The Kalir and Modern Hebrew

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imageR. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kinot Mesorat HaRav (R. Simon Posner ed.), pp. 386-387:

Rabbi Elazar HaKalir was a master of the Hebrew language and very creative in his use of Hebrew. If not for him, modern Hebrew could not have come into existence. Before HaKalir, the Hebrew language was very rigid. For example, the nouns and verbs were fixed in their form. It was difficult to transform a verb into a noun or a noun into a verb, a simple matter in other languages. The gender of words was also inflexible. For example, in the Bible “shoshana” (perhaps a rose or lily, although we are not precisely certain of the meaning) is always in the feminine, as in “ani havatzelet hasharon shoshanat ha’amakim” (Song of Songs 2:1). But Rabbi Elazar HaKalir, in his piyut for Musaf of Yom Kippur, states “shoshan emek,” in the masculine. His linguistic style was very complex and often obscure, and he therefore had many critics. Ibn Ezra, for example, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes 5:1, rails against HaKalir. But HaKalir made a critical contribution to the development of the Hebrew language by endowing the language with flexibility, thereby paving the way for the development of modern Hebrew. There were other early paytanim, composers of piyut, such as Yose ben Yose, but they were not as radical in their literary style as HaKalir. HaKalir was the father of the paytanim, and he dared to do more than any other paytan.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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