Medieval Hebrew

From the fifth century CE on, Hebrew was no longer 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 developed in Babylonia (which was used by the Yemenite community until a few generations ago) and also 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.

In Palestine from the middle of the first millennium CE, piyyut, a new genre of religious poetry, became popular. 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, R. 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 thepaytanim was mainly to use Biblical Hebrew to glorify God, secular poets wrote their Hebrew with a more free 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 thepaytanim, 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 (born in Spain) and David (born in France) Qimhi 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 and contrast 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 in this way. 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.”

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