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Why Do Jews Still Insist on Speaking Yiddish?

Why Do Jews Still Insist on Speaking Yiddish?

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Why Do Jews Still Insist on Speaking Yiddish?

 

Question:

Recently I heard Jewish people speaking Yiddish, which I know is a form of German. Why are Jewish people living in the United States speaking German? Can’t they speak in English, or at least Hebrew?

Reply:

While you ask about Yiddish, it should be noted that Jews speaking their own special, non-Hebrew language extends far beyond Yiddish. There is Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Jewish Aramaic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-French, Judeo-Provençal, Judeo-Persian, Jewish Malayalam and many others. But it is true that Yiddish is the most common one, and is somewhat unique in that it has outlasted many of these now extinct languages.

In order to understand why our people tenaciously hold on to Yiddish, let me first share some history.

Historical Perspective

While the exact origins of the Yiddish language are still shrouded in some uncertainty, all agree that it has its origins in the 9th–10th centuries, when the first Jews settled in the Rhineland and the Palatinate (in present-day Germany). While Hebrew, the “holy tongue,” was reserved for spiritual purposes, for common speech the Jews at that time had been using Aramaic mixed with other languages. After settling in the Rhineland, where Germanic languages were developing, the Jews concurrently developed their own unique language, variably called Ashkenaz and Jargon, but most commonly called Yiddish (“Jewish”).1 So, although Yiddish is linguistically similar to German, it is not German any more than German is Yiddish.

When Jewish people migrated eastward, they carried Yiddish along with them. By the onset of World War II, there were about 11-13 million Yiddish speakers.2

The Purpose and Unique Quality of Yiddish

In 1981, the Lubavitcher Rebbe gave a fascinating address in honor of the first publication of the Tanya with a Yiddish translation and commentary.3

The Rebbe explained that on the one hand the very reason that Yiddish, as opposed to ancient or biblical Hebrew, became the common spoken language was because Jews generally refrained from using Hebrew, the “holy tongue,” for common, non-holy, everyday speech.4

Unlike other languages, the very words and letters of biblical Hebrew are holy. Hebrew is the language used for creating the world, and it is the language of choice that G‑d uses to reveal himself to the prophets.5 It is for this reason that, according to Jewish law, one shouldn’t use biblical Hebrew when speaking in jest.6 Additionally, although strictly speaking there is no prohibition to do so, Jewish law advises that one who is pious should be careful to not talk in biblical Hebrew, even regarding everyday matters, in a bathhouse or an unclean place.7

In light of this, Jews over the ages usually reserved Hebrew for holy, spiritual speech, and they chose a secondary language for common speech.8

Yet, on the other hand, said the Rebbe, the Yiddish language was used for Torah study and mitzvah observance for over a thousand years, giving it a measure of sanctity beyond other non-Hebrew languages,9 similar to the holiness conferred to a physical object used for a mitzvah.10

The concept of Jews sticking to their own unique language is not new (if we can call something millennia-old “new”); after all, the Midrash relates that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of three things, one of which was that they didn’t change their unique spoken language.11

So when you hear Jews speaking Yiddish, know that they are doing something that we’ve been doing long before there was a country called Germany, and will continue to do long into the future.12

 

FOOTNOTES 1. It should be noted that there are somewhat different views on the exact history of Yiddish, but that is beyond the scope of this article. For more information, see “Yiddish,” in Keith Brown, ed., Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edition (Oxford: Elsevier, 2006); Paul Wexler, Two-tiered Relexification in Yiddish: Jews, Sorbs, Khazars, and the Kiev-Polessian Dialect (Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2002); Paul Kriwaczek, Yiddish Civilization: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005). 2. Dovid Katz, “Yiddish,” in The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (Yale University Press, 2005). 3. See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 21, p. 446–449. 4. See Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch, Igrot Kodesh, vol. 2, p. 816. 5. See commentary of Nachmanides on Exodus 30:13. 6. Turei Zahav (Taz), Orach Chaim 560:5; Igrot, ibid. 7. Sefer Chassidim 1094; Magen Avraham on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 85:2; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 85:2. 8. See Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Hilchot Talmud Torah 1, Kuntres Acharon 2; see also Talmud, Bava Kamma 83a. 9. This is similar to what we find in the Talmud as well as in halachah, that certain languages such as Aramaic and ancient Greek have a certain level of holiness above the average language. See Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1:9, and Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 8b. 10. Additionally, by using the language of Yiddish for Torah and spiritual purposes, the rabbis were able to spiritually elevate the language. See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 21, p. 448; Sefer ha-Sichot 5748, vol. 2, Vayeishev, sec. 5. 11. See Vayikra Rabbah 32:5, and Torat Menachem 5748, vol. 2, p. 73. 12. Although we have explained the virtue of speaking the Yiddish language, at the same time the Rebbe stressed that the importance of Yiddish cannot compare to the importance of teaching a fellow Jew. So when it comes to teaching and having a positive influence on others, one speaks the language that they understand, the virtues of Yiddish notwithstanding (Torat Menachem, ibid.).

 

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