Skip to main content
Select Source:

Hebrew

HEBREW

Major official language of the State of Israel.

Hebrew is the national language of the Jewish population of Israel (about 5 million) and the mother tongue of Jews born in the country. For world Jewry (about 14 million) it is the traditional liturgical language and a link to daily life in contemporary Israel.

Hebrew is the original language of the Bible. It has played a central role in the cultural history of the Jewish people for the past three millennia, and has had an important impact on Western culture. Ancient Hebrew names such as Jacob, Joseph, Sarah, and Mary, and old Hebrew words or concepts such as "amen," "hallelujah," "hosanna," "Sabbath," and "Messiah" have survived, resisting translation in many languages and cultures.

Hebrew belongs to the Canaanite group of the Northwestern Semitic or AfroAsiatic family of languages. During its long history (which follows the historical course of the Jewish people), it has undergone diverse changes and has developed several different layers, from biblical Hebrew to modern Israeli Hebrew.

Biblical Hebrew (BH) is believed to have crystallized over 3,000 years ago, when the Israelite tribes coalesced into a homogeneous political unit under the monarchy in Jerusalem (eleventhtenth centuries b.c.e.). It emerged as a fully formed literary language whose poetic grandeur is attested by the oldest portions of the Bible, written about that time.

In its early, classical form BH functioned as a living language until the end of the First Temple Period (586 b.c.e.). Due to its prestigious status as the language of the early books of the Bible, it survived as a literary language until the second century b.c.e., as seen in the late books of the Bible, in the Apocrypha, and in the Dead Sea Scrolls. BH was employed centuries later, mainly by the Hebrew poets of medieval Spain (eleventh to thirteenth centuries) and the writers of the Jewish Enlightenment movement in Eastern Europe (late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Most important, because praying and reciting the Bible in the original Hebrew have always been central to synagogue worship, contact with BH has never ceased. The preservation throughout the ages of the morphological structure of BH accounts for the relative uniformity in the various historical layers of the language.

The Second Temple Period (516 b.c.e.70 c.e.) saw the beginning of Jewish bilingualism. Aramaic, another Northwestern Semitic language, closely akin to Hebrew and a lingua franca in the ancient Middle East, became the second language of the Jewish people. The contact between BH and Aramaic (and, to a certain degree, Greek and Latin) gradually resulted in an enriched and quite different kind of spoken Hebrew with a literary counterpart, known as Rabbinic Hebrew (RH). A change in script occurred at that time, the ancient Canaanite alphabet of BH being replaced by the Assyrian square script used in Aramaic.

Well adapted to deal with everyday practical matters, RH was employed in writing down the Mishna (the oral law, 220 c.e.), and for several hundred years it continued to be used together with Aramaic in the Rabbinic literature (the Talmud and the

Midrash). Its role as a spoken language, however, declined at the end of the second century c.e., following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Judaean state by the Romans (70 c.e.).

For the following 1,700 years, Hebrew fell into disuse as a spoken language in daily use because the diaspora Jews used the vernaculars of their host countries for communication. Nevertheless, Hebrew was by no means a dead language. In their dispersed communities the Jewish people continued to use it as their written language in their liturgical, scholarly, literary, and even practical activities. Writing and copying were greatly aided in the Middle Ages by the introduction of the Rashi script (which survives among Middle Eastern Jews). In addition to the vast, multifaceted religious and secular literature written in Hebrew at that period, hundreds of books were translated into Hebrew, primarily from Arabic and Latin. Each of these literary activities contributed to the growth of the language by enriching its vocabulary and by introducing new syntactic patterns. At the same time, many Hebrew words and expressions were incorporated into the Jewish languages that developed alongside the vernaculars, such as JudeoArabic, JudeoSpanish, and Yiddish.

The search for a new Hebrew idiom, suitable for a realistic literary expression in the modern era, followed the revival of Hebrew culture by the Jewish Enlightment Movement. Mendele Mokher Seforim (18351917) is considered the first modern writer who integrated in his style varied elements from all the periods of Hebrew as well as from Yiddish. His work contributed to the transformation of Hebrew into a flexible modern literary vehicle and helped pave the way for the rise of modern Hebrew literature.

