Skip To Content

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe

Losing ‘Hope’

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 [email protected].


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.