The Importance of Hebrew

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Importance of Praying in Hebrew and the Push Towards Fixed Prayer

This is the last of our random sample of places Rambam inserts aggadic material into Mishneh Torah. Next time, I hope to review them briefly, to see if any themes or ideas characterize them all. Here, let’s look at his understanding of how fixed prayer came to the Jewish people.

Remember that Rambam held that the Torah obligates Jews to pray once a day (many if not most other authorities held that daily prayer is a Rabbinic obligation).  To fulfill the Torah’s standard, every Jew must say words of praise, request, and thanks, for as long or short as s/he wants, or is able to offer (more is better, a fuller service of the heart).

Rambam opens his Laws of Prayer with an explanation of how that model changed into the current one of three prayers on most days, with a set form for those (to which individuals can add requests, but the backbone of which has been set by tradition).

Connecting It to the Return From Exile

Rambam’s answer, in paragraph four, is that when the Jews returned after the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash, their exile to Bavel had led to them mixing with Persians, Greeks, and other nations, and they had children in those foreign lands. The polyglot environment in which those children grew up taught them several languages poorly, such that they could not fully express themselves in any one language, especially Hebrew.

One of the ramifications was that they could not pray in Yehudit [ the word Rambam uses for Hebrew here. It is the word used in the verse in Nechemiah we’ll see below, but it seems to me to stress the connection between language and faith. I say that because Rambam generally uses the word Yehudit as an adjunct to dat, religion. He uses Ivrit for Hebrew in Laws of Other Conveyors of Ritual Impurity 9;7, in contrasting Hebrew to Aramaic. The language’s name, it seems, is Ivrit; but when it expresses particularistic Jewish identity or faith, it’s Yehudit ].

That got in the way of people speaking to Hashem as fully and volubly as they (and we) might have wished, unless they mixed in other languages. When Ezra and his court saw that, they set up the Amidah, eighteen blessings in order, three of praise, middle blessings that ask for all of one’s needs, and then three of thanks.  

In this way, closes Rambam, the least verbal people could express themselves in a full prayer [ those more comfortable in Hebrew would still have an easier time adding thoughts and wishes, as Rambam recommends, but they will have achieved a minimal standard ].

The Easily Established Part of Rambam’s View

Two of Rambam’s claims are grounded in texts, but the way he puts those texts together takes us in directions that seem less than necessitated by the texts themselves. It is true that Nechemiah 13;23 describes the Jews as having taken Ashdodite, Amonite, and Moabite wives, which led to the younger generation speaking Ashdodit rather than Yehudit. Those nations are all in the region of Israel, but Rambam took that as showing they had intermarried with Persians and Greeks (and Greeks aren’t even close to Bavel)!

The second point of interest is that while the verse supports his assessment of the generation’s knowledge of Hebrew, it does not connect that to prayer. So we need answers to two questions: Why does Rambam think Ezra set up prayer, and what suggested that it was a language issue?

Fixed Form of Prayer Set by Ezra

A first possible source for the idea that Ezra was involved in setting our form for prayer is Megillah 17b. R. Yochanan or a Baraita said that one hundred twenty elders, including some prophets, established eighteen blessings in order. The Gemara continues with a tanu rabbanan (probably a baraita) that lays out how they decided on this order (we start with a blessing that mentions the Patriarchs, for example, because Tehillim 29 starts with the words havu laShem benei elim, give [ praise ] to Hashem, sons of the mighty; the order and content of the first three blessings are all inferred from Tehillim 29, although the Gemara doesn’t defend its assumption that this havu is telling us the right and best way to praise Hashem. That Talmudic discussion offers essential and enlightening insight into what each blessing of our prayers intends, but this is not the place to review it fully).

The Gemara does not identify the one hundred and twenty elders as Ezra and his court. In the Introduction to the Mishnah Commentary, Rambam understood Avot 1;1, which speaks of the prophets handing over guardianship of the tradition to the elders, to mean that that generation had both prophets and elders. If so, any group of elders that includes some prophets (as Megillah said) had to be from that era.

