By Philologos

Published October 13, 2006, issue of October 13, 2006.
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Yakir Segev, according to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, is a social activist and major in the Israeli reserves who came back from last summer’s war in Lebanon determined to change things. And what is it that he wants to change? “The main thing missing [in Israel],” he told the paper, “is that same concept for which — not by chance — there is no term in Hebrew: accountability, the contract between the elected representative and the voter, and the obligation of elected representatives to give an accounting.”

One wishes Segev and others like him every success. Still, it’s a bit annoying to find the same canard against the Hebrew language repeated over and over — and this time by someone who believes, so he told the journalist who interviewed him, that secular Jews like himself “have to be familiar with the Jewish sources at as high a level as any religious person.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it said that Hebrew has no word for “accountability,” the implication being that, if you don’t have a word for something, you can hardly be expected have the thing itself. It’s one of those myths that speakers sometimes have about their own language, which, once established, are nearly impossible to get rid of.

Why a myth? Well, as someone who believes in being familiar with Jewish sources, Yakir Segev should know the little Mishnaic book called Pirkei Avot and commonly referred to as “Ethics of the Fathers” in English. Pirkei Avot is, for good reasons, one of the most studied and most beloved of all Jewish texts, so much so that it is regularly printed in the standard prayer book. And what is the very first sentence in it? In the somewhat dated but still serviceable translation of the British scholar R. Travers Herford, it is:

“Akavia ben Mehalalel said: — Keep in view three things and thou wilt not come into the power of sin. Know whence thou comest and whither thou goest and before whom thou art to give strict account. Whence thou comest, — from a fetid drop. Whither thou goest, — to the place of dust, worms and maggots: and before whom thou art to give strict account, — Before the king of the kings of kings, the Holy one blessed be He.”

“And before whom thou art to give strict account” could also, of course, be translated as, “And before whom you are accountable.” The Hebrew reads: Ve-lifnei mi ata atid li’ten din ve-h.eshbon –”And before whom you are to give a din and a h.eshbon.” Din in classical Hebrew is a “judgment” or “legal process,” and h.eshbon is “account,” “bill,” or “arithmetical sum,” and the combination of the two, din-ve-h.eshbon, means a report in modern Hebrew, as in “book report” or “committee report,” while in its acronymic form of doh. it can also denote a traffic ticket.

Elsewhere in rabbinic Hebrew, to be accountable is shortened to li’ten [or la’tet] et ha-din, “to give a din.” And when converted into the noun “accountability,” it becomes matan din or matan ha-din. It’s a perfectly common expression.

Why, then, do Israelis persist in saying, as if this constituted some deep cultural insight, that their language has no word for “accountability,” which has to be expressed by the horrid Anglicism ekauntabiliyut? How odd that a people that just observed Yom Kippur should think that it has no native way to express the concept that a person is judged for what he or she does!

There are several reasons for this. One is sheer ignorance. Most secular Israelis have no or little familiarity with Jewish sources and have no idea what a wealth of terminology can be found in them. One could think of many other examples of fine old expressions and idioms that go unused in contemporary Israeli Hebrew because there is no awareness of them.

Secondly, even many of those Israelis who are familiar with an expression like matan ha-din instinctively feel that it is an archaism that is best not used in ordinary conversation. Using the language of the rabbis, they fear, will mark them as old-fashioned, religiously oriented, bookish, or pedantic.

And thirdly, there is the enormous cultural and linguistic influence on Israeli life of English. As everywhere in the world today, and even more than in most places, Israelis may speak a language of their own, but this language is becoming more and more a kind of translated American. If English has a single word for “accountability,” Israelis expect Hebrew to have a single word for it, too. Matan ha-din doesn’t meet their expectations.

Hebrew is not a language with as rich a vocabulary as English or Spanish, but it is nonetheless one in which, if you know it well, it is possible to say just about anything elegantly and idiomatically. Unfortunately, few of its speakers do know it well. It is like a violin in the hands of people who try to play it like an electric guitar and then complain that they have been given a faulty instrument. The problem is not with the violin. It is with those who do not know how to make music from it. It’s they who are accountable.

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