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The Sleeping Beauty

Why bother learning Hebrew? Our answer: It has deep roots, and the revival of spoken Hebrew is nothing short of a miracle.

One question we often hear, surprisingly from native Israelis who consider Hebrew their mother tongue, is: Why learn Hebrew? It's not a cool language at all! Why don't you teach English? Chinese or even Hindi? They are more widely used.

Let's start with the conclusion: The fact that we live in Hebrew, study Hebrew, go to the market in Hebrew, watch TV series in Hebrew is a miracle. Hebrew could have found itself in the basket of dead languages (especially in terms of spoken language) like other Semitic languages and even languages like Gaelic, Latin, and others.

So how do we even begin to explain the importance of learning Hebrew, especially speaking it? Here are some things you might already know, but they're always a nice reminder. The Tanakh, which is the historical foundation for the Jewish people but also for the Hebrew language, was written entirely in Hebrew. It dates back roughly 3,500 years. An average Hebrew speaker can understand at least 60-70 percent of the Tanakh. Although verb tenses differ and sentence structures are not always identical, our everyday and simple vocabulary (words like אנחנו, חנוכת בית, חשמל, שולחן) already appears there.

Shall we continue? The Mishnah and the Talmud, written about two thousand years ago, have almost identical sentence structures and verb tense systems to the language we use today. In the case of Talmudic Hebrew, the vocabulary is somewhat different, and indeed 8,000 words from the Tanakh are in use.

The name 'עברית' is not mentioned in the Tanakh at all. In the Books of Kings and Isaiah, there's the famous speech by the Assyrian official Rabshakeh against King Hezekiah of Judah. Hezekiah's people didn't want the populace to hear the disparaging words and asked Rabshakeh to speak in Aramaic: "Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the Aramaic language; for we understand it: and speak not with us in the Jews' language in the ears of the people that are on the wall" (Kings II 18:26; Isaiah 36:11). Thus, our language's ancient name is actually Judean – the language of the land of Judah. This name also appears in Nehemiah 13:24: "And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people." Another Biblical name likely referring to Hebrew is "the language of Canaan" (Isaiah 19:18).

Fast forward to modern times: The second half of the 18th century heralded a significant change in the history of Jewish culture and with it, the history of its language – Hebrew. The Enlightenment movement, which took root in Western Europe, brought about a similar awakening among Jews in these countries and with it a real ideological revolution, known in the history of the Jewish people as "the Haskalah period."

The early Maskilim, pioneers of this new movement, saw an urgent need from the outset to revive the written Hebrew language. A new Hebrew literature was born alongside scholarly writing, journalism, and more, all demanding a means of expression that the contemporary Hebrew, confined within the ancient walls of the study hall, could not provide. This marked the beginning of a transformation in the history of the Hebrew language, laying the groundwork for what is commonly referred to as "Modern Hebrew."

A pivotal moment within this period and in the overall history of the Hebrew language occurred at the end of the 19th century. A new "formula" for writing Hebrew literature emerged, fathering the style of modern Hebrew. Simultaneously, a new and astonishing development arose: the revival of the Hebrew language in spoken form. This event, closely associated with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, is firmly linked to the awakening of the national revival movement of the Jewish people and is rightly considered one of the great achievements of the Zionist movement.

During the national revival period, the use of the term Hebrew to denote the language increased – perhaps influenced by its name in European languages. The name Hebrew integrated well into the Zionist conceptual world, along with the biblical adjective Hebrew: "Hebrew speaks Hebrew," "Hebrew labor," "the Hebrew settlement," and more. The term "holy language" became less common – both due to its length and its religious connotation, and today it is mainly used in ultra-Orthodox circles to refer to the language of the sources, especially the language of the Tanakh, as opposed to Modern Hebrew. This usage in conjunction with "holy language" is primarily found in Yiddish.

Therefore, every Hebrew speaker today should feel a great privilege, and you, as students of Hebrew, as well: Today, one can pray in Hebrew, work in Hebrew, teach in Hebrew, and simply live in Hebrew. Lastly, and perhaps this is stating the obvious, Hebrew is one of the ancient languages still spoken around the world, mainly in Israel. How many people can say they speak a language that is about 3,500 years old

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