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Why Is Hebrew Called the Holy Tongue (Lashon Hakodesh)?

Why Is Hebrew Called the Holy Tongue (Lashon Hakodesh)?

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The Hebrew language is extremely potent. The Torah tells us that until the incident of the Tower of Babel, all of mankind spoke the same language: Biblical Hebrew.1 In fact, the power of the Holy Tongue was what fueled the initial success of the tower-builders.2 To deter them, G‑d “confused” their languages, and the many diverse languages were born.3

What makes this language holy?

The Language of Creation

In the book of Genesis we read how G‑d created the world: “G‑d said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”4 This was not simply rhetoric; these words contained the G‑dly energy that created light. The Torah describes ten such phrases—Ten Utterances through which the world was created.5 Everything that exists was created through the energy within those Hebrew words.6

The Kabbalists explain that unlike human speech—which once spoken is gone—G‑dly “speech” is everlasting, as it says in Psalms, “Forever, O G‑d, Your word stands in the heavens.”7 So the Ten Utterances are still in the heavens, constantly re-creating and energizing the world.8 (For more on this, see The Baal Shem Tov on Perpetual Creation.)

Since everything is created through words, the Hebrew name of an object expresses the very energy that gives it existence. This is why it was Adam who named the animals, for it took great wisdom to be able to grasp the character of each animal and give it its true name.

Clean Language

Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, submits that Hebrew is holy because it doesn’t explicitly name private body parts and acts: “The Hebrew language has no special name for the reproductive organs in females or in males, nor for the act of procreation, nor for semen, nor for excreta. The Hebrew lexicon has no original terms for these things, and describes them only through figurative allusion and hints . . .”9

The Language of Prophecy

Nachmanides takes issue with Maimonides’ opinion, stating that a language cannot be defined as holy simply because it omits seemingly vulgar words—words, he argues, that are not vulgar at all, because sexuality is indeed holy if one’s intentions are pure. Nachmanides is of the opinion that Hebrew is inherently holy because it is the language through which G‑d communicated the Ten Commandments and the Torah on Mount Sinai, it’s the medium for His communication with prophets, and it’s the language of the names of G‑d and His angels.10

The Dilemma

We now come to a paradoxical dilemma. On the one hand, as Maimonides points out, sexual acts and organs do not have Hebrew names because they are seemingly vulgar. On the other hand, since everything in this world exists only because of the energy within its Hebrew name, they must have Hebrew names—which means they must be holy, as Nachmanides believes.

The Rebbe resolves this dilemma by delving deeper into Maimonides’ own musings about pre-sin reality and post-sin reality. Before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, sexual actions and organs were like any other acts and organs, and there were surely names for them in the Holy Tongue. But after the sin, Adam and Chavah became aware of their sensuality, and these actions and organs became inextricably linked to lust. We therefore don’t know their names, because their holiness is beyond us.

(Interestingly, the Rebbe’s explanation draws the opinions of Nachmanides and Maimonides closer together, since both are of the opinion that sexuality can be holy or profane depending on the context.)11

Unique Spiritual Energy

Rabbi Yeshayah ha-Levi Horowitz, known as the Shaloh, points out that the words and letters of other languages were arbitrarily chosen by man. In the Holy Tongue, however, there is significance to the name, shape and sound of each letter, each alluding to unique spiritual energy and attributes.12

Should I Speak Hebrew?

Our sages tell us that one who lives in the land of Israel, eats in a state of ritual purity, speaks in the Holy Tongue, and recites the Shema every morning and evening is assured a portion in the world to come.13 Furthermore, the Zohar states that when we speak in the Holy Tongue, the Shechinah (Divine Presence) rests upon us.14

Yet, on the flip side, it is precisely because of the holiness of the language that many reserved it as a special language to be used only for Torah learning and prayer.15

But as important as it is to speak, pray and study in Hebrew, it is much more important to actually comprehend what you’re saying and learning. It is for this reason that the Talmud was written in Aramaic. And it is for this reason that, despite all we have said, if one does not understand Hebrew, he should pray in the language that he understands.

To learn more about the uniqueness of the Hebrew letters, you can read (or watch) Letters of Light by Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin, or watch the fascinating KabbalaToons series KabAlefBet!: The Kabbalah of every one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Footnotes
2.
See Zohar I:75b.
5.
Ethics of the Fathers 5:1. The Ten Utterances consist of the nine times in the creation story that the verses state “G‑d said . . . ,” as well as the first verse in Genesis, “In the beginning, G‑d created the heavens and the earth.”
6.
Creations that are not explicitly mentioned in the creation story were created through the transmutation and gematria (numerical value) of the words of the Ten Utterances.
8.
See Tanya, Shaar ha-Yichud veha-Emunah, ch. 1.
9.
Guide for the Perplexed 3:8.
10.
Nachmanides, commentary to Exodus 30:13.
11.
For more on this, see Likkutei Sichot, vol. 3, p. 893, and Guide to the Perplexed, the Holy Tongue, and Holy Intimacy.
12.
Rabbi Yeshayeh ha-Levi Horowitz, Shnei Luchot Habrit, Toldot Adam, Bayit Acharon 16.
13.
Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 9:1.
14.
Zohar II:129b.
15.
See, for example, Kuzari 2:67–72. See also notes of the Chatam Sofer on Magen Avraham, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 85.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Mary Anne Biele New City April 27, 2017

I am thinking that at the time that the Babel incident took place, and though G-D confused the languages into many, (I heard that it was 70), there was a pure continuous line from Adam to Noah to Shem to Abraham who was also alive at the same time as Shem. Shem was alive for 150 years after Abram was born and 50 years after Isaac was born. They still spoke that same original language of Ancient or Paleo Hebrew. The sages say that Melchi-Zedek was Shem(Pronounced Shaim), so it makes sense that this line leading to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the 12 sons of Israel all spoke the same Paleo Hebrew, the Sacred tongue of G-D..... Reply

Francesca Italy August 29, 2016

Reply to Yankeled Gilead, Thailand Yankeleh, I am Christian Catholic, so I can't give you a jewish point of view. However, I think we can consider the Hebrew Language, as the first language with certain features for Mankind. It is not necessarily the first language in a time-historical perspective. It is the first language which links G-d and Mankind in a specific way. Through Hebrew it begins a new relationship between G-d and Man. We could say it begins The Man. That's to say: Man was created, the world was created. Through Hebrew the Mankind understands the Creation of G-d. So... if the Man got this knowledge only with Hebrew, in a certain way it means that G-d created the world "in Hebrew", the original language. Shalom. Reply

Yankeleh Gilead Thailand June 21, 2016

Hebrew I hate to be a spoilsport and I don't mean to be disrespectful, especially of the Torah, but I checked a few valid historical facts and the whole world did not speak Hebrew prior to the Tower of Babel. I'm not implying that the torah is lying, but I think people tend to read more into it and interpret it in their own way. history sees this differently, and the torah should not be taken for a historical document. Reply

Martin England June 20, 2016

Other languages created by man? It's interesting your assertion as per Rabbi Yeshayah ha-Levi Horowitz, that the words and letters of other languages were arbitrarily chosen by man. But the other languages were created by Hashem to confuse the other nations as is well known so all languages are created by G_d. Reply

Anonymous Arizona June 20, 2016

Well written piece. Question though. Zeh yafe(it's beautiful) R'. Clearly this is a labor of love you wrote this. My question that I have and it is probably a dumb one doesn't Zephaniah 3 assert it as a pure language? I'm assuming the JPS version is accurate. Dor le dor(generation to generation) that version has been passed down in my mishpacah for at home reading and I use it with my isha and our yeledim. Though my hebrew reading is slow...sigh. anywho. I doubt you will have the time to answer. Good piece. Kol hakavod R'. Reply

Jorge Qro. Mexico June 19, 2016

B"H Two new veins to explore. Thank you Rabbi Shurpin. I'm going to take your advice to heart. I was wondering why not to take a look at Letters of Light by Rabbi Raskin; now I have no doubt. And KabAlefBet is another good tip; perhaps there, features Rabbi Infinitum -The good Rabbi of all times.
Of course, you are ahead of my thoughts. I was going to mention that to start, at least we should know the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and how to transliterate them. Reply

Yankeleh Gilead Thailand June 19, 2016

Hebrew language How do you know as a fact that Hebrew was the spoken world language at the time of the building of the Tower of Babel? Facts please, not suppositions. Thanks. Reply

Kay Benefiel Chiefland June 16, 2016

I believe that you have possibly forgotten about Leviticus 15 Reply

Naomi Lieberman Phoenix June 16, 2016

Thanks for the beautiful explanation about the importance of Hebrew. I wish there were more programs for adults to learn it if their childhood was lacking in yiddishkeit. Reply

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