confuses the language, he makes everyone forget 69 of the 70 languages they once knew. 
  • The people of the world spoke two languages prior to the Tower of Babel: one external (lashon hakodesh) and one internal. After Babel, the external language was lost and the people of the world only spoke their internal language and thus couldn't communicate. 
The killer discussion on whether there was one main language prior to the incident (lashon hakodesh) and other languages were created post-Babel involves an argument about whether G-d could even create new languages and whether that "creation" was actually creation or just evolving an already created aspect of life. The argument is based on King Solomon's "There is nothing new under the sun" statement in Kohelet 1:9. Genius! I can't wait to give this another go-round in my brain cage. 

Ah! I love it! This stuff takes me back to graduate school. Rabbi Klein has created a book that feels, to me, to be a perfect balance between the religious and the historical, the secular and the holy, in a completely accessible manner. 

I haven't been this excited about a book in a long time, folks. I've gotten a lot of books and a lot of them get read and passed over. Trust me: This one is completely and totally worth your time.

Also? The cover is pretty. So go buy it already