Sunday, July 3, 2016

Lashawan Qadash?

One of the interesting things to have come out recently in the apologetics scene are a series of podcasts and debates on the Hebrew Israelite movement. If you've missed it, you may want to check it out here. Even though I encountered adherents of this movement early on in my Christian life (they have quite the presence on the internet), I never saw them as a topic of serious apologetic discussion until recently. They may not be as numerous as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, or Oneness Pentecostals, but they're getting on in numbers, especially in large urban centres such as here in Toronto. I've often seen them hanging around Dundas Square, and it is frustrating to try to dialogue with them as they tend to shut down everyone who tries to reason with them.

That said, I'd like to look at one particular claim that this group makes, and that is their claim to have the pure Hebrew language, which they distinguish from the "Yiddish" that gets passed off as Biblical Hebrew everywhere else. They call this Lashawan Qadash, which is based on the Hebrew for "holy tongue" (לשון קדש; lishōn qodesh) and is supposed to represent Hebrew the way the Hebrews (ie. their ancestors, according to their worldview) pronounced it. They seem to have a preference for the Palaeo-Hebrew script (though they occasionally use the standard block script used today as well). But this isn't the main idiosyncrasy of this form of Hebrew. Its main idiosyncrasy is its pronunciation: Proponents of Lashawan Qadash claim that the only vowel sound that exists in Hebrew is the "a" sound, with the exception of the letter 'ayin (ע), which makes the "i" sound. All other vowels were added to Hebrew later by the Masoretes (6th-10th centuries), who were Ashkenazi Jews (who are not really descended from the Hebrews, according to them).

This video basically explains how Hebrew Israelites view this language. Note that just as there are different subgroups in the Hebrew Israelite movement, there are also variations in their pronunciations. Nevertheless, some common feature are discernible.

Having done my undergraduate studies in Near and Middle Eastern studies (which includes learning not just Hebrew, but other Semitic languages such as Aramaic and Arabic as well), I find these claims to be quite odd, and just a bit jarring. There are so many questionable things about this claimed "pure Hebrew" tongue. For one, they reject the classical names of each Hebrew letter ("Aleph" for א, "Bet" for ב, etc.). According to them, these names are "Yiddish" inventions. But they're not. In fact, the names of these letters pre-date Hebrew. These are the names of the letters as they were originally used in the Phoenician language. Each letter name represents an object that the letter signifies ("ox" for "Aleph," "house" for "Bet," etc.). To reject these names is to divorce each letter from the object which each character originally signified.

Also, Lashawan Qadash ignores Hebrew's relationship with other Semitic languages such as Aramaic and Arabic. If we follow their pronunciation conventions, for example, the word for  "house" (בית) would not be "bayit," as most Hebrew speakers would say it, but "bayat." But this goes against the usage of the word in every other Semitic language. The Aramaic word would also be "bayit," and the Arabic word for the same is "bayt" (بيت). In fact, one wonders what Hebrew Israelites do with the Aramaic portions of the Old Testament in Daniel and Ezra. Their pronunciation system would not work with Aramaic, which was spoken much more widely than Hebrew throughout the Near East (Unless one posits that all  of Mesopotamia, including native Aramaic speakers living in today, have it all wrong. Now that'd be one grand conspiracy theory!). We know how Aramaic is pronounced because the Greek New Testament contains Aramaic words and phrases transliterated into Greek. Here are some examples:

Greek Text
English Translation
Matthew 27:47
Ἠλὶ ἠλὶ λεμὰ σαβαχθάνι
אלי אלי למה סבקתני
Ēli, Ēli, lama sabachthani
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Mark 5:41
Ταλιθα κουμ
תלתא קומי
Talitha qūmi
Little girl, arise!
John 20:16
1 Corinthians 16:22
Μαράνα θά
מרנא תא
Marana tha
Our Lord, come!

