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Hatikvah: The Jewish Anthem of Hope for Over a Century

When David Ben-Gurion made the declaration of Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948, none of the dignitaries surrounding him in what is now Independence Hall, Tel Aviv, could sing a word of Israel’s national anthem — HaTikvah.   It wasn’t that they did not know the words, but just that every person in the room could only cry.

HaTikvah, הַתִּקְוָה, means literally The Hope.

Israel’s anthem is a declaration of faith as well as a prayer.

It speaks of the continuity of Jewish life throughout the Diaspora (years of scattering throughout the nations) and the determination of a persecuted people to rebuild their homeland from nothing.

Jerusalem-Western Wall-Kotel Plaza

Two Orthodox Jewish men gaze at the Western (Wailing) Wall, a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded the Jewish Temple’s courtyard.

HaTikvah was officially adopted as Israel’s anthem in 2004, but it had been sung unofficially for nearly 100 years prior by Jews around the world.

The lyrics are brief but poignant:

As long as within the heart
Kol od ba’le-vav p’nimah — כל עוד בלבב פנימה

The Jewish soul sings,
Nefesh Yehudi homiyah — נפש יהודי הומיה

And onward, to the East
Ulfa’atey mizrach kadimah —  ולפאתי מזרח קדימה

To Zion, looks the eye –
Ayin l’Tzion tzofiyah —  עין לציון צופיה

Our Hope is not yet lost,
Od lo avdah Tikvateynu —  עוד לא אבדה תקותנו

The Hope that is two thousand years old:
HaTikvah bat sh-not alpayim — התקוה בת שנות אלפים

To be a free people in our land
L’hiyot am chofshi b’artzenu — להיות עם חופשי בארצנו

The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
Eretz Tzion v’Yerushalayim — ארץ ציון וירושלים

Unlike most other national anthems, which usually have a more upbeat tune, HaTikvah is in a minor key.   This perhaps contributes to the emotive, reflective nature of the Israeli anthem, which lends itself to being sung on both national days of mourning and at soccer (football) matches.

When the Jewish holocaust survivors, for example, crammed like sardines onto the rough, unseaworthy vessels that attempted to reach the shores of British Palestine (Israel) in the face of the British naval blockade, the survivors would be singing HaTikvah when the old boats finally approached the shores of their ancient promised land.

In 1945, a ship called Unafraid transported Holocaust survivors from Buchenwald concentration camp onward toward Israel, only to be told they would be arrested on arrival.  The  passengers raised the flag and sang HaTikvah as they approached shore. (YouTube capture)

In 1945, a ship called Unafraid transported Holocaust survivors from Buchenwald concentration camp onward toward Israel, only to be told they would be arrested on arrival.  The passengers raised the flag and sang HaTikvah as they approached shore.  (YouTube capture)

The two stanzas of HaTikvah were adapted from the nine-stanza poem, Tikva-Teynu (Our Hope), written in 1877 by the young poet Naphtali Herz Imber (1856–1909) from the Kingdom of Galicia, today’s Ukraine.

The poem was subsequently adopted as an anthem by the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) movement, and later by the Zionist Movement at the First Zionist Congress hosted in Basel Switzerland in 1897.

In 2004, the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) officially declared the abbreviated version as the official anthem of Israel, incorporating only the first stanza and chorus from Imber’s poem.

Naftali Herz Imber (1856–1909)

Naftali Herz Imber (1856–1909) wrote the nine-stanza poem Tikva-Teynu (Our Hope) at age 21 after the establishment of the early Jewish settlement Petah Tikva (Gateway to Hope). A prodigy, Imber began writing poetry at the age of 10, and later received an award from Emperor Franz Joseph

The Lyrics of Hope

Written in the language of the Bible, with many Biblical themes, HaTikvah also has the extra authority for Jewish people worldwide of being rooted in the holy Hebrew language, with each word of each stanza strategically placed.  Let’s look at a few of these words here:

Our Hope—Tikvah is not yet lost.”

The word tikvah looks ahead to better times, with faith that the dream to return to Zion will eventually be fulfilled, even though many have died in the fight to be “a free people in our land.”

The saying, Tovah tikvah mi chaiym (Hope is better than life) is found in the early Zionist work, The Love of Zion, by Avraham Mapu, 1853.

And onward—kadimah, to the east, to Zion looks the eye.”

Today, kadimah is yelled in soccer matches for “Lets go!” and by military commanders as in “Forward March!”

When Imber wrote his poem, however, kadimah was used in a milder forward-looking sense: onward toward Jerusalem.

