Jewish Religious Multilingualism

  • Bernard Spolsky


The boundaries between sacred and profane language are not fixed. One of the most famous international language management actions of recent years was the decision of Vatican II to permit conducting the mass in the vernacular rather than in the traditional Latin, thus moving a large number of modern languages into the sacred category. Fishman (2002) demonstrates that even without adding specific religious functions, Yiddish in the twentieth century took on many of the attributes of holiness.1 Some religions are less flexible: the fact that Arabic is so widely spoken today is partly accounted for by the insistence of Islam that all religious services be conducted only in it. Hebrew was kept alive for nearly 2000 years after people stopped speaking it by its continued use as language of prayer and religious learning. In much of Africa and in other parts of the world too, the current sociolinguistic situation owes a great deal to decisions by missionaries on which local dialects to standardize for Bible translation and prayer. All of these point to the central role that religion and religious institutions play in language policy. Thus, there is a fruitful mutual influence between religions and language policies — religions and their institutions have language policies, and these in turn have wider influences on the societies in which they exist.


Language Policy Jewish Community Sacred Text Language Choice Heritage Language 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Baumel, Simeon D. (2002) ‘Language Policies of Ethnic Minorities as Influenced by Social, Economic, Religious and Political Concentrates: an Examination of Israeli Haredim’. Unpublished PhD, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel.Google Scholar
  2. Baumel, Simeon D. (2003) ‘Teaching English in Israeli Haredi Schools’. Language Policy, 2 (2), 47–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bogoch, Bryna (1999) ‘Gender, Literacy and Religiosity: Dimensions of Yiddish Education in Israeli Government-Supported Schools’. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 138, 123–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Dubnow, Simon (1967) History of the Jews: From the Beginning to Early Christianity, trans. M. Spiegel. New York: Yoseloff.Google Scholar
  5. Fishman, Joshua A. (ed.) (1966) Language Loyalty in the United States: the Maintenance and Perpetuation of Non-English Mother Tongues by American Ethnic and Religious Groups. The Hague: Mouton.Google Scholar
  6. Fishman, Joshua A. (2002) ‘The Holiness of Yiddish: Who Says Yiddish is Holy and Why?’ Language Policy, 1 (2), 123–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Gerhardsson, Birger (1961) Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity: With Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity. Lund, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark: Gleerup and Munksgaard.Google Scholar
  8. Glinert, Lewis (1991) ‘Language Choice and the Halakhic Speech Act’, in Robert L. Cooper and B. Spolsky (eds), The Influence of Language on Culture and Thought: Essays in Honor of Joshua A. Fishman’s Sixty-Fifth Birthday, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 157–82.Google Scholar
  9. Goitein, S.D. (1967–93) A Mediterranean Society: the Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  10. Isaacs, Miriam (1998) ‘Yiddish in the Orthodox Communities of Jerusalem’, in Dov-Ber Kerler (ed.), Politics of Yiddish: Studies in Language, Literature and Society, vol. 4, Lanham, Md: Altamira Press, pp. 85–96.Google Scholar
  11. Isaacs, Miriam (1999) ‘Contentious Partners: Yiddish and Hebrew in Haredi Israel’. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 138, 101–21.Google Scholar
  12. Jacobs, Neil G. (2005). Yiddish: a Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Lieberman, Saul (1942) Greek in Jewish Palestine. New York: JTS.Google Scholar
  14. Peters, F.E. (2003) The Monotheists: Jews, Christians and Muslims in Conflict and Competition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Rabin, Chaim (1974) ‘Hebrew and Aramaic in the First Century’, in Shmuel Safrai and Menahem Stern (eds), Compendia Rerum iudicarium ad Novum Testamentum, Assen: Van Gorcum & Co., vol. 2, pp. 1007–39.Google Scholar
  16. Rabin, Chaim (1981) ‘What Constitutes a Jewish Language’? International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 30, 19–28.Google Scholar
  17. Reif, Stefan C. (1993) Judaism and Hebrew Prayer: New Perspectives on Jewish Liturgical History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Spolsky, Bernard (1983) ‘Triglossia and Literacy in Jewish Palestine of the First Century’. International Journal of the Sociology of Language (42), 95–110.Google Scholar
  19. Spolsky, Bernard (1991) ‘Control and Democratization of Sacred Literacy’, in Samuel Rodin (ed.), Encounters with Judaism: Jewish Studies in a Non jewish World, Hamilton: Waikato University and Colcom Press, pp. 37–53.Google Scholar
  20. Spolsky, Bernard (2003) ‘Religion as a Site of Language Contact’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 23, 81–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Spolsky, Bernard (2004) Language Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Spolsky, Bernard and Shohamy, Elana (1999) The Languages of Israel: Policy, Ideology and Practice. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.Google Scholar
  23. Wieselter, Leon (1998) Kaddish. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
  24. Zuckermann, Ghil’ad (2003) Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. London: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Bernard Spolsky 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bernard Spolsky

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations