The Infinite Sadness of the Hebrew Language: a Visual & Musical Allegory
Being only an adventurer at the beginning of my journey into this world of mysteries that is the Hebrew Language, I will not try to give any explicit information on its history, development and grammatical singularities. All this is available in professional terms in many books and freely on the Internet and I would only copy the words of the specialists.
I will neither speak about the hidden “information” – numerology and the Kabalah. The Bible’s code – in Hebrew, of course - is another example of the obsession that the study of this language may generate. For this, you can also use Google or the Discovery extensive documentaries on it. I have never been attracted by numbers, only by words and sounds. We all speak of ART, Literature being one of the known forms of art (I say “Known” because the future may reserve us many discoveries in the artistic field, too), Music another one. Between the Word and the Sound, there stands the Image – the “fine arts” of painting, sculpture, photography and so on. Man has always tried to put his thoughts and feelings in images and sounds since the early days of the cave drawings and rudimentary musical instruments. But we often forget the primordial form of art, sadly seen today only as a speech mechanism, a tool of communication, something less artistic because of its utility. Isn’t language a form of Art? Today, there are thousands of languages in the world, ancient or more recent, each and one of them beautiful and exciting.
Let’s take Romanian, for instance, the proud descendent of Latin. Let’s not pay any attention to its complex grammar neither to its never-ending synonymic rows. Just listen to the flow of the language, at night, in a recited poem perhaps. The melody, the arid impact and trepid stop of the words speak of its Mother Latin. Phonetically, when listened carefully, Romanian loses its Slavic sweetness or its Italian-style operatic melody and drapes itself in the austere cloak of the grave, imposing Latin. When combined with the vivid idiomatic expressions that give Romanian that sarcastic, humoristic personality or the tragic tone of the Romanian mourning chants, the result is Music and Literature combined, the folkloric poems of “Mioritza” and “Master Manole”, with their heart-aching rhythm and dramatic plot being the perfect example of the splendor and power that this language is able to convey.
Each language has gathered throughout the centuries its own artistic treasure, musically and poetically, that now reflects itself on the personality of the people who speak it and on their artistic creation. There is an interesting connection between language - personality - art. We, men, have created the language. But can language influence our own creations and personality?
Greek is another language that attracts our imagination, mostly because of its ancient philosophy and literature. But the Greek language is, even in the contemporary form, pure Art. The music of the Greek language is one of Humanity’s greatest achievements. Listen to the Orthodox Resurrection Chants in Greek and any other language, for example. Or compare “Hristos anesti –Eleithos anesti” with “Christ has risen. He has truly risen”. After peeling off the first, more “visible” and beautiful aspect of the language – its phonetics or “its music”, we venture deep inside it: the Greek language is a land of metaphors and innuendoes, the word formation mechanism is often based upon an idea, a piece of philosophy, a poetic feeling. By studying Greek, one learns Philosophy without further need for references. It is an intricate language that still holds within it the perceptive way of thinking of its genial ancient speakers, a language that holds the code for a new “Dialogue” within its Morphology and Syntax. But Greek has other unknown qualities, like its tendency for reverie and romanticism for instance, which is impossible to suspect at first glance about the language of the rigorous Orthodox Dogma.
English is one of my favourite languages because it has the unique ability of condensing the essence of a whole phrase into a couple of words and of expressing a meaning in one word better than many other languages in ten. English – from England – still walks in the Romantic beauty of Byron’s poems of “cloudless skies” without losing the intelligent, clear-cut irony of Oscar Wilde.
So many languages, so many ways of making music, so many “living”, every-day poetry…Uncovering the secrets of a language is a voyage deep into the ancestral soul of its people and learning about the history and personality of its speakers right from its pulsating heart. But there are languages that even today remain an unbreakable puzzle, like Euskera, the language of the Basques from Euskadi, whose ancient origin loses itself in the past, a unique language that bears resembles to no other on the whole Earth and cannot be categorized by the specialists.
