Why Do Jews Still Insist on Speaking Yiddish?
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?
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.
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”). 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.
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.
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.
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. It is for this reason that, according to Jewish law, one shouldn’t use biblical Hebrew when speaking in jest. 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.
In light of this, Jews over the ages usually reserved Hebrew for holy, spiritual speech, and they chose a secondary language for common speech.
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, similar to the holiness conferred to a physical object used for a mitzvah.
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.
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.
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