Harei at m’kudeshet li b’tabaat zo k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael.
Harei atah m’kudash li b’tabaat zo k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael.
Behold, you are consecrated for me, with this ring, according to the religion/tradition of Moses and Israel.
We memorized these Hebrew vows for weeks, drilling until we could recite them without a hitch when the pressure was on, under the Chupah, in front of friends and family. 38 years later we can still pull them up, though we did not know their meaning at the time. The vows served their ritual function. My heart was pounding for all it was worth, which was a lot in those days.
Over the years my wife (Jewish) and I (not) have recited Hebrew prayers and blessings over bread and wine, over candles lit, over Talmud studied; at Passovers, Hannukahs, and Shabbats. We have participated in these prayers and blessings like we have sung along with popular songs on the radio, learning the melodies, sort of, catching some of the words with confidence, and faking others in between. We are not unique in this, nor is it a new phenomenon.
Hebrew as it is written in Torah and Talmud emerged as a written language sometime in the late second millennium BCE. But even during the first temple’s heyday, there is reason to think that there were significant differences between the spoken and the written language. “What we know as biblical Hebrew is without doubt basically a literary language, which until the Babylonian exile [following the fall of Jerusalem] existed alongside living, spoken, dialects,” says Angel Saenz-Badillos, a Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at Universidad Complutense, Madrid.
The Hebrew religion, after all, was a sacrificial cult while the temples stood. The people brought their unblemished goats, produce and other offerings to the priests, and the priests recited their blessings over the sacrifices. It seems unlikely that these goatherds and farmers were well versed in biblical Hebrew. Liturgy was not the job of the common man and woman, and speaking biblical Hebrew was not an entrance requirement for being a Jew. Indeed, by the time the first temple was destroyed (586 BCE), Hebrew fell out of use as a vernacular tongue and was replaced by Aramaic. Only a small elite, the scribes and priests, carried the language forward for its literary and liturgical purposes.
After 586 BCE Babylon became a flourishing center of Judaism. Throughout the Diaspora over the subsequent centuries, Jews spoke Persian, Polish, German, and — of course — Yiddish. Biblical Hebrew retained its liturgical role. A 1931 census in Poland inquired as to the “first language spoken.” Of 3.1 million Jews, 2.5 million identified Yiddish as their first language, and only 244,000 said “Hebrew.”
Jewish practice in America places emphasis on biblical Hebrew. The Reform movement in recent times has moved to reinsert more Hebrew ritual into its services. Bar and bat mitzvahs spend a year learning how to read a portion of scripture in Hebrew at the bima. It’s a special skill because biblical Hebrew is written without vowels. Correct and fluid pronunciation is the main goal. Understanding what is being said — not so much. For that we have the drash, in English. In America, today, therefore, Hebrew is still largely confined to a liturgical role. Per the 2013 Pew study on Jewish life in America, A Portrait of Jewish Americans: “Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet. But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew.” And, of course, there is a difference between understanding “most or all the words” when reading a prayer or blessing that is repeated over and over for decades, and reading and understanding a random page of Talmud in biblical Hebrew. Most people in synagogues are like me: they fake the language. Most may fake it considerably better than me — but they’re still faking it. And there is nothing illegitimate or not genuine about that. It is consistent with the liturgical role that Hebrew has served in Judaism through the ages.
Some Zionist Jews, like the American-Israeli writer David Hazony, argue that learning Hebrew is the essence of being Jewish: “[it] will let you engage with your Bible, your Talmud, your medieval Jewish texts, without the hazy filter of translators and professional interpreters.” If American Jews don’t learn modern Hebrew fluently — never mind biblical Hebrew — he suggests, they will stop being real Jews. But Hazony is mixing up his Zionism with Judaism: Judaism has worked just fine for 2,000 years with most Jews faking their biblical Hebrew; it will continue to do just fine with American Jews continuing that tradition.
Like any vibrant tradition, Judaism needs a core of elite practitioners. These can be found in the ranks of the Orthodox, to a lesser extent in the Conservative Movement, and among rabbis and not so few members of the Reform and other movements. But Judaism doesn’t need most, and it doesn’t need me, to fully learn Hebrew of the biblical or modern varieties. I’m content with continuing to fake it, and I find myself in good company among my Jewish friends.