Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Ekev
To dedicate this lesson

The Mitzvah of Learning Hebrew

"...In his commentary on the Mishna, Maimonides attributes equal weight to the study of Hebrew and to the joy we must feel on the Festivals - and even to the mitzvah of circumcision..."

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Rabbi Moshe Erenreich

Av 22 5782
Translated by Hillel Fendel

This week's Torah portion, Ekev (Deut. 7,12-11,26), features the second passage of our daily Kriyat Shema passage, which states: "You shall teach [the words of Torah] to your children, to speak of them, when you are at home and when you are on the way and when you lie down and when you get up" (ibid. 11,19).

Rashi cites the Midrash Sifri to this verse:

"To speak of them – from the time the boy knows how to speak, teach him "Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, Moshe commanded the Torah to us" – this is how he should learn to speak. Our Rabbis derived from this that when the baby begins to talk, his father should speak to him in the Holy Tongue and teach him Torah. If the father does not do this, it is as though he buries his son, as it is stated [here], “You shall teach them to your sons to speak with them… [so that your days and the days of your children may increase]."

It appears that the Sages derived this teaching from the fact that the Torah was careful to say "to speak of them" and not "to study them" or "to contemplate them." In any event, we learn from here that one must learn Hebrew, in order to be able to learn and teach Torah.

In the Tosefta (Chagiga 1,2) we also learn: "Once a child knows how to speak, this father teaches him Shema Yisrael, and Torah, and the Holy Tongue – and if not, what good is it that he came into the world?"

However, there is another Talmudic passage that states that when a child learns to speak, his father must teach him Torah and Kriyat Shema – and does not mention that it must be in Hebrew.

In his commentary on the Mishna, Maimonides attributes equal weight to the study of Hebrew and to the joy we must feel on the Festivals – and even to the mitzvah of circumcision: "Be as careful with seemingly light mitzvot as with severe ones, for you do not know the reward for each one; we should be careful to observe commandments that appear to be light, such as Festival joy and the study of the Holy Tongue, just as those whose severity was specified, such as Brit Milah, tzitzit, and slaughtering the Paschal offering."

If the mitzvah of learning Hebrew is so important, according to the Rambam, why did he not count it as one of the 613 mitzvot, and did not mention it in his Yad HaHazakah? So ask many of the later Sages. Interestingly, I once had a conversation with a Satmarer rabbinical judge in the United States, in which I inadvertently gave an answer to this question. He asked me in what language I deliver my lectures in the Yeshiva, and when I gave him the obvious answer that I teach in Hebrew, the Holy Tongue, he was very surprised: "How can you allow yourself to change from the path of the great Torah scholars who have been teaching in Yiddish for generations?" I gave him two answers:

a. The vast majority of the Torah scholars throughout the generations, such as Rashi, Maimonides, and Nachmanides, taught and learned Torah in the Holy Tongue.

b. Rav Yehuda HaLevy wrote as follows in his classic work HaKuzari that the Hebrew language of his times "shared the fate of its bearers, degenerating and dwindling with them. Considered historically and logically, [however,] it is the noblest of the languages. According to tradition it is the language in which G-d spoke to Adam and Eve, and in which the latter conversed. This is proved by the derivation of Adam from adamah (earth), ishah (woman) from ish (man) [and other examples in the first chapters of Genesis]… Abraham was from Ur Casdim, where Aramaic was spoken; he employed Hebrew as a specially holy language, and spoke Aramaic for everyday use."

I also added that since we now, may G-d be praised, are already in the Land of Israel, in the "Beginning of Redemption" stages – the Hebrew language is meriting to come to life, together with the Jewish nation. I later found that the Torah Temimah commentary gave a very similar answer: "And perhaps the Rambam [who did not count the mitzvah of speaking or learning Hebrew] held that this mitzvah applies only in the Land of Israel, when the nation is living there – whereas now it would be impossible for most of the nation to be able to fulfill this mitzvah, for several reasons."

The Torah Temimah also gives another answer. The Talmud notes that R. Elazar charged his students to "prevent your children from higayon." Rashi explains this unfamiliar word as meaning, "Do not let them become accustomed to studying the Bible [as opposed to Talmud and the like] too much, because it will draw them in."

The Meiri adds explanation: "R. Elazar cautioned his students to raise their children with Torah study, and to educate them from their childhood not to understand any verses according to their plain meaning, if such an explanation could lead to any type of heresy."

That is, the verses of the Bible should be taught through the "glasses of the Sages," so that the pupils should not be tempted, Heaven forbid, to interpret them according to what appears to be logic, if it contradicts foundations of the faith. From this the Torah Temimah learned that later generations probably refrained from teaching Hebrew to the youngsters so that they would not learn the Bible on their own without guidance.

Let us read the words of Maimonides carefully (Laws of Torah Study 1,6) and see the message that comes through: "From when is a father obligated to teach his son Torah? When the child begins to speak, his father teaches him, "Torah tzivah lanu Moshe" and "Shema Yisrael," and afterwards teaches him additional verses, until he is six or seven years or whenever he is ready to be brought to a teacher."    

It could very well be understood that the Rambam did not actually leave out the mitzvah of learning Hebrew and teaching Torah in Hebrew, but rather taught us the correct methodology by which to do so: via the verses of the Torah. Thus will be created the correct understanding of the connection between the Holy Language and the Torah.

Let us conclude by reminding ourselves that one of the greatest miracles of all those that happened to the Nation of Israel in recent generations is that of the "revival of the dead" of the Hebrew language. Barukh Hashem!

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