Hebrew Throughout the Ages

The section below details the timeline of how the Hebrew language has developed over the past three thousand years. It includes Biblical Hebrew, Inter-Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, Medieval Hebrew, and Modern Hebrew.

Biblical Hebrew

It is largely accepted that there are three periods of Biblical Hebrew:

Archaic Biblical Hebrew: represented by certain poems in the Pentateuch and the Prophets.

Standard Biblical Hebrew: found in Biblical prose from Genesis through Second Kings.

Late Biblical Hebrew: as seen in post-exilic books such as Ezra, Nehmiah, Daniel, and the Chronicles.

There are seven common verb stems of Biblical Hebrew, which fall into three groups. The first is made up of two stems, Qal and Nif’al. Verbs in Qal may be active or stative, and Nif’al verbs usually express either reflexivity, reciprocity, or may express the passive of Qal verbs.

The second group contains three stems, Pi”el, Pu”al and Hitpa”el. The characteristic trait of this group is the doubling (“germination”) of the second consonant and the stems are often called “intensive.” Pi”el verbs sometimes are factitive, Pu”al is an internal passive of Pi”el, and Hitpa”el may be reflexive or reciprocal, infrequently passive.

The third group includes two stems and is formed with a prefixed consonant “he”: Hif’il is causative-factitive and Hof’al functions as its internal passive.

Biblical Hebrew has a sensitive and complex system of denoting subtle indications of time and aspect. The frequency of the conjunction “waw” before many verbs, according to medieval Jewish grammarians, could change the tense of a verb; this “waw” is known as the “waw conversive.”

Foreign Loan Words

According to Kutscher, “The native vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew is a true reflection of the life, geographical background, means of livelihood, manner and customs, religion and beliefs of the Jewish people during Biblical times.” By means of the vocabulary, one can obtain a sociological breakdown of Jewish agricultural society.

Technical and commercial terms are largely foreign words, which Kutscher attributes to the “foreignness” of these concepts to the ancient Israelites, whereas the large number of native agricultural terms gives a window into the importance of working the land. For example, Kutscher notes there are 117 names of plants in Biblical Hebrew, 18 of which are thorns and thistles!

Due to the Silk Road and other trade routes, the average Jew in Biblical times had broad geographical horizons, from India to Southern Arabia and Nubia, to Asia Minor, and possibly beyond the Greek Isles. The general population was exposed to numerous languages and Biblical Hebrew absorbed many foreign words, often recognized by their alien roots or appearance.

Additionally, there are included in the Biblical Hebrew lexicon what are called “travelling” or “culture” words These are words that appear simultaneously in several languages of the Mediterranean basin, such that it is impossible to know in which language the word originated. One example is the word “sack,” which is found in Egyptian and most Semitic languages. It was recorded in Greek and filtered into many European languages.

Akkadian, the language of the Babylonians and Assyrians, is one of the main sources of loan words in Biblical Hebrew. As an example, the Hebrew month names today are of Akkadian origin. Several of them even appear in Late Biblical Hebrew books, whereas in Standard Biblical Hebrew the month names reflect the ancient Canaanite calendar.

However, more than any other language, it is Aramaic which left an indelible imprint on Hebrew, from the adoption of the Aramaic alphabet during Second Temple times to a more subtle influence of Aramaic roots that have so successfully infiltrated the language that it is almost impossible to spot them. As Kutscher states, “Because of the symbiosis of the two languages during the nearly one thousand years before Hebrew ceased being a spoken language (end of the second century CE), Aramaic became the main factor shaping Hebrew.” This influence is most felt in the late books, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, some Psalms, Esther, and more.


The most important inscriptions from the First Temple Period are the Gezer Calendar (Solomonic period, 10th century BCE), the Samaria Ostraca (time of Joash, end of 8th century), the famous Siloam Inscription of Hezekiah (end of the eighth century), a letter from Mesad Hashavyahu (also known as “Yavne-Yam”; time of Josiah, end of 7th century), the Lachish Letters and the Arad Ostraca (just before the end of the Kingdom of Judah, beginning of 6th century), according to Kutscher.

Recently, another early inscription has been found written on a pottery shard in Emek HaEla (possibly the Biblical Sha’arayim), which has been dated to the early 10th century BCE (during the reign of King David).