After the liberation of the death camps in 1945, the Jewish people decided to move forward from death and destruction, not remaining as victims; therefore, Kadimah also has to do with the faithfulness of Israel’s One True God.

He does not leave His people in exile or in trouble.   He hears their cries and fulfills every one of His covenant promises.

Kadimah is from the word kedem, meaning as of old, as found in Lamentations 5:21:  “Renew our days as of old (כְּקֶֽדֶם – k’kedem).”

From the same root we also have the word kadmah referring, as does the national anthem, to the East side, from Genesis 13:14:

“The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward (קֵ֥דְמָה – kadmah) and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.’”

The Jewish settlement of Petah Tikvah (Gateway to Hope) was founded in 1878. It is located seven miles east of Tel Aviv with over 230,000 residents today.  (YouTube capture)

The Jewish settlement of Petah Tikvah (Gateway to Hope) was founded in 1878.  It is located seven miles east of Tel Aviv with over 230,000 residents today.  (YouTube capture)

“As long as within the heart—ba’levav the Jewish soul sings”

Another tiny word in the anthem which seems insignificant is ba-levav.   It is translated here as in the heart, but it actually means in the deepest place of the heart.

It is the same word used in the Bible for the most common of all Jewish prayers: the Shema, also quoted by Yeshua (Jesus) in the Brit Chadashah (New Testament):

“Hear O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one.  And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart (לְבָבְךָ֥ – levav-cha), with all your soul and with all your might.”  (Deuteronomy 6:4–5)

The Jewish soul yearns as though it is missing something.   That same yearning is expressed in Psalm 42:5,11:  “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?”

Thankfully the psalmist continues:  “Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my Salvation [Yeshua] and my God.”

 Prayer at the Western (Wailing) Wall in the late 19th century (Photo by Felix Bonfils, Israel National Archives)

Prayer at the Western (Wailing) Wall in the late 19th century (Photo by Felix Bonfils, Israel National Archives)

As long as—kol od within our hearts, the Jewish soul sings”

The little word od, by itself, has the meaning of again as in od ve od, again and again.   In other words, during all manner of seasons, for as long as there is breath in the lungs of the Jewish people, their hearts, voices, and synagogues have always pointed east (mizrach) toward the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, in prayer and expectation.

This is a unity uniquely expressed within the anthem.

Just like the determination to not give up concerning the coming of Messiah, od speaks of the unique faith of this people, God’s people.

This of course arouses so many destructive actions throughout history, including jealousy, envy and hatred.   The British Mandate government briefly banned the anthem’s performance in 1919 due to Arab anti-Zionist political activity.

In 1944, Czech Jews spontaneously sang HaTikvah at the entry to the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber and, as reported by a member of the Sonderkommando, were beaten by SS guards.

In a BBC recording (April 20, 1945) Jewish survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camps in Germany sang HaTikvah five days after liberation, during their first synagogue Shabbat service in several years.

Women survivors of Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.

Women survivors of Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.

“Our Hope is not yet lost—Od lo avdah tikvateynu”

What is this hope that has not yet left?

In the original poem by Imber, Israel’s hope is simply the “ancient” hope.   However, the final lyrics of HaTikvah speak of “two thousand years” of hope.

This huge time span evokes centuries of Jewish survival, keeping themselves a distinct yet scattered people who are finally realizing their hopes come to fruition as millions regather into the land of Zion once again.

But—could there be an even more distinct hope?

Is there a Hope with a capital H?

Could this Hope be something that appears as a visible manifestation of God on earth, like an Angel of the LORD (YHVH) or a pillar of fire by night in the midst of the ancient Israelites?

Yeshua and Mary, by William Hole

Yeshua and Mary, by William Hole (1846-1917)

More than two thousand years ago, someone brought great hope to the world.

This Hope did not come to us as a Gentile baby or a Christian god.

Tikvateynu (Our Hope) was born just over 2,000 years ago to a Jewish Israeli family from the line of King David.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders.   And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:6)

Truly, this Hope has come to the Jewish People, and He has not abandoned them (Romans 11:1).

HaTikvah is a periodic prayer of hope for “a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

However, Jewish people throughout the world pray daily for their hope of a speedy arrival of Messiah:

“Bring speedily the offspring of Your servant David, and let Him be exalted by Your saving power, for we wait all day long for Your salvation.   Blessed are You, Oh Lord, who causes Salvation to flourish.”  (15th blessing of the Amidah, Standing Prayer)

Both of their prayers have been answered, though they need someone to tell them how.

“Always be prepared to articulate a defense to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.   But respond with gentleness and respect.”  (1 Peter 3:15)

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