Speak up, the language of the Hebrew Man,” says a song by popular Israeli singer/songwriter Ehud Banai. Of course we all know what the language of the Hebrew man is — but do we really?
Does Banai refer to the current, updated, slangy Israeli Hebrew? Or does he refer to Ben Yehuda’s poetic 100-year-old Hebrew, from the time the language was revived, when every new Hebrew word was a celebration? Could it be that Banai’s true intention goes deeper into Jewish history —maybe to what is often referred to as medieval Hebrew, the Hebrew of the Golden Age of Spain, of the piyyut — the traditional Jewish poetry? The Hebrew of Judah Halevi, the famous Jewish writer who combined religious elements with thoughts of a Jewish peoplehood, nationality and love for the land of Israel, ages before the concept of nationality was even created, “Libi BaMizrach VaAnuchi BeSof Ma’arav — My heart is in the east and I am at the farthest reaches of the west.” The same Judah Halevi who encouraged his fellow Jews to make aliyah to Israel, to return to Zion as early as the 11th century and who reportedly did so himself in the year 1140 of the Common Era, ages before the modern concept of Zionism was even born.
Could it be that our friend Banai is hinting at a more historical version of Hebrew? Could he be referring to the Mishnaic Hebrew? The Hebrew of the six books of the Mishnah edited by Rabbi Judah the Prince? The heart and soul of the Oral Torah, the basis of Jewish law, halachah. The Hebrew Mishnah that was later discussed and explained in Aramaic in the Gemara known as the Talmud (the word “Talmud,” the source of the modern Hebrew word “talmid,” student, is best translated: “that shall be learned”).
Could the Hebrew he refers to be that of the Torah or the Prophets or the Ketuvim, the Writings? The language spoken by the people of Israel, by members of the Tribe of Judah, as their daily language, living their lives in the land of Israel?
Maybe, just maybe, Banai (Hebrew for “builder”) refers to all those levels and layers of Hebrew all together: the layer of the tribe of Judea, the layer of Rabbi Judah the Prince, followed by poet Judah Halevi and revived by Ben Yehuda (translated as “the son of Judah”), becoming the living, kicking and changing language of modern Israel. The language of Yehuda Amichai, winner of the 1982 Israel Prize for poetry, who was born Ludwig Pfeuffer and is considered by many to be Israel’s greatest modern poet. The same Yehuda Amichai one cannot fully understand without a profound knowledge of all layers of Hebrew. Without the ability to walk the fields of Hebrew, finding the flourishing flowers of thousands of years folded together, giving birth to new old meaning, new old interpretations, the breathing soul of a living people.
“Speak up, the language of the Hebrew Man/Loud and clear! The language of the Hebrew Man.” Our brother Banai is calling us. Can we hear?
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s shaliach (Israeli emissary) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.