Amidst all the languages of Mankind, there is one that stands alone. Shy, like a veiled virgin of fairytales, the Hebrew language does not like to show off. Although, “she” has written the most important
Book of all times and although many of us, Christians and Jews alike believe it to be the language chosen by God to speak to us mortals, or that it is the language of the Son of God Himself, the Hebrew language has remained a hidden treasure, the locked garden of Shir HaShirim, the beautiful bride whose beauty must remain under closed doors. It is the never-ending love story between God and Man, the primordial Kiddushin…
Hebrew is a language of infinite sadness; its music is a desperate prayer, an incessant Psalm. It is the remembrance of the tragic cry of Adam when he lost his Paradise. The mourning for Eden is touchable in each Hebrew word. Like a painting of a sad Angel, his wings broken down, Hebrew is faithful only to its prophets who cried to the Lord in the desert.
Maybe it is the only language “infinite” in interpretations and meanings. Trying to learn Hebrew is losing oneself in an ocean of mysteries, where nothing is certain, everything changes by virtue of occult forces. It is a language which refuses to be learned, a moving territory of semantic sands where Fata Morgana reigns. She gives you the illusion that you have learned a word, that its meaning is certain and there can be no confusions. The victory is short-lived, the meaning changes, fluctuates, refuses to be embraced by your eager memory. The grammar rules are created only to be broken, to confuse you. There are more exceptions than words that obey the rules. Nothing is what it seems to be. It is not a game, there is nothing playful about this language, Hebrew does not play hide-and-seek with you. “She” simply refuses you. “She” escapes, with all her mysteries, leaving you with the sad, bitter taste of a love that could not be, of a beautiful woman that could not be kissed, the enchanting trace of her perfume still lingering behind her. Enraged, you extend your arms, trying to capture her, she runs away, sending you only a tragic glance with her dark, beautiful eyes. You are left alone, her scent all around you, the sound of her silver bracelets still tinkling far-away…a glimpse of what could have been and was not, like the final “h” in many Hebrew words, silent but present, impossible to pronounce but hauntingly beautiful, the sad whisper that lingers on, after one has pronounced a word. A native Hebrew speaker, trying to explain the mystery of this sound, told me once that it is like a “delicate sigh that loses its echo in the distance”.
Sadness is perhaps the most difficult feeling to understand. You can conquer rage, fury, you can play with indisposition and with bitterness until they turn sweet but you can never conquer sorrow. And perhaps nothing touches us, humans, more than sadness. A sad film, a sad painting, a sad photography can bring tears into our eyes in a second. Every act of creation is an act of sadness. Art is not a vibrant triumph, it is a constant reminder of our miserable mortality, of the death of so many great people, great creators. Nothing has remained after them, apart from a piece of a symphony, a scratched painting or a ragged book - their art, just to be appreciated for a split second by other people who will also perish.
Art gives us the illusion of immortality. It is the agonizing effort of the man who refuses to die. Hebrew has not forgotten this, it gathers within it all the laments of its dead-ones, and it refuses to let them go. The constant remembrance of all its beloved who passed away and the eternal struggle against mortality that Hebrew puts up give this language that distinctive dramatic tone. It is the sadness of a language that is conscious of all those who spoke it, who loved one another whispering it, who prayed using its words and are not here anymore.
A continuous Kaddish, Hebrew fights for us all – so that we should not be forgotten. When we are long gone and buried, we will all be remembered in the aching consonants of its melody. Like a mother, “she” will pray for us all, asking God to release us from our mortal destiny. If one day Man reaches immortality, it will be thanks to the constant, desolated prayer of the Hebrew language, the only one that dares harass God, “demanding” our freedom as persistently as Abraham once did for Sodom and Gomorrah.
Proud daughter of Israel, “she” doesn´t lose herself to the passing moment of contemporary intercourse, like American English for instance. It is a language of love and intimacy between a Man and his God, between a husband and his wife, the never-ending mystery that still binds together the first khatan and his kallah, a realm of private thoughts and feelings meant only to be whispered. Even the word for “love” (“ahavah”) is sad in Hebrew, holding within it the desperation of the parting moment of death. In English, we say “Till death do us apart” at weddings. Hebrew is also aware of the parting moment but it refuses to let go. It is from the scattering pieces of the broken glass that we shall be once more recreated. The lamentation of the Hebrew language that struggles for the immortality of mankind stubbornly and dramatically, trapped alone within its beloved labyrinth of memories, will someday be our salvation.
