Historical Dictionary Project


The Academy is the premiere global institution for the scientific study of the Hebrew language. Its primary activity is the Historical Dictionary Project (HDP), which was formally established in the 1950s. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was the first to create a historical dictionary: The Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, 1908-1959, which brought together Hebrew from different eras. Nonetheless, one man alone cannot truly complete such an enormous project.

As early as 1937, the president of Va’ad HaLashon (“The Language Committee”), Prof. N.H. Tur-Sinai (Picture on the right), proposed the establishment of “a large endeavor which prepares an academic dictionary of our language, in all of the periods and evolutions that it has endured from the moment it is documented, until today.” Later, with the establishment of the Academy, it was decided that the Historical Dictionary Project would be its central purpose. The overarching goal of the HDP is to present the history and development of the Hebrew lexicon, from the earliest occurrences of words down through their most recent documentation. Whereas similar historical dictionary projects in Europe merely brought citations from texts of recent centuries, the Academy’s HDP is based upon all post-biblical Hebrew texts up until 1100 CE, and large selections of literature from the periods thereafter until the founding of the State of Israel. It was decided to begin with texts from the post-biblical period, and thus the database reflects more than 2000 years of Hebrew writing.

Such a project requires a large textual database, and the HDP was one of the first in the world to use modern technology for a computerized concordance. In 2005, some fifty years after the beginning of the project, it was decided there was enough material to begin the writing of entries.


Early Days

The founder and first editor of the dictionary was Prof. Ze’ev Ben-Hayyim, who served as editor from 1956-1992. The beginning of his term was spent in determining the ideological and technical visions for such a large undertaking. From 1957-1958, Ben-Hayyim spent time in Europe visiting similar historical dictionary projects throughout the continent. Upon his return, he reported on what he  learned to the Academy’s Historical Dictionary committee and proposed a plan of action for the HDP, including the use of computers, a revolutionary idea at the time.

Initially there was debate as to whether the Academy should create a series of dictionaries according to periods or literary genres, or whether it should work towards one integrated dictionary. In 1959 it was decided that there would be one central dictionary containing all periods. Material was first gathered from the ancient literature between 200 BCE and 1100 CE, and later, modern literature from 1750 onwards.

The work on the Historical Dictionary Project is based on the best possible manuscripts of the texts, which are entered into the database by three Academy researchers, and then analyzed by another three workers. In those cases in which there are several extant manuscripts, the clearest and most complete manuscript has been selected for incorporation into the dictionary. Manuscripts give a much more accurate view of the language than is found in printed editions of the texts. Working with manuscripts, including small fragments found in the famous Cairo Geniza, has been demanding and required considerable time and effort, yet it has been most rewarding for the linguistic information it has yielded.

Not only “literature” is included into the dictionary. The section on Ancient Hebrew, for example, is based on inscriptions, coins, the Judean Desert scrolls, liturgy, Talmud and Midrash, poetry, Karaite literature and Gaonic texts. The inclusion and classification of material from this period is almost finished.

The work on Modern literature began in 1969. There is no way to fully catalog all the material due to its enormous breadth. Material here includes belles-lettres, scientific, natural, and medical texts, history, geography, journalist, periodicals, and more. The entire corpora of three authors are included in the dictionary: Mendele Moicher Sforim, Haim Nahman Bialik and Shmuel Yosef Agnon. By 2010 some 600 works from 80 authors had been entered into the dictionary, on the whole according to their first editions of the works.

During the past decade work has begun on Medieval literature. It is during the Medieval Period that there was the largest dispersion of the Jewish people and the variety of texts reflects the extent of the dispersion. Among the first texts to have been analyzed were Spanish poetry and rabbinic literature from 1050-1550.


One of the Academy’s major enterprises—undertaken in its role as the supreme institute of the Hebrew language—is the Historical Dictionary of the Hebrew Language. Initiated with the founding of the Academy in the 1950s, the Historical Dictionary Project aims to compile an authoritative historical dictionary of the Hebrew lexicon: the meanings and morphology of words over the generations, their first attestations, and when their use ceased. As opposed to historical dictionaries of European languages, which rely on select quotations alone, the HDP’s vision was to create a complete computerized database of all the Hebrew texts up to the eleventh century, and a large selection of Hebrew literature from the eleventh century to the founding of the state of Israel. In practice, a decision was made to begin with postbiblical literature; thus, at present, the database encompasses over two thousand years of Hebrew writing.

After five decades of dedicated effort by dozens of scholars of linguistics, literature, and Judaic studies, the Historical Dictionary has achieved its vision. Its database constitutes a unique treasure trove: a complete computerized concordance of ancient and modern Hebrew literature, presently available on the Ma’agarim website.

In 2005 the Academy staff began writing the entries for the historical dictionary, at this stage, for the ancient literature section only.

Ancient Literature

Based on the best manuscript witnesses from libraries worldwide, the Historical Dictionary Project has compiled all Hebrew compositions from the post-biblical era to the end of the Geonic Period. Naturally, for the ancient period, the vast majority of the original manuscripts are no longer extant. Of the witnesses to ancient Hebrew, the most faithful, unmediated by copyists, come from archeological excavations: tombstones, synagogue dedications, coins, and seal impressions.

Unlike the Judean Desert Scrolls, which accurately reflect the Hebrew of their day, most ancient texts have reached us in late copies. In the process of being copied, in some cases hundreds of times, many mistakes were introduced, especially when copyists corrected texts without fully understanding the language of the original. Thinking to improve, they actually corrupted the text. Therefore, the Historical Dictionary Project seeks the best transmission of each text, based on expert scholarly advice.

At present, most of the material assigned to the ancient literature section has been compiled and analyzed in the Historical Dictionary database. The Geonic material still awaits analysis.

Medieval Literature

The first decades of the Historical Dictionary Project were primarily devoted to collection and analysis of ancient and Haskalah literature, leaving a seven-century gap, from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries. The time has come to fill this lacuna. But, because of the wide geographical distribution of Jewish cultural centers during this period, and the scope and variety of its most significant literature, only a portion of the extant medieval compositions will be analyzed for the database.


In 2009 the HDP undertook compilation of the sourcebook for selected eleventh- to sixteenth-century rabbinical works, the most widespread genre of the age in Hebrew writing, whose influence on future generations was decisive. The chosen sources encompass halakhic, exegetical, and homiletical works from different traditions and periods. Additional literary genres will be analyzed in the future, first and foremost scientific tracts and Hebrew translations of classical works.


The poetry of the Spanish Jews, both religious and secular, was preserved by the Spanish exiles. Viewed by many in the Jewish and non-Jewish world alike as the acme of Hebrew poetry, it influenced other centers of poetry—Yemen, Italy, and even Ashkenaz. The poetry of the early Spanish poets (such as Dunash ibn Labrat, Menahem ben Saruq, and their disciples) has already been entered into the database. At present, the works of the “Golden Age” in Spain (11th-12th centuries), including works by the three outstanding poets of the day—Samuel ha-Nagid, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Judah Halevi—are being processed.

Modern Hebrew Literature

In 1969 the HDP began its compilation of Modern Hebrew works, starting with works from the Haskalah period in Germany (mid-eighteenth century) and concluding with the founding of the State of Israel. In 2009 this scope was broadened to include Hebrew literature composed in Italy and Amsterdam from the fifteenth century on.

Modern Hebrew writing constitutes an important building block in the formation of modern spoken Hebrew. Composed in a modern European cultural and intellectual setting, it was influenced by and adapted itself to the majority culture. Its works reflect a variety of new genres: belles letters, autobiography, and journalism, among others, as well as scientific literature. In all these genres we find words, phrases, and meanings that are currently in use. The processes sparked by the printing revolution that continued with the creation of Mendele Mokher Seforim’s style and culminated in the renewal of Hebrew speech, laid the foundations for a modern secular Hebrew language.

The works by three of the modern period’s most eminent writers—Mendele Mokher Seforim, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, and Shmuel Yosef Agnon—will be processed in their entirety. For the works of other writers, including Ahad Ha-Am, Joseph Brenner, Y.D. Berkowitz, Uri Gnessin, Hayyim Hazaz, Zeev Jabotinsky, Abraham Mapu, Moses Mendelssohn, Perets Smolenskin, and Moses Hayyim Luzzatto—selected texts will be processed.

In the database, the texts for Modern Hebrew literature are typeset according to their first printed edition. At present, over 600 texts of varying length—containing some 10 million words produced by about 100 writers—have been processed, and concordance entries have been prepared for about one-third of these compositions.

Archive of the Hebrew Language

From the beginning, the Historical Dictionary Project intended not only to produce a dictionary, but also to create an archive of the Hebrew language. In 2010, the Hebrew texts from the post-Biblical Period down through the 11th century were fully integrated into the computerized database. In this archive there are not only individual words, but also complete texts that have been painstakingly copied according to the best manuscripts available. This archive is available online.

In addition to the ability to perform grammatical analyses and concordance searches, the archives also contain unique texts, such as the poetry from the 11th century. The archive is an indispensable tool used by researchers of Hebrew literature and language.


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