JERUSALEM, Israel — “Beresheet bara elohim et hashamayim veet haaretz (In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth),” read aloud Professor Aaron Bar-Adon in his rich, careful Hebrew, reminding the audience of possibly the most famous text from Genesis in the Old Testament.
“This is the drama of the creation of the world,” he told the room of eminent Hebrew language scholars. “There is a certain anticipation about what is next. What is the next secret to be revealed?”
He continued, drawing out the guttural sounds from the words in the following verses.
“You must read it the way it was intended to gain a sense of the historical drama,” proposed Bar-Adon, professor in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. “Everyone reads ru-ach (wind), but it should be read as it sounds, like the wind and the spirit. We can almost hear the wind on the face of the water,” he added.
Outside the lecture hall, the cold November rains of a typical Jerusalem winter day blew against the windows, bringing some chuckles and knowing smiles to the Hebrew linguists in a moment of linguistic onomatopoeia.
It was the start of Bar-Adon’s November address to Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Academy of the Hebrew Language. The speech followed his recent appointment to the academy, which oversees the development of modern Hebrew and prescribes standards for the language.
Bar-Adon has spent decades studying and teaching Hebrew linguistics at The University of Texas at Austin, and, in visiting stints, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the seat of the academy. He helped create the field of study that seeks to understand a language that helped shape civilization and was uniquely resurrected in a modern form during the past 125 years. Bar-Adon also contributed to the growth of the linguistics and Hebrew programs that have taught thousands of Texas students.
In this particular lecture, Bar-Adon wanted to emphasize that until the time of the Masoretes, during the sixth to ninth centuries, the Hebrew Bible was transmitted without vowel marks, making it difficult for the average reader and even scholars to know how to read the text.
“They ‘vowelized’ the Torah and therefore reduced the possibility of ambiguity,” he said. “But ambiguity is a great asset, because you can then interpret the text in different ways. The question is, what do you do with it?”
The key, Bar-Adon told the audience, is to penetrate the inner music of the text, thereby showing the greatness of the biblical text.
“It’s a little like coming to the lion’s den,” he commented, speaking afterward about the lecture. “Here’s this room full of Hebrew linguistic experts, and I was apprehensive, because it’s a tall order. But they told me, you are one of the Hebrew linguist experts.”
So he is. Beginning with his doctoral dissertation on the formation of Hebrew language of children, published in the early 1960s, Bar-Adon was one of the first Hebrew linguists to study the rise of children’s Hebrew.
At the time, he pointed out adults’ purist attitude toward the revived language and the continuous losing battle that teachers and educators fought against the use of slang by school-age children. He later moved on to the subject of Galilean Hebrew, studying the continued use of an ancient dialect in the towns and cities of the northern Galilee in Israel.
“With Dr. Bar-Adon’s work, [Hebrew] linguistics began to flourish,” commented Reuven Merkin, a fellow linguist and retired professor of linguistics at Hebrew University. “He taped children speaking Hebrew, he taped Galilean Hebrew, and he has a treasure trove of tapes. With his Ph.D, Hebrew linguistics started flourishing. He sanctified the subject.”
Merkin met Bar-Adon at Hebrew University in 1957, when he was studying for his bachelor’s degree and Bar-Adon was completing his doctorate in linguistics. It was the beginning of the era of Hebrew studies, and Bar-Adon was breaking ground examining Hebrew spoken by children.
“He was the first person who thought of it as a subject,” Merkin said.
By 1962, Bar-Adon was living and working in Austin after having spent nearly 20 years at Hebrew University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees. At the time, Israel was small and somewhat provincial, and working abroad in the United States allowed him and his family to “expand their horizons,” Bar-Adon said.
There wasn’t yet a linguistics department at The University of Texas at Austin, just a program, but the early stages of the department allowed Bar-Adon to expose himself and his students to a range of Middle Eastern linguistic studies, including Hebrew and Arabic, Chinese and some less common European languages.
“Professor Bar-Adon’s teaching and research has attracted a loyal and enthusiastic following in and beyond the Department of Middle Eastern Studies for half a century,” said department chair Kristen Brustad.
“We are extremely proud of his election to the Academy of the Hebrew Language,” she added. “Professor Bar-Adon was a major figure in building the strong Hebrew Studies program at UT Austin, and we hope to carry his legacy forward for many years to come.”
As for Bar-Adon, he said he hasn’t yet fully retired.
“I’ll always be a scholar and a teacher,” he said. “That’s just who I am.”