A definite argument in favour of the mysterious abilities of the Hebrew language is the Spanish novel “Don Quixote” by Cervantes. The pearl of the Spanish language and literature holds within it many treasures for the Hebrew-speaking people.
An erudite Jewish father with a taste for stories and a romantic character used to reward his children with chocolates for each chapter of “Don Quixote” that the little ones read. The intention deserves praise, the result however was not the expected one: the elder son found the box of chocolates in his parents’ room, where he was not allowed and Don Quixote was given a break.
However, this short and true story demonstrates the affinity of the Jewish soul to Don Quixote’s personality. Almost all names of persons and places in the book are alterations of Hebrew words, the author hiding in this way his Jewish origin, in the dark ages of the Spanish Anti-Semitic oppression, but leaving behind him constant hints of his origin. In the light of the Hebrew language, Don Quixote suddenly shines differently and his tragic and obstinate refusal to give up his dream seems more comprehensible, being far most adequate to the unyielding Jewish soul than to the vibrant and “caliente” spirit of the Hispanics more given to quick-ending passions. The Hebrew messages encrypted within Don Quixote not only certify the author’s origin but may also be the key to the correct understanding of the character. Just like the Hebrew language, Don Quixote wouldn’t give up his dreams, his stubborn fight against all the Evil in the world being only a continuation of the essence of the mother-tongue of the author. And what has happened to the disobedient elder son in the story? Just as his father had predicted, he has eventually fallen in love with Don Quixote, of course.
True only to itself, Hebrew remains an enigma. It is the only language that refuses to name its God. Hiding behind its many faces and meanings, Hebrew knows how to remain silent and let only the soul speak. The invisible forces that attract and disperse its masculine, persistent consonants and its feminine, floating vocals have constructed a language governed almost by scientific rules. The written contraction of the words with illusive vocals and the later expansion of them in pronunciation, this constant tension, is similar to the physical forces that created the Universe. The written words are masculine, only consonants, the pronunciation is vocalized, thus feminine and the direction of writing, from right to left, aims specifically at our heart; with each written word, one gets closer to the heart, at least physically speaking. Hebrew wants to teach us again, by the continuous tension and attraction between its strong consonants and its mysterious vocals and by making the heart the final goal of the written existence of the words, the Lesson of Love. Without the feminine vocals (that have just a hint of visibility in the written form) the words couldn’t be pronounced. The tough, imposing consonants cannot live without the “invisible” vocals. Only the vocals can give life to the masculine written words, or maybe both of them united can give life to each other in a continuous charge and discharge of energy. They cannot exist without one another, only together can they give life to the language. And thus, Hebrew pulls down the veils from the most ancient love-story; we are brought to the dawns of mankind where the first woman was called “Life”, created perhaps when the first man tried to cry out his loneliness with the first word. The constant hide-and-seek between vocals and consonants in Hebrew is the hide-and-seek between man and woman. Hebrew shows us two essential ingredients for a perfect union: the importance of the feminine, mysterious and undisclosed but present and life-giving, and the importance of paying attention to the attraction and distraction forces – creators of that specific amount of tension able to generate never-ending passion. Like the continuous coming and going of the electric circuit, necessary to create the electric sparkle, the contraction and expansion of the consonants and vocals of the Hebrew language teach us how we can make our love eternal. The Physics rules that Hebrew uses are the rules of Love.
As Christians, we are baptized with names of Hebrew origin that make no sense for us and we bear our names throughout all our life unknowing its mystic meanings. Hebrew may help us learn a lot more about ourselves if we have the patience of discovering it. Religiously, it is only in the light of Hebrew that Christian terms like “Amen” or “Alleluia” start to make sense, bringing fresh clearness to our prayers. Language of the Jewish people, Hebrew belongs to all mankind; we are tied to it by invisible chains that only our souls can recognize. Didn’t we all speak Hebrew in Eden?