Inter-Biblical And Mishnaic Hebrew

Cairo Geniza

The discovery of a cache of documents in the Cairo Geniza revolutionized Jewish Studies as an academic discipline. A few scholars had known about the Geniza collection even as early as the 1750s, but its significance was only discovered when a pair of English twin sisters, Agnes S. Lewis and Margaret D. Gibson, brought renowned scholar Solomon Schechter text fragments from their Egyptian tour in 1896. Schechter was quick to understand the monumental importance of the find and travelled to Egypt where he acquired thousands of additional documents. Today, the largest stores of the Geniza finds are housed in the Taylor-Schechter collection in Cambridge (where Schechter taught), some 193,000 fragments, and there are an additional 31,000 at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where Schechter later served as president).


Ben Sira

One of the most important finds in the Cairo Geniza was a Hebrew version of the Book of Ben Sira. Though there were extant versions in Greek, Latin and Syriac, the Hebrew original had been presumed lost. A later monumental discovery by Yigael Yadin of additional fragments in Masada validated the text’s origins and time-frame. (Previously some scholars had thought the book to have been composed in the Middle Ages.)

The Masada fragments date back to 125-100 CE. The combination of the two finds gives a window into the history of the Hebrew language and the intertestamental literature of this period. Ben Sira, it seems, attempted to imitate the grammar and style of Biblical Hebrew, and his language drew heavily on the whole Hebrew Bible. However it could not help but be influenced by contemporary spoken languages such as Mishnaic Hebrew and Aramaic.

Additionally, there are influences from unknown foreign sources. Since all sources are written and literary, scholars know little about the actual spoken language at this period.


The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls, initially discovered by a shepherd in 1947 in caves in Qumran, above the Dead Sea, were originally part of a library of a Jewish sect that had settled in the region. In this material are portions, and even whole books, from the Jewish Bible and Apocrypha and Pseudocrypha, as well as sectarian writings, hymns, manuals, and commentaries.

Scholars have found interesting similarities between and differences in Biblical texts from the Masoretic version. For example, the complete Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa), whose text is largely similar, differs in spelling, phonetics, morphology, and in some cases, vocabulary, and syntax. Some scholars claim this reflects a more popular version of the book during this era. Among the many criteria used to determine the nature and date of the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls are the forms of proper names. The spelling and writing of proper names clearly reflect a Hebrew later than the Biblical period. According to Kutscher, since Aramaic was the lingua franca during this period, the differences found in the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect the characteristics of a literary Hebrew used in the last centuries of the first millennium BCE.

There are many similarities between the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls and that of the Samaritan oral tradition of the Pentateuch. Additionally, common Aramaic forms and usages left their marks on the language. Interestingly, there are remarkably few words adapted from additional languages: Greek and Latin are almost entirely absent from the Dead Sea Scrolls. One theory is that this was a conscious effort on the part of the writers to reject the foreign influence on their sacred language, perhaps an early Academy of the Hebrew Language. This consciousness is supported by the number of terms that appear to have been translated from Latin, especially those pertaining to the military. Two aspects of the vocabulary of the Dead Sea Scrolls merit special attention. Firstly, like today’s Academy, the writers of the scrolls took roots or words found in Biblical Hebrew whose meanings were lost or unknown and employed them with new meaning. Secondly, there are several words found in the scrolls whose meanings are only now more-fully understood to scholars of Biblical Hebrew thanks to their usage in the Dead Sea Scrolls.


Mishnaic Hebrew

Following the destruction of the Second Temple, Mishnaic Hebrew filled the vacuum left by the demise of Biblical Hebrew. It also was the spoken language of the region, as is attested in the Bar-Kokhba letters written during the Second Jewish Revolt (132-135 CE). After the defeat of the Jews during the Second Jewish Wars, most “native speakers” of the tongue were killed, and Mishnaic Hebrew remained as a literary language.

Therefore, when circa 200 CE Yehuda HaNasi and his students redacted the oral tradition in the Mishna, Tosefta, and halachic Midrash, the language was, as Kutscher states, “already dead, or moribund.”  He offers some evidence, including the fact that students of the Rabbi were no longer completely familiar with Hebrew to the extent that they sometimes had to consult the Rabbi’s maidservant for some meanings. (Kutscher’s assumption was that the maid, who was from a lower class, still spoke Hebrew as a native tongue, and she fled Judea with the Rabbi to the Aramaic-speaking regions of the North where the Mishna was compiled.)

There are two layers of Mishnaic Hebrew. MH1 is the older linguistic stratum of the Mishna, Tosefta, and the Baraytot in the Talmudim; MH1 was the spoken language of the Tannaim. MH2, on the other hand, no longer was spoken naturally, but was used as the language of literary and religious discourse by the Amoraim in the Talmudim.

