Next Wednesday night and Thursday we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of independence of the State of Israel. For the Jewish people, the establishment of the state was a modern miracle. And, even while dealing with serious internal and international problems, like any modern nation, Israel’s life continues to be miraculous. For my commentary this week, however, I’d like to focus briefly on a miracle within the miracle, which is possibly one of the most extraordinary of all. That is the transformation of the ancient Hebrew language into a living, spoken, ever-evolving organism. For several millennia, Hebrew existed in the Bible, in Rabbinic writings, in liturgy (the language of prayer) and in literature. It was spoken as an ancient language even before these bodies of literature evolved. But along with the development of modern Zionism came the realization that a new, modern nation would need a common language for communication between its citizens.
In this light, I offer a salute to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, z”l, who may rightly be called the Father of Modern Hebrew. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman in Lithuania. He studied in cheyder, and after his bar mitzvah, he was sent to his uncle in Polotsk to study in a yeshiva. The head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yossi Bloyker, was secretly a participant in the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment Movement. Bloyker introduced young Eliezer to Enlightenment literature, and also to Hebrew grammar, which was forbidden to learn at the time. Ben-Yehuda became a journalist, but also adopted as his mission, the revitalization not only of Israel itself, but also the revitalization of the Hebrew language.
After founding several preliminary committees, in 1889 Ben-Yehuda and several colleagues founded the organization Safa Brura (“clear speech”), and in 1890, the organization formed the Literature Committee charged with the goal of “instilling in all the residents of our ancestral land one clear language, the tongue of our early ancestors, which is of utmost sacristy.”
What grew out of the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his colleagues was the Academy of the Hebrew Language, founded in 1904, and still flourishing today. At the dizzying pace of modern social, political, and technological development in our time, we can only imagine the gargantuan task of the Academy, and appreciate the seriousness with which it studies the development of new words, based upon the solid foundation of Hebrew grammar.
Here is an excellent example, close to home for us, of how new modern Hebrew words evolve. Take the word shinshin, for instance (accent on the 2nd syllable— shinSHIN). This is a word that many of you have probably heard around Union Temple for the past few years, because we have had a shinshin in our midst. A shinshin is a person, and our shinshin this year is named Aviv Kurnas. (It’s a good name for this time of year, because aviv means spring.) Here is how the word evolves.
As we know, in Israel, when young people graduate high school, generally at the age of 18, the expectation is that they will begin serving in the Israeli Army. However, some young Israelis choose to defer their army service for a year, and voluntarily embark on a service project of some sort. There are numerous opportunities in Israel. For instance, the Reform Movement there has a mechina program which is excellent. (Mechina means preparation.) Young men and women live and study in a common residence. They prepare their meals and assume full responsibilities of communal life. They generally devote their mornings to the beit midrash—the house of study. They study together, both with teachers from the Reform Movement, and also in hevruta —partnered study. Then in the afternoons, they fan out to the various projects in which they have committed to work. Some serve in senior centers. Some work with children who are disabled in one way or another: physically, emotionally, socially, etc. Some work on alleviating social distress in the neighborhood. When our own congregants journeyed to Israel in 2015, we visited the kids in the Reform Mechina located in Jaffa—a diverse neighborhood with a mixed population and a number of social and economic challenges, but also with an exciting tenor of progress. But this is only the Reform Mechina. In fact, there are similar programs in many communities all over Israel. The name shinshin emerges from this voluntary year of service.
Some of these young people devote this year to volunteer for an overseas adventure through the Jewish Agency. Their mission is to come to various neighborhoods in the United States and work in American Jewish day schools and religious schools, JCC’s and college Hillels, to help foster a more personal and helpful dialogue between Israelis and American Jews. (This program exists in Canada and elsewhere as well.) Union Temple in now concluding its 4th year in the program that exists in Brownstone Brooklyn. Our shinshinim have become integral members of our Religious School community, and while they have taught us a great deal about Israel. But in return, we in turn have taught them a great deal about us, and about the vibrancy of a pluralistic Jewish life in the United States.
As you may know, the “sh” sound is represented by the Hebrew letter shin (ש) . This letter begins both Hebrew words for the year of service, which is shnat sheirut—שנת שירות. So, since both words begin with shin, the volunteers of this program are known by the acronym that is formed from the first letters: shinshin, and in the plural, shinshinim. A small, but wonderful example, of the ongoing evolution of modern spoken Hebrew.
Israel, and those of us who are connected to her and love her, have embraced as our mission as well, to one degree or another, the learning of the Hebrew language. In my studies all these years, I can say without a doubt that the inter-relationships and conceptual connections of modern Hebrew words and expressions is indeed—a miracle. One of my goals in life is to keep improving my knowledge of Hebrew, and my ability to communicate within it. A formidable task, of course, sometimes overwhelming, but always infinitely rewarding.