The Hebrew language is extremely potent. The Torah tells us that until the incident of the Tower of Babel, all of mankind spoke the same language: Biblical Hebrew.1 In fact, the power of the Holy Tongue was what fueled the initial success of the tower-builders.2 To deter them, G‑d “confused” their languages, and the many diverse languages were born.3
What makes this language holy?
The Language of Creation
In the book of Genesis we read how G‑d created the world: “G‑d said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”4 This was not simply rhetoric; these words contained the G‑dly energy that created light. The Torah describes ten such phrases—Ten Utterances through which the world was created.5 Everything that exists was created through the energy within those Hebrew words.6
The Kabbalists explain that unlike human speech—which once spoken is gone—G‑dly “speech” is everlasting, as it says in Psalms, “Forever, O G‑d, Your word stands in the heavens.”7 So the Ten Utterances are still in the heavens, constantly re-creating and energizing the world.8 (For more on this, see The Baal Shem Tov on Perpetual Creation.)
Since everything is created through words, the Hebrew name of an object expresses the very energy that gives it existence. This is why it was Adamwho named the animals, for it took great wisdom to be able to grasp the character of each animal and give it its true name.
Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, submits that Hebrew is holy because it doesn’t explicitly name private body parts and acts: “The Hebrew language has no special name for the reproductive organs in females or in males, nor for the act of procreation, nor for semen, nor for excreta. The Hebrew lexicon has no original terms for these things, and describes them only through figurative allusion and hints . . .”9
The Language of Prophecy
Nachmanides takes issue with Maimonides’ opinion, stating that a language cannot be defined as holy simply because it omits seemingly vulgar words—words, he argues, that are not vulgar at all, because sexuality is indeed holy if one’s intentions are pure. Nachmanides is of the opinion that Hebrew is inherently holy because it is the language through which G‑d communicated the Ten Commandments and the Torah on Mount Sinai, it’s the medium for His communication with prophets, and it’s the language of the names of G‑d and His angels.10
We now come to a paradoxical dilemma. On the one hand, as Maimonides points out, sexual acts and organs do not have Hebrew names because they are seemingly vulgar. On the other hand, since everything in this world exists only because of the energy within its Hebrew name, they must have Hebrew names—which means they must be holy, as Nachmanides believes.
The Rebbe resolves this dilemma by delving deeper into Maimonides’ own musings about pre-sin reality and post-sin reality. Before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, sexual actions and organs were like any other acts and organs, and there were surely names for them in the Holy Tongue. But after the sin, Adam and Chavah became aware of their sensuality, and these actions and organs became inextricably linked to lust. We therefore don’t know their names, because their holiness is beyond us.
(Interestingly, the Rebbe’s explanation draws the opinions of Nachmanides and Maimonides closer together, since both are of the opinion that sexuality can be holy or profane depending on the context.)11
Unique Spiritual Energy
Rabbi Yeshayah ha-Levi Horowitz, known as the Shaloh, points out that the words and letters of other languages were arbitrarily chosen by man. In the Holy Tongue, however, there is significance to the name, shape and sound of each letter, each alluding to unique spiritual energy and attributes.12
Should I Speak Hebrew?
Our sages tell us that one who lives in the land of Israel, eats in a state of ritual purity, speaks in the Holy Tongue, and recites the Shema every morning and evening is assured a portion in the world to come.13 Furthermore, the Zohar states that when we speak in the Holy Tongue, the Shechinah (Divine Presence) rests upon us.14
Yet, on the flip side, it is precisely because of the holiness of the language that many reserved it as a special language to be used only for Torah learning and prayer.15
But as important as it is to speak, pray and study in Hebrew, it is much more important to actually comprehend what you’re saying and learning. It is for this reason that the Talmud was written in Aramaic. And it is for this reason that, despite all we have said, if one does not understand Hebrew, he should pray in the language that he understands.
To learn more about the uniqueness of the Hebrew letters, you can read (or watch) Letters of Light by Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin, or watch the fascinating KabbalaToons series KabAlefBet!: The Kabbalah of every one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.