Ancient and Biblical Hebrew
The number one best seller of all times, the text that has shaped, designed and influenced the history of humanity in general and the western civilization in particular – the Bible – was written originally in Hebrew.
According to the Jewish tradition, the Hebrew Bible has 24 books. Some of the books are counted as one unit and therefore referred to as a single book. The Hebrew Bible is divided into three parts: Torah (‘first five books of Moses), ‘Nevieim’ (‘prophets’) and ‘Ketuvim’ (‘writings’ or ‘scriptures’). The three parts together are known by their Hebrew abbreviation ‘TaNaKh’ and that is the common name of the Bible in Hebrew.
From this name, ‘Tanakh,’ the name of Biblical Hebrew (in Hebrew) is derived – ‘Ivrit Tanakhit.’ The Hebrew Bible begins with the creation of the world as found in the Book of Genesis (‘Bereshit’ in Hebrew) and ends with the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah and the rise of Cyrus the Great – King of Persia – which can be found in the Books of Chronicles (‘Diveri Ha-Yamim’ in Hebrew).
From a linguistic perspective, it seems that there is a difference between the two ‘kinds’ of Hebrew in the Bible – one reflects the Hebrew of the First Temple period and the other of the Babylon captivity and the Second Temple, which is highly influenced by other languages, such as Aramaic and Persian of that time (Books of Daniel, Ezra and Esther for example).
Naturally, it is common to think of the Bible as the only book which was written in Biblical Hebrew. However, surprisingly enough, there are actually more books that are NOT a part of the Bible but were written in Biblical Hebrew during the Second Temple period.
Some copies of those books were discovered more than a half of century ago in the Judean Desert in an area full of caves which is called ‘Qumran’ next to the Dead Sea and are most known by the name ‘the Dead Sea Scrolls.’
The Dead Sea Scrolls also mark the turning point between the earliest phase of Hebrew – Biblical – and the next phase of the development of this rich language: Rabbinic and Liturgical Hebrew.
Rabbinic and Liturgical Hebrew
At the end of the Second Temple Period, a new religious institution emerged among the Jews who lived in the Land of Israel – the synagogue (‘Bet Kenesset’ in Hebrew).
Ezra the Scribe (‘Ezra Ha-Sofer’ in Hebrew), who lived in the 5th century BC, already established the public Torah reading, and by doing this, laid the foundations of the liturgical text in Judaism. The liturgical text would later evolve into a rich, poetic, and spiritual culture that is a well-defined unit within the development of the Hebrew language.
The Jewish blessings, prayers, and poems are written in this Hebrew. This is the Hebrew that was spoken during the first and second centuries (at that time, both Aramaic and Hebrew were
used as the vernaculars of the Jews). The new reality that characterized the Jewish world after the destruction of the Second Temple (at the second half of the first century CE) gave rise to a new codex of laws and regulations called the ‘Mishnah’ (derived from the Hebrew verb ‘Le-Shanen,’ which means ‘to memorize’ and implies the unique way of studying in the Jewish culture of that time).
The ‘Mishnah’ is considered to be the very foundation of the Oral Rabbinic Jewish Law – also known as ‘Halachah’ (derived from the Hebrew verb ‘La-lechet’ which means ‘to walk’ and symbolizes ‘walking on the right path’) – and it is the last Jewish canonical text that was ever written during the time Hebrew was still used as both the native and vernacular language of the Jews in the land of Israel (composed around the year 220 CE).
The Hebrew of the ‘Mishnah’ represents a new phase in the development of the language and in some parts it is different than Biblical Hebrew in its grammar, syntax, vocabulary and even spelling!
The cultural environment of the first and second centuries CE was characterized by the strong dominance of mainly Greek and to some degree also Latin. This fact explains the significant influence of both of these languages on the Hebrew of this time.
About 200 years later, still within the Greek and Latin cultural world, the most important canonical text of the Rabbinic Jewish Oral Law was composed and became known as the ‘Talmud’ (derived from the Hebrew root L-M-D and literally means ‘study’ in Hebrew).