There is no room for vocalizing these Aramaic phrases differently than how they are vocalised in the Greek New Testament. What is also clear from this is that the "e" and "u" vowels are used, which is contrary to what proponents of Lashawan Qadash say.
But perhaps it will be argued that what applies to Aramaic doesn't apply to Hebrew. The falsity of this claim is made clear once we factor in the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek Translation of the Old Testament produced by Hellenistic Jews living in Egypt in the 3rd century B.C., and is cited by the authors of the New Testament. In the LXX, there are many Hebrew words that are transliterated into Greek text. This will give us an idea of how the Jews in the 3rd century B.C. pronounced these words. Here are some representative nouns:

Hebrew Name
Transliteration from Hebrew
Greek  (LXX)
Transliteration from Greek
First Appearance
Genesis 1:26
Genesis 5:29
Genesis 12:8
Genesis 17:5
Genesis 17:19
Genesis 25:25
Genesis 25:26
Genesis 32:28
בֵּ֥ית לָֽחֶם
Bēyt Lechem
Genesis 35:19
Exodus 2:10
Joshua 1:1
Joshua 10:1
Ruth 4:17
2 Samuel 5:7
2 Kings 14:25
2 Kings 19:2

Note that some names are transliterated more precisely than others. Nevertheless, the transliterations are fairly consistent, and even the loosest Greek transliterations stay fairly close to the Hebrew originals. Now, the Hebrew Israelites are to be believed, the vowel system used for Biblical Hebrew was invented by the Masoretes and could not have existed prior to the 6th century. Yet the evidence from the LXX shows that the pronunciation system can be traced back to at least the 3rd century B.C. This refutes the idea that it is a later invention.

Finally, the question must be asked: If Lashawan Qadash represents pure Hebrew, why is there no evidence for its existence prior to the 20th century? Why is it that all throughout the world, the same Hebrew pronunciation is used by all kinds of disparate groups, many of which couldn't have been influenced by the Ashkhenazim? For example, we have the Falasha Jews from Ethiopia. In their prayer services, they use exactly the same pronunciation system that all other Jewish groups use (see this video for an example). Bear in mind that for hundreds of years, these Ethiopian Jews had no contact with the rest of the Jewish world, which rules out their use of Hebrew being influenced by European Jewry. The fact that the Hebrew that is preserved among them matches that used everywhere else is proof that this is the true Hebrew language, not Lashawan Qadash.

There are many other problems that underlie the Hebrew Israelite movement, such as their hermeneutically questionable interpretation of texts involving Israelites and Gentiles, as well as their claim that black Africans are the true Hebrews, against all genetic and geographic evidence to the contrary. Those are beyond the scope of this article, however. For information on those topics, I recommend the video playlist I linked to at the beginning of this article. Hopefully, this article sheds light on the Hebrew language's history and usage, and why the standard Hebrew pronunciation is to be preferred over the spurious innovation known as Lashawan Qadash.


  1. Thank you for your insightful blog. A brother in Christ and I were discussing the Hebrew Israelite movement this morning. We live just outside of Toronto and he has encountered it once recently in the street evangelism that our Bible Chapel conducts. I find the rise of this movement disconcerting on a number of levels. Their inability to reason consistently from scripture, the blind belief that all prophecy applies to them mixed with sheer, determined racist hatred all make this a challenge. Thankfully salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Yeah... There are small communities of black/African Jews (most notably Ethiopian) around the world. One must not assume they are all Hebrew Israelites, a movement I had never even heard of before a couple of years back. I personally don't find their overarching claims credible, although I think the movement was derived in order to reclaim belonging of some kind, given black/African history.

  3. They actually do no claim that Israelites were Black Africans,confusingly for you most likely a white person. They hate Africans viewing them as Hamites who sold their "Shemetic" ancestors into slavery. They regard black descendants of slaves as Hebrews based on interpretating being about black people being cursed to go into slavery in ships and be oppressed by whites,whom they claim to be Edomites until Jesus,or whatever lashawan qadash rendering you prefer returns to make Africans and white people and whomever else slaves. They include Latinos and Native Americans or First Nations as Hebrews.But not Africans although in contradiction to what I've typed some consider the Igbo tribe of Nigeria Hebrews