After attending a lecture on the holiness of the Hebrew language, a question comes to mind: Why is it that so many of the great books in Torah—including the Talmud—are not written in Hebrew? Does that make them less holy?


You’ve stumbled upon one of the secrets to Jewish survival. As holy as Hebrew is, and as central as it is to our prayer and study, it is not what defines us as Jews.

Ever since we were exiled from Israel, we have spoken many languages. Usually, the new language was a blend of Hebrew and our host language (Aramaic, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish). At other times, we simply adopted the local tongue, throwing in a few typical Jewish expressions (like this article).

Is this ideal? No. In a perfect world, we would all be speaking Hebrew.

But the rabbis understood that it is not Hebrew, but the Torah, that sustains us as a nation. Our language, country of residence, culture, and accent have changed numerous times throughout history. But we are still here today. For the Torah has been studied and its mitzvahs observed in all times, lands, and circumstances. Let the language be compromised, but not the message.

Beyond this, there’s another crucial point: translating the Torah is not only a plan to survive exile. It is also a strategy towards the Messianic ideal.1

To explain, let me take this step-by-step:

As we stood poised to enter the Land of Canaan, the Torah2 tells us that Moses “explained the entire Torah.” What sort of explanation was this? According to our sages,3 it was a translation of the Torah into the seventy languages.

But why did the Jews need to hear the Torah in Afrikaans in order to conquer the promised land?

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (in his classic work, the Sefat Emet4) expounds on an answer provided by his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (known for his work, the Chidushei HaRIM), that the plan was much grander than that. Moses, in his prophetic vision, foresaw that the Jews would one day be exiled from that promised land and would require the Torah in other languages.

But this too needs clarification: Why did Moses himself, thirty-seven days before his passing, feel the need to personally translate the Torah? Why couldn’t he leave that job for future leaders?

The answer is profound:

The Torah is more than a sum total of letters, words, and ideas. It is G‑d’s Torah. It is holy. As a good author invests his very life and being into his work, so G‑d is found in His Torah.

But only a Torah spoken and written in the very same manner assumes this holiness. The problem is, G‑d revealed the Torah to Moses in Hebrew. Moses, in turn, recorded the Torah in Hebrew.

Sure, anyone could translate Torah ideas. It would make for a good read, possibly even become a bestseller. But it would belong in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble, not the synagogue. Such a book would not be the Torah.5 And studying it would not be a holy experience.

Unless, of course, the very same person who received the Torah from G‑d offered the translation.

So Moses translated the Torah personally, thereby imbuing its holiness into all translations that would follow. So that when I learn the Chumash in English today, I am in fact connecting to G‑d and studying His wisdom.

And with that, something perhaps even greater is accomplished: the English language itself becomes sublimated. Because every time the Torah is studied in a particular language, secular letters and words become sacred. So much so that the footers on many of our pages say: “The text on this page contains sacred literature. Please do not deface or discard.”

Gradually, as Jews study Torah in every language, the entire world is raised higher into a Torah realm, making us one step closer to the time when “the entire land will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d.”6 May that time come very soon.

Along these same lines, you may also enjoy these articles:
On Language
Must I pray in Hebrew?
Torah in Chinese