Language, particularly the Hebrew language, is of paramount significance in Judaism. We recite all our blessings, and do all our praying and studying Torah, in it. The Ten Commandments contain a prohibition to say the name of G-d in vain, and reciting a blessing in vain is considered a grave sin. Even holy amulets are proof of the great importance of language, because what is an amulet if not a combination of letters that creates a new reality?
From all these, it is clear that Hebrew is not a language like all other languages. First and foremost, it has a special power because the world was created with it. We asked Rabbi Zamir Cohen, whose book “The Code” plumbs the secrets of the Hebrew letters: How did Hebrew come to have this power, and why does Judaism assume that Hebrew came before all other languages?
“The Torah teaches that all mankind spoke one language until the infamous sin that occurred with the Tower of Babel,” says Rabbi Cohen. “People took advantage of the lingual harmony between them to foment a rebellion, and so God intervened, and mixed up the one language that they all spoke.”
But how do we know that it was the Hebrew language?
“Apart from our well-established Jewish tradition and especially the teachings of Kabbalah, you can find a proof from the names of people in the generations preceding the generation of the Tower of Babel: Adam was so named because he was created from the ground [adamah in Hebrew], Cain’s name came from the phrase “I acquired [kiniti] a person with G-d”, Noah was so-named because he was destined to “bring us relief” (yinachemenu) from the decree of mankind having to toil for their living, and so on. All these are Hebrew words. We find that only Eber, the son of Shelah, a descendant of Shem and Noah, who was righteous and did not participate in the construction of the Tower of Babel, retained the original sacred language, and passed it on to Abraham, who was one of his descendants. Abraham was the only one who preserved the original language.”
Besides that, what other special significance does Hebrew have?
“Kabbalists aver that Hebrew letters contain concrete insights and spiritual powers which were implanted in them by G-d, and He actually created the world with those letters. It can be compared somewhat to chemistry formulas where combinations of different components create a certain reality, while here — a combination of Hebrew letters and their powers created the reality expressed by a word. The Book of Creation, attributed to our Patriarch Abraham, says: “He engraved, hewed, weighed, changed and combined the twenty-two letters. He created of them the soul of every creation and the soul of all future creations. Thus, by making various combinations, God created the phenomena of creation — every phenomenon according to the combinations of letters that constitute it.”
What about other languages? Did they come from Hebrew, or are they completely separate from it?
“Hebrew is the source and root of all languages in the world. When trying to find the semantic connections and similarities between parallel words in different languages, we discover amazing things. For example samurai, unquestionably a Japanese word, is very much like the Hebrew shomrim, guards. Alternative is similar to alter nativ, find the path. Alter is from the Hebrew tur, to explore, to search. The word chatul, which means cat in English, is related to the Hebrew source. The root of the word brings us to old Latin, in which a cat was called catolus. English shortens the word to cat, and today the Hebrew root is no longer recognizable. You can find traces of Hebrew in other languages: cat is in French chat, in German katze, and so on. Other words that are similar are eretz – earth, lev (heart) – love, mareh – mirror, semel – symbol, ayin – eye, atik – antique, peirot – fruit, qushiya – Question, nafal – fall, irgun – organization, and ra’av (hunger) – ravished.”
Rabbi Cohen also points to the order of the letters, which interestingly corresponds to English. Another interesting point is that a number of words in the original Hebrew became mangled over the years, so their contemporary significance is drastically different from their original meaning. For example, we all know the word chashmalcommonly refers to the power of electricity, but the original word was a spiritual concept from the world of Kaabbalah.
Neshef is known today to be an evening dance party, but in the past it was a synonym for “night”. Liftan is a compote dessert, but its original meaning was the main dish eaten with bread. And there are even cases where the meaning was totally reversed, such as in the term asmachta (reference), which today means a reliable proof, while the original intention was a weak proof that shouldn’t be relied on at all.