I read a disturbing article by Aviya Kushner this morning. She reports that between 2013-2016 enrollment on Biblical Hebrew courses suffered a 23.9% decline and modern Hebrew dropped by 17.6%: No One’s Studying Hebrew Anymore — That’s A Big Problem.
This worries Kushner because she sees that it furthers a disconnect between Israeli and American Jewish communities, and she points out that the Hebrew language is the gateway to the prayers, the Torah, and other foundational Jewish texts.
I struggle to understand why any Jewish person would pass up the opportunity to study Hebrew. To me, its like watching someone being offered a treasure box of riches and jewels and saying “No thanks. I’m good.” I’d question their sanity and their good sense. I am frankly envious of the students who have the opportunity to study Hebrew with good teachers and in fellowship.
I did not grow up in a Jewish Hebrew speaking household, and never had the opportunity to study Hebrew at school. The Hebrew I know has been picked up slowly over several years. I know how the language works in a similar way to how I appreciate a programming language; I see how the elements of the language fit together and I have a reasonably large vocabulary of biblical Hebrew. I can even spot and correct erroneous translations, but I don’t speak Hebrew and I spend a lot of my time working with an interlinear Bible in order to process the gematria of biblical texts. So when I see people turning down the opportunity to study modern and biblical Hebrew, it doesn’t just worry me – it actively pisses me off to see people throwing away the chance to appreciate the depth and breadth of their rich and beautiful cultural heritage. English is great if you’re studying Shakespeare, but the only way to get close to the honey of the Tanakh is to have it in your mouth.
In my new book I have detailed all the gematria of Genesis 1 & 2 and shown how every line corresponds to the paths and the palaces of the Merkabah. But if a biblical scribe made a play on words or introduced a pun, I readily admit that I wouldn’t be able to spot it for myself. Likewise, if a scribe makes any allusions to the sound of a letter or a word then it would go completely over my head. I’ll give myself a break for this, and you should, too. You cannot expect a self-taught goy to be equal in knowledge and learning to someone who attends a good Yeshiva. I make up for my deficiency with work arounds and I try and set a good example to other goyim who would take up the study of the calculating art, but I’m writing this because I want young Jews with the opportunity to learn Biblical Hebrew at school to realize how lucky they are to have the privilege. It took a massive commitment from your people in the 19th century to ensure that your language is alive today, and recent studies show it was Hebrew speakers that originally invented the alphabet. None of the American culture that you see around you would have been possible without Hebrew.
Without the invention of the alphabet by your people, we’d still be memorizing thousands of signs, and the sign for McDonald’s would look something like this:
So if you’re a young Jew about to attend college, don’t dismiss the box marked “Hebrew” on your course list. Be proud of who you are and your history, because your people and your written language made the Western world as it is today, possible.