Losing ‘Hope’


By Philologos

Published November 21, 2003, issue of November 21, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Harold J. White of Gloucester, Mass. writes:

“Recently, friends asked me about the Hebrew word for ‘hope,’ tikvah, which they wanted to use in some announcement. Out of curiosity, I checked the concordance to the Bible and [the biblical dictionary of Wilhelm] Gesenius. The word tikvah does not occur there. And yet Hatikvah, ‘The Hope,’ is Israel’s national anthem! I would appreciate your thoughts on this subject.”

It’s odd that Mr. White couldn’t find tikvah in the Bible, because the word appears there often. To take a few examples from the King James Version, we have it in Jeremiah 31:17, “And there is hope [tikvah] in thine end, saith the Lord”; in Proverbs 11:7, “The hope of unjust men perisheth”; in Ruth 1:12, “If I should say I have hope,” and in more than two dozen other places.

Can it be that Mr. White mistakenly thought that a biblical concordance, which is an alphabetical listing of every occurrence of each Hebrew word found in the Bible, functions like a Hebrew dictionary? In most modern Hebrew dictionaries, all verbs must be looked for by their root letters, but nouns derived from verbs need not be — so that, for example, whereas the verb hikvah, “to give hope,” appears under kivah, “to hope,” the noun tikvah is listed as it is spelled, under the letter taf. In a biblical concordance, on the other hand, nouns, too, are ordered by their verbal roots, so that tikvah, like hikvah, appears under kivah. If Mr. White didn’t think to look for it there, he wouldn’t have found it.

And yet the puzzling thing is that the once much-used Hebrew biblical dictionary of the German theologian and Semitics scholar Wilhelm Gesenius, which I possess in its 1848 Latin edition (Lexicon Manuale Hebraicum et Chaldaicum in Veteris Testamenti Libros), lists nouns not by the concordance method but by the modern dictionary one. Even after missing tikvah in a concordance, Mr. White should have found it in Gesenius, and I can’t say why he didn’t.

In any event, when the Hebrew poet Naphtali Herz Imber wrote his poem Tikvatenu, “Our Hope,” now known as Hatikvah, he certainly knew the word from the Bible. The poem was written, according to one version, in Romania in 1878, and according to another, in one of the new Zionist agricultural settlements of Palestine between 1882 and 1886, and tikvah occurs in it 19 times — twice in the refrain of each of its first eight stanzas and three times in its ninth and final stanza.

It was only the first stanza of Tikvatenu that became the anthem of the Zionist movement and, ultimately, of Israel — and that, too, in a partial form, since three of its last four lines were rewritten upon its official adoption with the establishment of the Jewish state. In Imber’s original poem these lines went, Od lo avda tikvatenu/Ha-tikvah ha-noshanah/La’shuv le’eretz avotenu/Le’ir bah David, David h.anah — i.e., “Our hope is not yet lost/Our ancient hope/To return to the land of our fathers/To the city where David, David dwelled.” Israel’s national anthem, however, goes, Od lo avdah tikvatenu/Ha-tikvah bat sh’not alpayim/Lih’yot am h.ofshi be’artesnu/Eretz Tsiyon ve’Yerushalayim” — “Our hope is not yet lost/Our 2,000-year-old hope/To be a free people in our land/The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

The reason for this substitution, which preserved Imber’s rhyme scheme, was to make it easier to sing these four lines using the Sephardic-style accentual stress of Israeli Hebrew. Imber wrote Tikvatenu with Ashkenazic stress, so that words like avdah, tikvah and noshanah were accented on their next-to-last syllable, whereas in Israeli Hebrew their accent falls on the last syllable — and although, sung to the melody of Hatikvah, which was based on an old Slovak folk tune, the first four lines of Stanza 1 could be made to fit the pattern of Israeli speech, the last four lines proved awkward. In particular, the words noshanah and la’shuv were intractable. (If you know the melody of Hatikvah, try singing it to Imber’s original version and you’ll see what I mean.)

And yet fate played one of its tricks at this point. Because several generations of Zionists and Palestinian Jews had gotten used to singing Hatikvah with Ashkenazic stress, they went on singing it that way even when the new lines were introduced, and so they have continued to sing it to this day! It doesn’t matter if Hatikvah is being sung in the Knesset or at an international soccer match – what you will hear is LIH’yot am h.OF-shi be’ar-TSE-nu, E-retz TSI-yon v’Ye-ru-sha-LA-yim rather than lih’YOT am h.of-SHI be’ar-TSE-nu, E-retz Tsi-YON v’Ye-ru-sha-LA-yim.

The original words might just as well have been kept. Whether one should consider the fact that Israelis sing their national anthem to the accentual stress of Eastern-European Jewry to be a mere oddity or something having deeper meaning is a moot point. Imber, who died on New York’s Lower East Side in 1909 as a destitute alcoholic, would have derived, I imagine, an ironic satisfaction from the revenge wrought on this tampering with his text.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.