“When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers… This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel (shekel ha-kodesh)” (Exodus 30:12-13).
Nahmanides (13th century Spain) was puzzled by what could bestow holiness on a coin (a shekel being the base unit of currency in the desert, as well as in modern Israel). He posits that the usage of the shekel in various rituals and in the fulfillment of mitzvot is what grants it holiness. Similarly, he goes on to say, Hebrew is a “holy” language (leshon ha-kodesh) insofar as it, too, is used as the instrument of holy purposes – communicating Torah, prayer and prophecy. Ramban further suggests, in his mystical interpretive way, that God Himself “speaks” Hebrew, and with that holy tongue He created the world.
Maimonides (12th century Egypt), who favored a more rationalist, less mystical orientation, disagreed. In his monumental Guide for the Perplexed (III:8) he claimed that Hebrew is holy because it contains no naughty words, favoring euphemisms for sexual functions and organs. (Contemporary Hebrew speakers are aware that the really choice curse words are often borrowed from Arabic, Yiddish, Russian, etc. – saucy linguistic equivalents of the falafel, shmaltz, and borsht we grafted onto our culture.)
This difference of opinion was reflected (perhaps un- or sub-consciously) by different early 20th century figures at the heart of the Hebrew revival. Gershom Scholem, in a 1926 letter to Franz Rozensweig, warned of the “apocalyptic thorn” embedded within the “actualization of Hebrew” in secularizing the holy tongue for managing the affairs of a modern society. So doing overlooks the fact that “it is impossible to empty out words which are filled to the breaking point with specific meanings… Would not the religious power of this language perforce break open again one day? … Fraught with danger is the Hebrew language! … God will not remain silent in the language in which He has affirmed our life a thousand times and more.”
The national poet H.N. Bialik, on the other hand, thought that the language could be redeemed of this danger by being secularized, that is, emptied of its sacred baggage and “reprogrammed” for everyday, modern use. Here he was making an etymological play on words in which “desecrate” and “redeem” are related (cf. Deut. 20:6).
However standing apart from and above Scholem or Bialik, Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon neither feared Hebrew nor considered that it could be neutralized of its embedded values. Agnon’s magisterial use of the language is a distillation of the dialects of the Beit Midrash throughout the millennia – biblical and mishnaic Hebrew, their style and rhythm; the cadences and “suggestive power” of the Talmudic Sages, aggada and midrash; word plays and allusions to the entirety of the Jewish book shelf. But that is merely on the aesthetic plane. If contemporary linguistic theory, post-Chomsky, is correct, that language is not the reflection of a universal human hard-wiring, but far more culturally specific and determined, with the ability of any one language to leave differentiated, deep and lasting cultural, social, and valuative impact on its speakers, anyone committed to the role of Jewish learning in Jewish life, ought to re-explore and recommit him- or herself to the pursuit of mastering the Holy Tongue.