“All speech, written or spoken, is a dead language, until it finds a willing and prepared hearer.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
People who travel the old Jewish quarter of Prague (the capital of the Czech Republic) may be surprised to see shops with many little souvenirs in the shape of a strange and chubby human-like creature. The creature’s name is The Golem.
A well-known Jewish legend talks about Rabbi Yehuda Loew (also known as The Maharal), who lived in Prague in the 16th century. According to the legend, Rabbi Loew created the Golem from clay. Then he used some secret spells to put life into the body of the creature that became a servant of the community. Some versions of the legend talk about how the Golem later became a frightening figure for the people of Prague, and had to be shut down by its creator.
As for the spells used to convert our Golem into the world of the living, there are also several versions of the story. Some of them talk about quoting phrases or words from Jewish mythology, while others mention using the explicit name of God, whatever that may be. We’ll come back to this amazing issue soon.
The alleged power of the spoken or written word is probably as old as language itself. Mysterious texts designed to help or hurt may be found all over: In witchcraft stories, in Christian exorcism tradition and in Jewish Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), in Voodoo spells and in ancient Egyptian curses and blessings on the Pharaohs’ tombs.
Traces of this ancient perception are found aplenty within old scripts, such as the Bible itself. Jacob fights his brother, Esau, for getting the blessing of Isaac. God changes Balaam’s intention of cursing the people of Israel, into blessing them. Job’s wife advises him to curse God and die (blaspheme!).
If someone asked you to murmur certain unclear words and phrases in public, you would probably make sure to let that individual know what you think about his or her request. Yet, millions of people do exactly this on a daily basis, which seems perfectly okay as long as it carries the title “Prayer”. Praying – especially the parts that we understand – serves more than one purpose: While in trouble, we often express our deep desire for help, whether silently in our heart, or by actually speaking it. There’s nothing wrong with that. This is how we’re naturally programmed to behave in extreme situations (good ones as well). Ritual praying is also often used to help convincing ourselves of things that cannot be proven otherwise.
However, a great deal of praying – in all major religions – is done without the person engaged in the act really understanding what the hell is being spoken. The majority of Jews don’t know old Aramaic and the majority of Catholics and Eastern Orthodox haven’t got a clue about ancient Latin. Does it bother them to practice praying in these strange antiquated dialects? In a bizarre way, it may even contribute to the feeling of sacredness, the respect of the unknown. In many cases one should wonder if this respect would stay the same, given a better knowledge of the semantics and the history behind the text.
Does God really expect our praise three times a day or is once a week, enough? Does he prefer classical Arabic or ancient Hebrew? If it really doesn’t matter, then why stick precisely to the same old phrases? Is it important to quote the text exactly, or is the meaning of the text more important? According to the Jewish religion, a change of a single letter disqualifies a copy of the Bible from being sacred (though some researches show that much bigger modifications took place over the years).
Some variations of old religious texts followed intriguing paths into today’s known customs. Crying ‘Allahu Akbar’ (Arabic for “Allah is great”) almost became the identifying mark of a suicide bomber. Confused babies all over the world when being baptized hear traditional Christian phrases, and other well-known traditional Jewish phrases accompany the ceremony of painful religious circumcision.
The emotional text of ‘Shma Israel’ (Hebrew for “Listen, Israel”) has followed many Jews to their death, as the very last words spoken. It is also written on millions of Jewish doorposts all over the world. Many Jewish people physically touch it while entering the house, and afterwards kiss their fingers, as if the sacred words guard them. This is in spite of the fact that many of them – especially nowadays – don’t really know what’s written there. It’s even a tradition to replace the mezuzah (the small case containing the sacred words, together with its content), or check the letters for errors, if something goes wrong in the house – some sudden death, for example.
More than twenty people died, most of whom were children, in the Habonim disaster in Israel in 1985, when a train hit a school bus. Religious thinking dictates the necessity of a reason for such a terrible incident. It was Rabbi Itzhak Peretz, later the Israeli Minister of Interior, who infuriated the mourning country by suggesting that the tragedy was the result of certain improper mezuzoth (plural for mezuzah), and thus could have been prevented.
In practice, it appears that the Jewish nation that has kept this mezuzah tradition over the years is the one nation that has suffered the most, even when no letter was changed or missing in the protecting text.