The Making of Modern Hebrew

Reviewed by Yehudah Mirsky
Sunday, November 23, 2008


By Ilan Stavans

Nextbook. 219 pp. $21


The Making of Israel's National Poet

By Nili Scharf Gold

Brandeis Univ. 445 pp. $35

In the Bible, the Book of Ezekiel begins with the heavens opening to reveal a stunning vision of God. Above the angels, astride a throne, like a fire encased in a frame, the prophet sees a kind of "hashmal."

This word is unique to Ezekiel's vision; in the entire Hebrew scriptures, it appears only there. Its exact meaning is uncertain, but the Talmud -- the vast compilation of Jewish law, lore and interpretation from the first centuries of the Common Era -- offers a powerful etymology: It comes from the phrase "Creatures of fire . . . keep their silence [Hebrew: HASHot] and murmur [u-meMALelot]." Thus, tradition holds that the mysterious hashmal is the aura surrounding the heavenly throne, woven from the breaths of angels, so sacred as scarcely to be audible, even to God.

Yet on the streets of Israel today, hashmal is everywhere. As any child can tell you, it means "electricity."

The reinvention of Hebrew as a modern, spoken language is an astounding story, underappreciated not only abroad but even in Israel (which may be a paradoxical sign of its success). As this one, small example indicates, it is a story of extraordinary inventiveness, achievement, complexity and, also, loss.

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