In addition, Berachot 33a tells us that R. Chiyya bar Abba quoted R. Yochanan that the Anshei Kenesset haGedolah¸ the Members of the Great Assembly, established the forms of blessings, prayers, Kiddush, and Havdallah. If Rambam understood a reference to Anshei Kenesset HaGedolah to mean Ezra’s generation, that would drive his conclusion.

The Gemara doesn’t link them, though. In Baba Batra 15a, it treats them as separate, in fact, telling us that Anshei Kenesset HaGedolah wrote [or edited] Yechezkel and Trei Asar, while Ezra wrote his book and much of Divrei HaYamim. Rambam might have argued they were distinct in writing or editing books of Tanach but elsewhere functioned together.

However we explain it, Rambam chose to take this tradition and include it in his Mishneh Torah as the source of our fixed prayer [ nothing would have been glaringly missing had he said only that by Torah law, we pray once a day and Chazal decided it should be three times, with a fixed order. Especially since, as we saw, Rambam held that three times a day prayer was intended to parallel the daily sacrifices in the Beit HaMikdash ].

I suggest that Rambam linked this development to Ezra and his time because it connected to another concern of his, the importance of the Hebrew language.

Hebrew as a Mitzvah

Rambam doesn’t explain or defend his assumption that the preference for prayer in Hebrew was enough for Ezra and his court to establish a fixed form of blessings. Unless Hebrew is that important, Ezra could have left them using their pidgin to speak to Hashem. If they were praying more briefly because they were embarrassed about their ignorance, he could have educated and encouraged them that Hashem accepts prayer in all languages.

He assumes instead that Ezra and his court reworked the landscape of Jewish prayer in order to ensure all Jews could pray in Hebrew. That only makes sense if Hebrew prayer is better enough that it justifies such a change. Sotah 33a does give it the upper hand in efficacy, but Rambam does not record that. (Shulchan Aruch does, Orach Chayyim 101;4).

A first indication of what might have been Rambam’s concern comes in his commentary to Avot 2;1, where Rebbe adjures us to be as careful about a mitzvah kalah, a “light” mitzvah, as a chamurah, a more “stringent” one. A “light” mitzvah, Rambam explains, is one that people think of as less important; his examples are simchat haregel, rejoicing on holidays, and learning lashon kodesh, the holy language (Hebrew).

Hebrew In Competition with Arabic

That’s a surprising comment—about which many have already written, to which I don’t intend to add here– since there’s no obvious source for the claim that there is a mitzvah to learn Hebrew (early sources speak of teaching Hebrew to infants, but don’t label it a mitzvah; R. Kapach, in an article in Sinai 79, suggested that by the time he wrote Mishneh Torah, Rambam thought this was a part of the mitzvah of Torah study).

When I was in graduate school, Prof. Bernard Septimus suggested that part of what might have led Rambam to stress the value of Hebrew was that Moslems spoke of Arabic as the most exalted of all languages. One of the instigating factors for Jews in Moslem countries to write Hebrew poetry, he said (or implied; my memories of graduate school aren’t always exact; that’s what I took away from his disquisition), was to show that Hebrew could generate poetry as excellent as that produced in Arabic.

Rambam’s commentary to Avot 1;17 lines up with that idea. The Mishnah itself spoke about the virtues of silence. After discussing at length speech that is obligatory, praiseworthy, prohibited or discouraged (limiting the areas where silence is preferred), he noted that some in his time—zekenim ve-anshei ma’aleh, elders and people of elevated character– thought the language in which an idea was expressed mattered more than the idea itself. A Hebrew poem praising drunkenness and revelry was better to recite, they said, than an Arabic poem that spoke of cultivating virtuous character traits.

Rambam disagreed, because content matters. He didn’t reject the basic idea, though, that Hebrew was a language with value and virtues, especially for Jews serving their Creator through their avodah she-ba-lev, service of the heart.

It seems to me, then, that Rambam saw the transition from a minimal prayer to three fixed ones a day as not only about thenumber of times a Jew spoke to Hashem, but about the language used in that conversation. Building off of aggadic sources he could easily have left out of Mishneh Torah, Rambam elicited a sense that how we speak to Hashem—and, especially, that we do it in Yehudit, in lashon kodesh—was also important enough for Ezra and his court to intervene, to make sure that all Jews would be able to pray in this fundamental way.

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