The Story of Hebrew

By Lewis Glinert, Ph.D.

The Talmud famously depicts Moses as transported 1200 years into Rabbi Akiva’s seminar on Mosaic law and finding himself unable to understand it. But the Hebrew wasn’t the problem, it was the rabbi’s legal arguments. In The Story of Hebrew (Princeton 2017), I catapult Moses a further 2000 years into a Tel Aviv street – and again, neither the Hebrew grammar nor the lexical structure will pose major problems. It’s still basically the same Ancient Near Eastern language – much more the same than Old ‘English’ and Modern English.

McDonalds in Israel (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s all relative, of course. There are many degrees and dimensions of linguistic sameness. Even mutual intelligibility is problematic when social and political identities are factored in. (Think Scandinavia or the Balkans.) Yet whether you ask the average linguist or the average Israeli, Hebrew (or whatever the Rabbis or the Iron Age folks called it) has been around linguistically and sociopolitically for a long time – and by every measure, it’s thriving.

But how this has come about is a much more complex matter, intertwined with the cultural history of the Jews and the societies around them. Let me take up some illuminating and often perplexing pieces of this story.

Gezer Calendar, ca. 10th century BCE (Center for Online Judaic Studies)

The Hebrew scriptures, many centuries in the making, are strikingly consistent linguistically and stylistically — proof of powerful literary and scribal traditions. And remarkably, despite the cultural-linguistic upheavals during the Babylonian exile and Judahite restoration (including the wholesale adoption of Aramaic and its script), the Hebrew literary tradition continued for centuries, producing new works as well as preserving old. More of an enigma is how spoken Hebrew rebounded as a vigorous minority vernacular in Second Temple Judah, eventually producing a new, quite unbiblical literary standard (Mishnaic Hebrew) capable of encoding the minutiae of everyday life for posterity. This re-hebraization betokens intense religious and nationalistic resistance to Hellenism and other Near Eastern cultures.

Then came Rome and two cataclysmic wars. This time, spoken Hebrew did not survive — but Hebrew did. Some of the paradoxes here can tell us a lot about language and Jewish values. In all the vast Rabbinic literature, the loss of vernacular Hebrew never merited an obituary, just passing comments. And should we be surprised? The privileging of the written word over the spoken has been the norm in almost every culture until the 20th century; indeed, the spoken word is often considered uncouth, unstable.

Second Temple half-shekel (Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, the Rabbis’ resolve to maintain a written Hebrew for a massive body of religious knowledge and liturgy — and to transmit it, largely by memorization, across the centuries, producing MishnahMidrash Halakha and what would eventually be called the Siddur — counted for far more. Here once more, the linguistic decision making has faded into the background of history. There was no guarantee that the choice of Hebrew would succeed, and the stakes were high. Were not Aramaic or Greek a more practical option? The Talmud and the later Midrashim, indeed, were eventually set down in a ‘mixed code’ of Hebrew and Aramaic. But the commitment of the 2nd century rabbinic leadership to Hebrew would prove to be crucial to its survival.

Hebrew in Diaspora is often described as a language of religion. Wide of the mark, however you define religion. And there are so many dimensions to language — and little awareness of them. Thus, who is involved? In what relationships? What situations? What are the words doing? What beliefs, values and identities do they reflect or serve? I can mention just a few of which we have an inkling.

Preserving sacred texts has been paramount. Once the Tanakh was canonized (how and when is unclear), Jewish custom required it to be transmitted in writing, in Hebrew, and some portions to be publicly chanted in the original and expounded – and to be intensively studied from childhood on, at least by menfolk. Many at times aspired to know the entire Tanakh. But how to notate the sounds and chants for posterity and produce a standardized text of the best linguistic traditions occupied scholars (the Masoretes) for centuries.

Aleppo Codex fragment, ca. 10th century CE (Times of Israel; Photo by Matti Friedman)

Hebrew never had a monopoly in matters sacred. A few chapters of Tanakh were in Aramaic, and the Rabbis gave it (and Greek) a sometimes grudging place in prayer and education. Both were widespread Jewish vernaculars in Late Antiquity. Albeit, Greek lost its aura (the annihilation of Egypt’s Jews and the rise of Greek Christianity played a part), but Aramaic found a new and lasting role as a lead language (in a Hebrew-Aramaic ‘mixed code’) for perpetuating Midrashic narrative and Talmudic debate — a quasi-orality. In the Middle Ages Aramaic would acquire other roles, but its place in Talmudic study at every level is unchallenged to this day.

Section of Yemenite Siddur, with Babylonian supralinear punctuation (Wikipedia)

Freezing Hebrew as a scriptural read-only language was never on the agenda. Down to modern times, it has been richly employed for all serious writing: narrative, depiction, lyricism, wit, preaching, hymns, exegesis, science, commerce and more — poetry here, prose there. If the purpose wasn’t trivial, it could be written in Hebrew, be it religious or profane (a problematic distinction in Judaism). The only major constraints were pragmatic: For academic topics, Jewish or otherwise, Jews in the early Medieval Arab world felt that Hebrew lacked the precision and the vocabulary, and generally used Arabic — or a register of Aramaic for legal or mystical matters. I say ‘pragmatic’ but actually they were perfectly capable of engineering Hebrew to serve academic purposes, and did so when translating such texts for Jews in Christian lands. Out of this would grow, eventually, today’s academic Hebrew.

Eleiezer & Hemdah Ben-Yehuda, 1912 (Wikimedia Commons)

Controversy there has been a-plenty, with poets particularly vocal. Should verse hew to Biblical Hebrew for its purity and sanctity, a riposte to Arab claims for the supremacy of Classical Arabic? Or should it rather treat the word patterns of Biblical (and Rabbinic) Hebrew as a carte blanche recipe for word coinage — as in the exuberant compositions still heard in synagogues today? Prose writers, by contrast, were left to write as they saw fit, often in a no-frills Rabbinic prose, sometimes in an Arabicized academic style (now long forgotten).

But linguistic passions flared in the 19th century, as modernizers sought to reinvent Hebrew as a vehicle for ‘enlightenment’ (Haskalah). Many scoffed. Some retorted with novels in gloriously Biblical prose. But a Modern (written) Hebrew rapidly emerged, with essays, newspapers and realist fiction in that no-frills Rabbinic style, its syntax and word-stock heavily Westernized.

One battle, however, remained to be fought – and it continues today, in the State of Israel: If Hebrew is to be a language for all purposes, with a functional school system, military, press etc., which Hebrew? One purged of foreignisms, as the language visionary Eliezer Ben-Yehuda craved? Based on Biblical words and structures or Rabbinic, or a mishmash? What pronunciation? And who would decide? A lot has happened by local decision and sheer osmosis. But the struggle between a classical and a romantic Hebrew spirit (to risk an anachronism) still haunts the Israeli Shabbat newspaper supplements, where novelists and journalists fiercely argue whether Hebrew should be given free rein or kept under close guard for its soul’s sake.

Banana advertisement, 1936-1939 (The National Library of Israel)

Whatever one’s views on this – and I triggered many anxieties in my tell-all Grammar of Modern Hebrew (1989) — it is sad that Israeli secular schools teach minimal Tanakh and little Rabbinics. Hebrew today continues to draw from fundamentally ancient roots, but many of its speakers now know little of the texts in which these roots are grounded.

This article originally appeared at H/T ASOR, The American Society of Oriental Research

Lewis Glinert is a Professor in the Department of Asian & Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures at Dartmouth College.


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