Even though the ‘Talmud’ was written originally in Aramaic, one can find many Hebrew words, terms and idioms that enrich the Hebrew language and are still in use today.
The ‘Talmud’ (around 400-500 CE) marks the end of the ancient period in Jewish history in general and in the development of Hebrew in particular. From then until the end of the 18th century, Hebrew would go through what is commonly referred to as the ‘transition phase’ of the language.
There is a common assumption that during the Medieval and Renaissance periods, Hebrew became a dead language, but as we will see here, nothing could be further from the truth. After the Talmud was composed in 400-500 CE, two fascinating Hebrew genres of both prose and poetry—the ‘Piyyut’ and the ‘Midrash’—gained popularity among the Jewish community of the Land of Israel, which resided mainly in the Galilee area (the northern part of Israel).
At that time, Hebrew was no longer a spoken language (to the same degree as it was before) and was used mainly for liturgical and educational purposes.
Medieval and Renaissance Hebrew
The ‘Piyyut’ (from the Greek word ‘poiétḗs’ which means ‘poet’), the Jewish liturgical poem which was recited/sung in synagogues, was one of the creative spiritual ways in which Jews expressed their deep connection to God. The nature of this unique spiritual poetry generated changes in some of the grammatical structures of Hebrew and created – in some rare cases – a new morphology of Hebrew nouns.
The ‘Piyyut’ was the main liturgical text at the service in the synagogue until it was replaced several centuries later by the ‘Siddur’ (from the word for ‘order’ in Hebrew) which is the ‘official’ Jewish prayer book.
After the congregation recited/sang the beautiful ‘Piyyutim’ (the plural form of ‘Piyyut’) came the time for the weekly sermon at the synagogue. The Hebrew word for ‘sermon’ is ‘Derashah’ and from this word a new term was derived – ‘Midrash’.
The ‘Midrash’ is the written form of the sermon at the synagogue which was processed and edited into a short text that at its center lies a story with a moral lesson. Due to its figurative nature, the ‘Midrash’ literature gave raise to many Hebrew idioms and phrases that enriched the Hebrew language.
Between the 8th and the 10th centuries, the entire structure of Hebrew orthography went through a reform and was reorganized by the Jewish scribe-scholars (the ‘Masoretes,’ which comes from the Hebrew word for ‘tradition’ – ‘Masoret’) who lived in the city of Tiberius, located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in the northern part of Israel.
Their most significant enterprise was probably the development of the ‘Niqqud’ system (‘Nequdah’ means a ‘dot’ or a ‘point’ in Hebrew). It is called that because of the dots which are used together with the Hebrew letters in written texts which is also known as the ‘vocalization’ or ‘vowelization’ of Hebrew.
Their most valuable work, by any standards, is the ‘Aleppo Codex’ (‘Keter Aram Tzova’ in Hebrew) which is a one-of-a-kind manuscript of the Hebrew Bible from the 10th century! The Aleppo Codex is housed today in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
By the 10th century and later until the end of the 15th century, the map of the Jewish settlement had changed completely in comparison to biblical times and the Roman Empire times. Most of the Jewish people did not reside in the Land of Israel or in the Middle East any longer. TWO new cultural Jewish centers emerged in Europe – one in Spain (‘Sefarad’ in Hebrew) and the other in Germany (‘Ashkenaz’ in Hebrew).
The Jewish cultural world in Spain was the dominant one during the Middle Ages. The Hebrew language and its culture were at their ‘golden age’ and it is mostly known for its unique style of medieval Hebrew poetry.
Spain was the leading Jewish cultural center of that time, but it does not mean the Jews in Germany and central Europe did not practice Hebrew at all. On the contrary, they advanced a different genre of Hebrew literature – the ‘Responsa’ literature.
The ‘Responsa’ literature in Hebrew is called ‘She’elot Ve-Teshuvot’ (‘Questions and Answers’) but is mostly known by its abbreviated name ShuT (pronounced as ‘Shoot ‘). It is a part of the rabbinic literature focused on Jewish law and ways of conduct (encompassing all different aspects of the Jewish life) and formulated in a question and reply format– hence its name.
