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It is unknown when Jews first arrived on the Malabar Coast. A notice in the Paradiso synagogue in Jew Town, Cochin, says that it was in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple, 72AD. Other traditions say that there were already Jewish traders there at that time.
The present author was pondering these facts recently while sitting in the Paradiso Synagogue in Jew Town, Mattancherry, the only surviving functional synagogue in Cochin on the Malabar Coast. Once there was a large Jewish community supporting seven or so synagogues in this region. Most of the community has now migrated to Israel. The Paradiso Synagogue, dating back to the early 1600s, remains and is open to the public at selected times every day except the Sabbath. This writer had just had a pleasant conversation with Mrs. Sarah Cohen, aged 93, an embroiderer with a shop directly up from the Synagogue. She related that there is now barely a quorum and that, in all likelihood, when her generation is gone the synagogue will cease to conduct services. Like other Synagogues in the region it will then be classified merely as “heritage” and in the care of organizations based in Israel. It will be a pity, but probably unavoidable. Jew Town is now largely a tourist affair anyway. It is well-preserved and still retains its historic character, and it is frequented by Israeli tourists, but it is not really a Jew Town anymore.
In any case, the present writer was admiring the Synagogue, observing the strict silence and pious atmosphere of the place as tourists came and went, when he realized that he had little trouble reading some of the Hebrew on the notices on the walls. He could read them quite naturally. This came as something of a surprise because, in truth, it must be over twenty years since he applied himself to any serious study of Biblical Hebrew. He once received some intensive study in the language from an Irish Catholic priest and thereafter dabbled in it – qabbalistically - on and off for several years without ever gaining anything like a decent proficiency. It is surprising how much of it has stuck. Even through years of teaching Biblical Studies – at an undergraduate introductory level – he had little call to use Hebrew to any great degree, other than a few words here and there. Yet, when confronted with a slab of Hebrew text, he can read the letters and recognizes much of the vocabulary, even if the grammar is gone. His every attempt to learn other exotic languages has born little fruit over the years yet, for some reason, he has managed to retain a good amount of Biblical Hebrew.
In part, this must be because he once owned a copy of and immersed himself in the wonderfully seminal work of the French poet Febre d’Olivet, The Hebraic Tongue Restored. It was once among his very favourite books. He bought a copy in a facsimile edition in the days when he was working in the second-hand book trade. Where this copy is now is a mystery. Like other once favourite books it is long gone. But he remembers it with great fondness. It is one of those priceless tomes, a formative work, strange, eccentric, charming, arcane, instructive, suggestive, impressive. Published by Monsieur d’Olivet in 1767, it is a work that proposes that the Hebrew tongue has great mystic powers and occult significances. It elevates the language of the Bible to a special status. D’ Olivet was writing in the era prior to the Rosetta Stone and the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Among the central claims of his book is the claim that Hebrew contains the lost secrets of the priests of ancient Egypt. As such, it had a profound impact upon the French occult revival and its other European offshoots in the nineteenth century. It championed the notion that the “Hebraic Tongue” is an esoteric language of extraordinary cosmic, occult and metaphysical power. The book purports to investigate the very roots of the language.
One of the luminaries who joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London at the end of the nineteenth century once complained that he was promised to be shown the secrets of the universe, and upon this promise swore an oath to the death at his initiation, only to be given a copy of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Such an inflated, cosmic, account of Hebrew in European occult circles goes directly back to The Hebraic Tongue Restored.
Of course, Monsieur d’Olivet was wrong about the Egyptian hieroglyphs, but aside from that his study of Hebrew and exposition of the roots of the Hebrew language was groundbreaking, insightful and competent. It remains an etymological and linguistic goldmine. And who is to say that his depiction of Biblical Hebrew as a language of extraordinary esoteric depth is mistaken? Its compression and compact vocabulary certainly render it mysterious and potent, and for Jews, as for Christians – and Mahometans too – it is, after all, a tongue in which God Himself chose to speak. By this perspective, every letter necessarily has infinite depth. It is a sacred tongue. It is not the tongue of the ancient Egyptians, but sacred nevertheless. It is a language compressed under the weight of the Divine Word.
The highlights of the Hebraic Tongue Restored are the lexicon of Hebrew roots, and then – based on that – d’Olivet’s remarkable translation and exposition of the first section of the Book of Genesis, the cosmology of Moses. This is a tour de force in the application of the root ideas exposed in the lexicon and truly one of the most profound expositions of Genesis ever undertaken by either Jew or Gentile. In his younger years the present writer spent night after night delving into the mysteries revealed by Monsieur d’Olivet, and it is probably because these mysteries were so arresting and so compelling – so metaphysically fundamental – that they made a lasting impression upon him. Hebrew speaks to the heart. It is like no other language. The Koran boasts that its Arabic is easy to remember, but for the present writer the claim is even truer of the Bible's Hebrew. Terse, concentrated, potent with meaning, it seems a language just made to carry significances that extend beyond time and space. No study of the language makes this clearer than d'Olivet's Hebraic Tongue Restored.
In the normal course of events, the present author is an avowed enthusiast and apologist for the inspired status of the Septuagint; in matters Biblical he is most at home with the Greek. But his recent visit to the old Synagogue in Jew Town in Cochin took him back to earlier interests and younger days when he engaged with and was fascinated by the cryptic powers of the Hebrew. The Hebraic Tongue Restored is still available in facsimile edition, and these days in PDF form. Anyone with any interest in Biblical Hebrew – and especially its deeper, qabbalistic dimensions – should acquire a copy.