An influential theory advanced by Abraham Geiger, one of the founders of the Jewish Reform movement, held that Mishnaic Hebrew was never spoken at all, but was always an artificial, literary language. This theory was dismissed in the first few decades of the twentieth century by M.H. Segal. The publication of the Bar-Kokhba letters in the early 1960s, which dealt with mundane military and civilian matters, left no doubt that Mishnaic Hebrew had indeed been spoken.


The vocabulary of Mishnaic Hebrew

The vocabulary of Mishnaic Hebrew is made up of Biblical words, Biblical material that underwent semantic or morphological changes, and foreign words from Akkadian, Persian, Greek, Latin and especially Aramaic. In some cases, words that were found in Biblical Hebrew with one meaning developed additional meanings in Mishnaic Hebrew.

There was more than one dialect of spoken Mishnaic Hebrew. A proof of this is the existence of several cases  of multiple words for the same object among the Tannaim. The Mishnaic Hebrew spoken in Babylonia differed from that in Palestine.

Two corpora of transliterations are highly instructive in learning more about Hebrew in the first half of the first millennium CE. The first is the “Secunda,” the second column of the Hexapla, which is a six-column edition of the Bible edited by Origenes, who lived in Caesarea in the third century CE. The first column contained the Biblical text in Hebrew letters, the second a transliteration of the Hebrew text in Greek letters, and they were followed by four different Greek translations. Though only a few fragments survived of the second column, it makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the pronunciation of Hebrew at this period.

The transliterations of St. Jerome, who lived in Palestine at the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth century CE, are also a gold mine of information. A Christian convert from paganism, he came to the Holy Land from Europe and learned Hebrew from Jewish teachers to better translate the original Biblical texts into Latin. Several words of Mishnaic Hebrew are preserved in his writings.


Medieval Hebrew

From the fifth century CE on, Hebrew was not used anywhere in the world as an everyday spoken language. However, it continued to be widely used as a literary language up until its modern revival as a spoken tongue.
One instance in which Hebrew did continue to be spoken was among Jews traveling from East to West or migrating from country to country. Additionally, Hebrew may have been used as the language of instruction in Jewish schools in Muslim countries, and even in Amsterdam. In the Holy Land, there are also indications of Hebrew speech throughout the centuries; even Moses Montefiore mentions it (19th century). However, though not generally spoken, the language continued to evolve.
As the Jews were a widely dispersed people during this period, there is significant borrowing from foreign languages, both into Hebrew and from it. Arabic was the most influential in many ways, particularly in literature and the sciences.
During the last part of this period, new Jewish languages arose as the result of contact between different spoken vernaculars and Hebrew, for example, Yiddish (German and Hebrew), Ladino (Spanish and Hebrew), Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic and Hebrew).


The two most significant developments during this period were the invention of the vocalized vowel signs, and the rise of Hebrew grammar and lexicography. Prior to the development of the Masoretic diacritical marks, only a select few professional readers would have been able to recite the Bible in synagogues without being influenced by their spoken languages. This was made more complicated by the fact that by the 8th century, Jews had to know three languages or dialects for religious purposes: Biblical Hebrew (for the Hebrew Bible), Mishnaic Hebrew (for the study of the Mishna), and Aramaic (for the study of the targumim and the Talmud).

The Masoretic system was developed in Tiberias in the second half of the first millennium CE. While it became the most widely used system, others were developed in Babylonia (which was used by the Yemenite community until a few generations ago) and in Palestine (it was unknown to scholars until discovered in the Cairo Geniza). Thanks to the standardization of the Biblical vocalization, every literate Jew had the ability to read the Bible.


Poetry in the Middle Ages was generally composed in Hebrew and some legal contracts were written in it as well. In Arab countries, Jews originally wrote poetry in Hebrew for religious purposes; in Christian countries, on the other hand, all literary production was written in Hebrew, whether related to religious subjects or secular.

From the middle of the first millennium CE, piyyut, a new genre of religious poetry, became popular in Palestine. It quickly spread across the Diaspora, reaching its height around the 15th century CE. These poems were recited in synagogues as an ornamental addition to the regular liturgy.

