(Listen to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYvsK1jjx4I if available)
Not all words are created equal. The vocabulary of a language is made up of many different kinds of words: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, gerunds and more. Each of these words plays a different role in a sentence. Of all the different word types – by far the most abundant are nouns. It is impossible to count them all – do you count ‘dog’ and ‘dogs’ as 2 different words? Are chemical names words? To give an idea of the statistics – there are around 750,000 distinct words in the Oxford English Dictionary – of which more than half are nouns. Or, if you look at a typical page of text, about three-quarters of the words on it will be nouns.
It is surprising that so few of the words we have looked at so far have been nouns. We have now reached the 20th Hebrew word in our frequency list – yet have only seen only one. Nouns are everywhere – but each one is relatively rare. Exceedingly common words are structure words or parts of speech. On the other hand, most of the rarest words in a language are nouns.
The word we are looking at today is the second noun on our list. The word ארץ [Eretz] means Land. It is perhaps surprising that ארץ is so high on the list – in English, for example, the word LAND only comes in at position 567! But a language is the face of a culture, and Hebrew reflects Jewish culture. The frequent use of the word ארץ says a lot about how important the concept of the Land is to Jews.
Our frequency list is built on different usages of the language, and the word ארץ is common in them all. In the Bible – the word ארץ makes it first appearance in the first verse of the Torah. In the Siddur, the Hebrew Prayer Book, returning to the Land of Israel, a central aspiration of the Jewish people, is part of every daily prayer. We thank God for the Land every time we eat a meal. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the time of the revival of Modern Hebrew, the place of the Land of Israel was the central focus of debates of the early Zionists. These were the people who brought the Hebrew language back to life. And in present day Hebrew we still constantly talk about the Land, its rights and its wrongs, arguably more than most other peoples.
Given this focus, it’s not surprising that we find some radical teachings about the Land of Israel in Rabbinic literature. A person who does not live in the Land is regarded as one who almost has no God. The is based on the verse in Leviticus [25:38] ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the Land of Canaan, to be you God.’ In Jewish Divorce Law, the wish of one of the partners of a marriage to immigrate to Israel is considered proper grounds for divorce. The Land occupies a very special place in the Jewish Psyche.
Historically, the Jews have been known as a wandering people. They are found in almost every country on earth. Perhaps that is why the idea of a Land occupies such an import place in Jewish life.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
Our thoughts and wishes are with our friends in France during these difficult days.
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My Hebrew Word thanks the World Zionist Organisation and Masorti Olami for their support of this Project.