Talking Like A Jew:
Names Versus Ideas
Rabbi Y. Oliver
The Rebbe once commented on two unfortunate trends in the Modern Hebrew language, and this can also teach us how a Jew should approach the written and spoken language he uses in any language.
When it comes to names, the secular originators of Modern Hebrew sought to rearrange existing words in Classical Hebrew—or, better put, Lashon HaKodesh, the Holy Language—to describe secular things. For example, they used the word Knesset, lit. “gathering,” to describe their newly-created parliament, when that word has traditionally referred to a gathering of rabbinic authorities, e.g., Anshei Knesses HaGedolah, and Knesses Yisrael. They referred to their newly-created secular President as Nasi, a word traditionally used to describe the spiritual leader of the Jewish people, and a word also used in reference to Moshiach.
And, of course, they referred to their newly-created state as “Yisrael” (or “Israel”) a word that in Torah tradition referred to our forefather Yaakov. Although the word Yisrael was used in the context of the Holy Land, it never had a political connotation. It referred not to a state, but to a land, so it wasn’t ever referred to as “Yisrael” alone, but as “Eretz Yisrael.” The word “Yisrael” in this context in Modern Hebrew is short for “Medinat Yisrael,” the State of Israel, which was their newly-created secular political entity based on the secular Ottoman and British law systems and on the political philosophy of western democracy. These are just a few examples of how they took words that had holy, spiritual connotations and attached them to secular and in many ways even anti-religious secular entities.
Put differently, in their choice of names, they took the holy and made it profane, and in that way desecrated those words. So if at all possible, one should try to avoid using such names. E.g., speak of Jews living in the Land of Israel, not Israelis, a term that may not even refer to Jews, because non-Jews with citizenship are Israelis.
But when it comes to ideas, the opposite was the case. The early Zionists shunned traditional words that expressed ideas from a Torah perspective, replacing them with words from other languages that expressed similar ideas, but in a way that was associated with secular cultures and that was stripped of the spiritual connotations of those words as they are found in Torah tradition and thinking. They would either make up a new word based on existing etymology, or simply adopt a non-Jewish word. So here they systematically rejected the holy in favor of the profane, because, of course, they were secular and anti-religious themselves.
For example, take the word morale, which was adopted as a word in Modern Hebrew (מוֹרָל). Morale, according to the dictionary here, means “the mental and emotional condition (as of enthusiasm, confidence, or loyalty) of an individual or group with regard to the function or tasks at hand” or “a sense of common purpose with respect to a group.” When a believing Jew speaks about confidence of success, he uses different words—words associated with his awareness of his dependence upon Hashem for success. He speaks of bitachon, trust in Hashem, or emunah, faith in Hashem. When he speaks of a sense of common purpose, he could speak of achdus, unity, or the like, which is associated with ahavas Yisro’el, love of one’s fellow Jew. The word morale conveys none of these connotations.
To sum up:
When a Jew refers to secular things, he should stick to secular words to name them, and not adopt holy words to describe secular things. (Once the word has already been adopted, and that is the word that people use in conversation, it seems that using that word might be less objectionable; however, one should still try to avoid it when one’s meaning will be clear using a Torah-based word.)
Conversely, his worldview should be so permeated with Torah that the words he uses to describe ideas are taken from traditional Torah-based vocabulary as much as possible, and he should avoid using words that express a concept in a G–dless way. Of course, sometimes this is not possible because a word in another language might be more precise, but this is the preference that one should follow in general. This has nothing to do with Hebrew; the same preference should be followed in English. As long as he knows that he will be understood, regardless of the language one speaks, one should intersperse Torah concepts into one’s vocabulary as much as possible, so that it is clear to one and all that a G–d-fearing Jew is speaking.
Loosely based on a sicha of 19 Kislev 5734.
Dedicated in the merit of a speedy release for the captives Yonasan ben Malka (Jonathan Pollard), Alan Gross (Aba Chonah ben Chava Chana), Sholom Mordechai Halevi ben Rivka (Sholom Rubashkin), and Zeva Rochel bas Chaya (Wendy Weiner Runge).
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