The authors of these religious poems used revolutionary linguistic tactics in their composition. In addition to using rare vocabulary and forms which had previously only been used in Biblical Hebrew, when a needed word could not be found in Biblical Hebrew, they also made use of Mishnaic Hebrew and Aramaic. Moreover, the poets (paytanim) were fond of word play. Famous authors of early piyyutim in Palestine were Yose ben Yose (5th-6th century), Yannai (6th-7th century), and Elazar HaKalir (6th-7th century). Outside of Palestine, the most noted author was Sa’adya Gaon (9th-10th century), who lived in Babylonia and was influential in disseminating the Hebrew language through his work on grammar and lexicography. He also translated the Bible into Arabic, which is still used today by Jews from Arab lands.

In the twelfth century, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra led a backlash against the paytanim stating that the indiscriminate use of Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew was unseemly. Another rabbi in the 18th century called their language a denigrating “mixture of languages.”

A new branch of secular poetry also developed during this period. Whereas the goal of the paytanim was largely to use Biblical Hebrew to glorify God, secular poets wrote their Hebrew with a freer hand and even created new verbs and nouns from existing Hebrew roots.

Among the famous secular poets are Shmuel HaNagid, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, Judah HaLevi, and Ibn Ezra. They drew freely upon Mishnaic Hebrew and the usages of the paytanim and were somewhat influenced by Arabic.

Beginnings of Hebrew Linguistics

As Salo Wittmayer Baron stated in his Social and Religious History of the Jews, “Perhaps in no period of human history did preoccupation with the correctness and purity of the spoken and written language become such a deep concern of educated classes as during the Islamic Renaissance.”

Though the Rabbanite Sa’adya Gaon composed treatises on linguistics, as did others in the 9th-10th centuries, it is Karaite scholars who are considered to have been the founders of Hebrew linguistics. Additionally, it was the Jews in 10th-13th century Spain who produced a golden age in linguistic research, influenced to a considerable extent by the Judeo-Arabic symbiosis.

The most important founders of Hebrew linguistics include Menahem ben Saruq, Dunash ben Labrat, Judah ben Hayyuj, and especially Yonah Ibn Janah. A father and son team, Joseph Qimhi (born in Spain) and David Qimhi (born in France), composed grammars and dictionaries of Biblical Hebrew in Arabic.

Hebrew grammar is a result of the advent of Arabic grammar. The Spanish grammarians had a distinct advantage over the Arab grammarians in that they were knowledgeable in three Semitic languages, Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and could compare them.

Translations from Arabic

As Christian Europe was still in the grasp of the Dark Ages, the Islamic world was enjoying a Golden Age of enlightened and scientific thinking. Jews slowly brought these ideas into Europe by way of Hebrew translations of Arabic works, both written by Jews (Sa’adya Gaon, Maimonides) and Muslims. Due to the technical nature of many of these texts, neither Biblical nor Mishnaic Hebrew had the necessary terms in their lexicons. Therefore, translators translated the missing jargon from Arabic to Hebrew, creating a sort of “translation Hebrew” and generating thousands of new words. Also in the process of literal translations, many new syntactical forms were created.

Kutscher wrote, “The introduction into Hebrew of new words or new meanings for older words and constructions alien to Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew had an influence which is still felt today.”


Modern Hebrew

Mendele Mokher Sefarim (the pen name of Sholem Yakov Abramovich, 1836-1917) is often called the Creator of Modern Hebrew (as opposed to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the Father of Modern Hebrew). Whereas Jews in Central Europe had turned away from Hebrew in expressing secular subjects in favor of the local vernacular, Jews in Eastern Europe did not have access to non-Jewish culture and therefore still utilized Hebrew for writing secular thought.

Mendele is considered the father of two literary languages, Hebrew and Yiddish, which until then had been relegated to less academic usages. Mendele was very precise in his writing and found it difficult to express fully his ideas in a Biblical Hebrew-based Hebrew. He therefore decided to create a Hebrew language of his own.

In Mendele’s Hebrew there is significant exploitation and influence of Mishnaic Hebrew, both in terms of grammar and lexicon. He utilized Aramaic and turned to other sources as well: the siddur (prayer book), Medieval Hebrew, the widely-known Rashi commentaries, and other popular texts.

Mendele was successful in his new literary Hebrew, but he had no interest in reviving the language as a spoken tongue. Indeed, in one of his short stories he even mocks those who try to speak Hebrew. Spoken Hebrew needed a different patriarch, which it found in Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

Mendele published his great work, “Natural History,” in three volumes. The first volume, “Mammals,” was published in Leipzig in 1862. The second, “Birds”, was published in Zhytomyin 1866. And the third volume, “Reptiles,” was published in Vilnius in 1872. The image displayed here was scanned from the work’s accompanying illustrations, which were published at the end of the first volume.

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