By Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
As a nation we know that Hebrew is intrinsically different from all the other languages in the world. There is the religious aspect in that we believe that Hebrew is the language the world was created with and the first people on the planet spoke. Its words are imbued with deeper mystical meanings that help shape the fabric of reality itself. It is the language of the Torah, God's blueprint for Creation.
Then there is the practical aspect. Hebrew is the only language from Biblical times that still exists in any mass form today. Yes, there are small groups of Assyrians, Babylonians and Arameans out there in Syria and Iraq speaking a version of their biblical tongues and some have even preserved the ancient script but Hebrew is the language of an entire country as well as the liturgical language of millions of Jews worldwide. Unlike Assyrian and the other ancient tongues it has a seat at the table of nations today, something no other ancient language can claim.
Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein, in his new book on the development of the Hebrew language, finds himself having to maintain a delicate balance. The purpose of the book is to take a serious look at the origins, development and current state of Hebrew as well as its influence on other languages through the ages. The balance comes between presenting the opinion of Torah sources on the subject and those of academics. This is not an easy task. Dismiss the academics and he risks getting his book labelled as yet another Artscroll piece of fluff that presents a subject devoid of historical fact that will only appeal to Orthodox readers uninterested in a meaningful look at the subject. Dismiss the Torah literature and the book becomes yet another perceived attack on Judaism and an attempt to analyze Hebrew as just another language which will cause him to lose out on the Torah observant audience.
Fortunately for both groups Rabbi Klein manages to maintain that delicate balance through most of the book. He covers such subjects as what language the world was created with, what language the first inhabitants of Earth might have spoken and where other languages might have come from if everything started out in Hebrew in the early chapters. It is here that he best maintains the balance between the religious and academic approaches, showing how both support a common thesis when it comes to the origins and early development of Hebrew. From there he treats such subjects as the variety of languages that Jews spoke that had Lashon HaKodesh, his term for classical or "true" Hebrew" mixed into it. Almost all people have heard of Yiddish, many of Ladino but his listing of various other languages that Hebrew has influenced or been a part of over the millenia is truly fascinating. My critique of that section of the book is that I would have liked to see examples of vocabulary from those other mysterious half-Jewish tongues. Given the modernity of the book he also mentions Yeshivish as a semi-Hebrew language but I would argue that it does not belong on the list as it is not a language meant for use by the general Jewish community of a region (eg. America) but rather a private language reserved for a small segment of that community, unlike Yiddish, Ladino and the others.
The history section in which the origins of the word "Hebrew" and how it came to be a label for Lashon HaKodesh is well documented and provides a nice summary that the reader can digest easily. There is also the part in which modern Hebrew and its development is examined. Unlike other languages, Rav Klein notes that Lashon Hakodesh, or the original Hebrew bequeathed onto humanity by God, is not a language like others. William Shakespeare spoke English but anyone who has ever read his plays knows that the English he spoke is nearly incomprehensible at times. However, it is still labelled as English because there is no patent on the label. This is not the case with Lashon Hakodesh. Rav Klein points out that just because Modern Hebrew uses the ksav Ashuri and many words and grammar rules in common with the language of the Bible that does not make it the same Hebrew and certainly it cannot be called Lashon Hakodesh. He also documents the politics around the development of Modern Hebrew, reminding us that there was and is still a significant part of the Orthodox world that would rather we all spoke Yiddish except when davening because they see Modern Herbew as a bastardization of pure Hebrew.
At the end of the book Rav Klein presents five appendices and I wonder why they aren't labelled as chapters, especially the first three which are as long as his chapters and set out in virtually the same format. In these appendices he deals with such issues as foreign words in the Bible along with whether or not foreign-sounding names were, in the Jewish literature are actually Hebrew names. Once again he balances different views instead of dogmatically presenting just one in order to be "Torah true". However it is towards this end of the book that the academic approach starts to become a little anemic and I would have liked to see more opinions from outside the Torah world if only to give a better appreciation of the Torah ones.
My main criticism is in the final section which is full of erratum and fill-in's that should have made it into the main text. Obviously this is not the author's fault and I would think that if this book goes to second edition he will have been given a chance to edit those areas into the main text. The add-in's would serve to improve an already good text even further.
Overall I recommend this as a good read and one that will deepen the reader's appreciation of what Lashon Hakodesh truly is.