Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times
The Isaiah Scroll was one of seven ancient Hebrew texts discovered in 1947, and is the best preserved and most complete.
Quandary for Hebrew: How Would Isaiah Text?
By ISABEL KERSHNER
Published: August 7, 2008
JERUSALEM — Some Israelis have described being moved almost to tears by a rare viewing of the Great Isaiah Scroll, the best preserved and most complete Dead Sea biblical scroll, on special exhibit this summer at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum for the first time in 40 years.
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Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times
The familiar, unfulfilled prophecy of the 2,100-year-old scroll — “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” — undoubtedly arouses emotion here. But there is also a thrill born of ordinary people being able to read, and at least partly understand, an ancient Hebrew text.
Two centuries after it was written, Jewish history became one of dispersal and exile, and Hebrew ceased to be widely spoken for the next 1,700 years.
Its revival is often hailed as one of the greatest feats of the Zionist enterprise; today Hebrew is the first language of millions of Israelis, a loquacious and literary nation that is said to publish an average of 5,500 books a year.
But in a country where self-doubt and insecurity run deep, even a linguistic triumph can be a cause for concern. After such a meteoric comeback, some worry that the common language may already be in decline, popularized to the point where many Israelis can no longer cope with the rich complexities of traditional Hebrew prose.
“There is a feeling of anxiety,” said Ruvik Rosenthal, a popular Israeli language guru and author of a best-selling dictionary of Hebrew slang.
There is the creeping foreign influence, as urban sophisticates pepper their Hebrew speech with accented English affectations like “please,” “sorry” and “whatever,” along with a noticeable loss of nuance and relative paucity of vocabulary in regular use.
Israelis can obsess about language. “We speak with mistakes,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “Everyone does, and everyone corrects everyone else.”
But he and other Hebrew watchers point to a potentially more disturbing trend: living Hebrew has moved at a fast pace, and in the process, it has become increasingly estranged from its loftier ancient form.
“We used to understand the biblical language better, and our language was closer to it,” said Ronit Gadish, academic secretary of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, the state’s supreme guardian of the national tongue. “Now, what can we do to keep up the continuity?”
In a country suffused with religious and historical symbolism, the linguistic link to the past has always evoked feelings of national identity, vindication and pride. Any erosion is bound to stir unease.
“The Bible,” said Mr. Rosenthal, “is first of all our connection to the land.”
Hebrew was never actually dead. It was more like an unborn child, according to Ariel Hirschfeld, a Hebrew literature lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, slowly developing over the centuries as the language of Jewish letters and prayer. Educated Jews would read the weekly Torah portion in Hebrew, while sages from Prague to Baghdad would correspond on religious questions in their only common tongue.
But the linguistic reincarnation came with the birth of modern Zionism and was largely driven by one man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who was born in a Lithuanian village 150 years ago and immigrated to Palestine in 1881.
The classical Scriptures provided words for concepts like justice, mercy, love and hate, but not for more mundane things like “office” or “socks.” So Mr. Ben-Yehuda started inventing new words, mostly drawn from ancient biblical patterns and roots.
Authors and poets like the Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon, Chaim Nahman Bialik and Uri Tzvi Greenberg, Hebrew revivalists from Eastern Europe, also drew on the ancient sources to create texts rich in biblical allusions yet conceptually avant-garde.
“They managed to tie the ancient language with the modern world in all its depth,” said Mr. Hirschfeld, who compares them in importance to James Joyce.
The Hebrew-speaking project took off rapidly in pre-state Palestine, and was adopted zealously by the Zionist pioneers. By 1914, a decision was made to teach only in Hebrew in Jewish schools, and by the time the state of Israel was founded in 1948 there was already a generation of Israelis for whom Hebrew was their native tongue.
Now the academy continues the quest for new words, trying, with partial success, to introduce authentic Hebrew equivalents for foreign terms before they stick. In the country that invented instant messaging, that can often mean a race against time. So a text message is now officially called a “misron,” from “meser,” the word for message. The proper Hebrew for talk-back, commonly pronounced “tokbek,” is “tguvit,” a diminutive of “tguva,” response.
“When there was no word for tickle, nobody wrote about tickling,” said Gabriel Birnbaum, a language expert at the academy. “Today, we have everything.”
Mr. Birnbaum is now helping preserve the link with the past as part of a team writing entries for a historical Hebrew dictionary. The academy has been compiling material for it since 1959. Asked about a particular example of Hebrew shorthand often used in laconic online chat, Mr. Birnbaum was able with a click of his mouse to locate the earliest use of it — in a Dead Sea scroll.
Mr. Birnbaum, like most of the experts, views what is apparently the deterioration of Hebrew as a natural process, if it can be considered degeneration at all. The reality, they say, is not as bad as it sounds. Rather, the anxiety may stem less from the state of Hebrew and more from the Israeli state of mind.
“It comes from a lack of security,” said Mr. Rosenthal, who was born in 1948 and explained the linguistic qualms as part of the collective summing up of the past 60 years. “The state of Israel has no confidence in its continued existence.”
The language may have moved on since the days of the prophets, but perhaps the sense of doom has not.