“Words, in their primary or immediate signification, stand for nothing but the ideas in the mind of him that uses them.”
(John Locke. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 1690, 3.2.2)
Language is the most revealing 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 through language that man reveals his inner life. His subconscious overflows and before he knows it he has already exposed his inner self.
Languages are constantly in flux. Whole societies can 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 powerful example of this. Comparing how the biblical and talmudic mind used Hebrew with how the language has deteriorated in our days would be most telling.
It has often been noticed that the Hebrew language does not contain a single word that means “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 (there 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 many languages the construction ‘there 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 Hebrew lacks the concept of possession. Rather, there is a difference between the secular attitude towards property and the religious one. The former emphasizes the acquisition of private property, which in itself becomes dominant (without a specific function), while the biblical attitude knows only of functional property, i.e. property not for the sake of possession but rather for use.
While Modern Hebrew still does not contain a word that means ‘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 noticeable not only when listening to Israeli society in general but also when listening to Israeli leaders and debates in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. While at the time of the state’s inception one could enjoy a Knesset debate because of the eloquence and grace of spoken Hebrew, today we cringe when hearing the members of this institution debating in coarse and unrefined Hebrew slang. Even rabbinical figures who used to speak a dignified language have lowered their standards in this respect.
This phenomenon has entered 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, words such as kreplach, bagelach and rogelach were used. These all end with the Hebrew word lach (to you), and that is not accidental. All emphasize the relationship we have with other people. While those who created these food names may not have been aware of their choice of words, their subconscious revealed inherently Jewish values.
Looking at Modern Hebrew advertisements we see a rather disturbing change. No longer is it lach that invites people to buy various tasty foods, but li (me): Bisli, Prili, Kinley, Egozi, Ta’ami. In fact, one of the most recent advertisements beckons consumers with, “Tehe egoist ad ha-sof” (Be an egoist till the end).
We would do well to take notice of this fact. Like the Freudian slip, such expressions reveal more than we would like to admit.
Ultimately, this shows how Israeli society is falling prey to some Western values so that matters such as love are badly misunderstood. For many, loving others – even one’s spouse or child – is nothing more than using another human being for one’s own pleasure. The expression “falling in love” is a case in point. Anyone who has any understanding of love knows that while one can fall into a pit, one cannot “fall” in love, but only walk, stand or grow in love. Even more important to remember is that love does not exist unless motivated by a deep commitment to give. The Hebrew word ahava (love) comes in according to some scholars from the root hav, which indeed means to give. Those who do not know the art of giving cannot have the capacity to love.
Frank Leahy once observed that “Egotism is the anesthetic that dulls the pain of stupidity” (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 much unnecessary pain.