Both Jewish centers in Spain and Germany have witnessed a new phase in the development of Hebrew – a phase which is characterized by a major foreign influence on the Hebrew language and its culture. During this time, a significant amount of knowledge exchange occurred between Christian Europe and Islamic Spain and the Middle East. This exchange took the forms of literature, science, philosophy and poetry.
The influence of this cultural exchange was manifested, among others, in a large amount of Hebrew manuscripts across a very wide spectrum of fields and topics. During this time, one can find Hebrew manuscripts about philosophy, algebra, astronomy, medicine, geography and even botany and zoology – all written in Hebrew.
In addition to that, Jews also translated foreign literature into Hebrew. In fact, the Hebrew translation of both ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ (‘Sinbad Ha-Malach’ in Hebrew) and ‘The Story of King Arthur’ (‘Ha-Melech Artur’ in Hebrew) were two of the most popular books among readers of the Medieval Jewish world!
At the end of the 15th century, following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the migration of Jews from Germany to Eastern Europe (mainly to Poland), there was a decline in the proliferation of Hebrew writings. On the other hand, the invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century made the Hebrew books much more accessible and thus contributed significantly to the distribution of the language (the first printing houses in the Near East were printing ONLY Hebrew books!)
During the 16th and the 17th centuries, ‘Hebraism’ – the Christian interest in post-biblical Hebrew – began to gain popularity in the Netherlands and Britain.
Besides the religious and liturgical literature, which were kept printed all the time, one can also find a diverse informative secular Hebrew literature in the form of dictionaries, different lexicons and even a scientific encyclopedia (printed in Germany in the beginning of the 18th century).
As you have probably noticed, unlike the common (false) assumption, Hebrew was not a dead language at all. It kept evolving and absorbed new terms and vocabulary from several cultures throughout history.
However, it was only at the end of the 18th century when Hebrew entered its new modern phase and regained the prominent position it had once held during ancient times.
Modern and Israeli Hebrew
The revival of the Hebrew language in modern times is sometimes considered no less than a miracle. Undoubtedly, it was – and still is – an amazing phenomenon which stands alone in the history of humanity.
It is important to understand that Modern Hebrew did not simply appear from nowhere and that there was a process of development that ultimately led to the renewal of this ancient language.
At the second half of the 18th century, the Jewish enlightenment movement was established in Germany. Their objectives were, among others, to restore the Hebrew language to its natural place as the ‘original Jewish language.’ One of their first actions was the foundation of the first newspaper in Hebrew at the end of the 18th century.
During the 19th century, the Jewish national movement ‘Zionism’ (the return to Zion), gained much popularity among the Jewish world and placed a lot of emphasis on using Hebrew in the daily life and outside of the synagogue and the Jewish schools.
Some key figures such as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) but also many others put the reviving of the Hebrew language as the first place priority and began to create a modern language with the foundations of an ancient language. In short, they desired to use ancient Hebrew roots – from the Bible – and adjust them to ideas, concepts and the new technological developments of modern times.
The revivers of the Hebrew language were influenced by European languages (mainly Latin, German and some Russian) on the one hand but also from the languages of the Near East (mainly Aramaic and Arabic) on the other hand. The Turkish language played a role as well due to the long 400 years control over the land of Israel by the Ottoman Empire.
When the British captured the Land of Israel in 1917 and ruled the country for thirty years until the establishment of the state of Israel, Hebrew received a legal status and is used as an official language since then (together with English and Arabic).
The presence of the British in the land of Israel made an impact on the Hebrew language as well and that was the source for foreign English vocabulary and not American English (today this is no longer the case and it is influenced by American English).
Today, Modern Hebrew is the native language of about four million people and is spoken by another six to eight million people all over the world.
*Note: I would like to point out that the foreign influences of the different languages on Hebrew did not create a new language which is a mix of several different languages (as one may think) but rather manifested in some vocabulary, figures of speech, idioms and even pronunciation on a smaller scale.
Modern Hebrew is another layer in the development process of the Hebrew language and it is based on all the previous stages of Hebrew throughout history.