to Ponder Number 49
in their primary or immediate signification, stand for nothing but
the ideas in the mind of him who uses them."
Language is the most revelational aspect of the inner thoughts and attitudes of man. Freud made us aware of this when he discussed the "slip of the tongue" phenomenon. It is in his language that man reveals his inner life. His subconscious overflows and, before he is aware of it, he has already exposed his inner self.
Languages are constantly in flux. Whole societies could be identified by studying their changing attitudes when considering the use of their words and expressions, including the words which have fallen into disuse and those which have replaced them.
Hebrew is a most powerful example of this phenomenon. A comparison of how the biblical and Talmudic mind used Hebrew and how in our days the language has deteriorated is most telling.
It has often been noticed that Hebrew does not possess a word which is equivalent to the expression, "to have." Erich Fromm in his monumental book, "To Have or To Be" commented on this: "To those who believe that 'to have' is a most natural category of human existence, it may come as a surprise to learn that many languages have no word for 'to have.' In Hebrew, for instance, 'I have' must be expressed by the indirect form, 'yesh li' (it is to me). In fact, languages that express possession in this way, rather than by 'I have' predominate. It is interesting to note that in the development of languages the construction, 'it is to me,' is followed later on by the construction, 'I have,' but as Emile Benveniste has pointed out, the evolution does not occur in the reverse direction." (Erich Fromm, "To Have or To Be," Abacus, London, 1979, p. 32)
This does not mean that there is no such concept as possession in Hebrew. Rather, the difference between the secular attitude towards property and the religious one is that the secular attitude emphasizes the development of private property in which property in itself becomes dominant (without a specific function), while the biblical attitude only knows of functional property, i.e. property not for the sake of possession but for use.
While modern Hebrew still does not possess a word which really represents "to have," the general use of Hebrew tends more and more to become "property" inclined.
Over the past few decades, we have experienced, to our great regret, a vulgarization of the Hebrew language. This is not only noticeable when listening to Israeli society in general but also when listening to Israeli leaders and debates in the Knesseth, Israel's parliament. While at the inception of the State one would be able to enjoy a Knesseth debate because of the use of superior Hebrew, today we are confronted with a situation where we feel more and more uncomfortable listening to some of the members of this institution using Hebrew slang. Even rabbinical figures who used to speak a dignified language have lowered themselves in this respect.
This fact has entered into the collective consciousness of Israeli society. While in earlier days the content of Israeli advertisements reflected a Jewish outlook on life, today this is often no longer the case. Years ago, when trying to convince people to buy sweets and other delicacies, names such as "krepelach," "bagelach" and "rogelach," were used. All emphasize the relationship we have with other people. These names all end with the Hebrew word "lach," "to you." This is not accidental. While those who created these names may not have been aware of their choice of words, their subconscious revealed inherently Jewish values.
Looking into modern Hebrew advertisements we see a rather disturbing change: No longer is it "lach" which invites people to buy various tasty foods, but "li" (me): "Bisli," "Prili," "Kinli," "Egozi," "Ta'ami." One the most recent advertisements we noticed says, "Tehe Egoist ad haSof " (Be an egoist till the end.)
We would do well to take notice of this fact. Like the Freudian slip of the tongue, such expressions reveal more than we would like to admit.
Ultimately, it shows how Israeli society is falling prey to Western values in which matters such as love are badly misunderstood. For many, love for others or even for spouse and child is nothing more than the use of another human being for one's own pleasure. The expression, "falling in love" is a case in point. Anybody who has any understanding of love knows that while one may be able to fall into a pit, one cannot "fall" in love, but only walk, stand or grow in love. It is even more important to remember that love does not exist if it is not motivated by a deep commitment to give. The Hebrew word, "ahava" (love), has as its root, "hav," which, indeed, means to give. Those who do not know the art of giving neither have the capacity to love.
Frank Leahy once observed that "Egotism is the anesthetic that dulls the pain of foolishness." (Look, January, 10, 1955) Israeli society and the world at large would do well to start listening once more to the language of the Torah, it would prevent a lot of unnecessary pain.
Nathan Lopes Cardozo
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