The renaissance of Hebrew as a spoken language in the twentieth century was closely linked to the national revival of the Jewish people in their forefathers' land. Hebrew was revived thanks to the efforts of a small group of devoted people, led by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (18571922), who in 1881 settled in Jerusalem and pioneered Hebrew usage at home and in school. He published a Hebrew periodical, promoted the coining of new words, and cofounded the Language Committee (18901953), which began dealing with language planning issues and set normative measures. Above all, Ben-Yehuda compiled several volumes of the first modern dictionary of ancient and modern Hebrew.

Ben-Yehuda's work gained increasing support from the waves of Jewish immigrants and refugees returning to Zion. When the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, Hebrew was a functioning modern language, fully established as the living language of the growing Jewish community in the country. Supervision of its continuous growth was assigned in 1953 to the Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem.

Since the first days of its rebirth, thousands of new words have been created in Hebrew from its own roots and many of its ancient words have been given new meanings. Influence from other languages on vocabulary and syntax may be discerned as well. Encompassing all areas of life and gaining ever greater flexibility, Hebrew has become the dynamic, vibrant language of modern Israel.

See also ben-yehuda, eliezer; dead sea scrolls.

Bibliography

Saenz-Badillos, Angel. The History of the Hebrew Language, translated by John Elwolde. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Waldman, Nahum. The Recent Study of Hebrew. Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew Union College Press, 1989.

ruth raphaeli

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Hebrew." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Hebrew." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hebrew

"Hebrew." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hebrew

Hebrew language

Hebrew language, member of the Canaanite group of the West Semitic subdivision of the Semitic subfamily of the Afroasiatic family of languages (see Afroasiatic languages). Hebrew was the language of the Jewish people in biblical times, and most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. The oldest extant example of Hebrew writing dates from the 11th or 10th cent. BC Hebrew began to die out as a spoken tongue among the Jews after they were defeated by the Babylonians in 586 BC Well before the time of Jesus it had been replaced by Aramaic as the Jewish vernacular, although it was preserved as the language of the Jewish religion. From AD 70, when the dispersion of the Jews from Palestine began, until modern times, Hebrew has remained the Jewish language of religion, learning, and literature. During this 2,000-year period, Hebrew has always been spoken to some extent. At the end of the 19th cent. the Zionist movement brought about the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, which culminated in its designation as an official tongue of the state of Israel in 1948. There it is spoken by most of the 4.5 million Jews of that country.

Grammatically, Hebrew is typical of the Semitic tongues in that so many words have a triconsonantal root consisting of three consonants separated by vowels. Changes in, or omissions of, the vowels alter the meaning of a root. Prefixes and suffixes are also added to roots to modify the meaning. There are two genders, masculine and feminine, which are found in the inflection of the verb as well as in noun forms. Modern Hebrew has experienced some changes in phonology, syntax, and morphology. Pronunciation of various orthographical forms has changed, as well as the rules for prefixing and suffixing prepositions to nouns and pronouns. Ancient Hebrew seemed to favor a word order in which the verb precedes the subject of a sentence, but in modern Hebrew the subject typically precedes the verb. Hebrew vocabulary has been updated by the addition of many new words, especially words of a scientific nature.

The earliest alphabet used for Hebrew belongs to the Canaanite branch of the North Semitic writing and is known as Early Hebrew. Later the Jews adapted the Aramaic writing and evolved from it a script called Square Hebrew, which is the source of modern Hebrew printing. Most modern Hebrew handwritten text uses a cursive script developed more recently. Today the Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, all consonants. Symbols for the vowels were apparently introduced about the 8th cent. AD and are usually placed below the consonants if employed. Their use is generally limited to the Bible, verse, and children's books. Hebrew is written from right to left.

See W. Chomsky, Hebrew: The Eternal Language (1957); D. J. Kamhi, Modern Hebrew (1982); E. Kutscher, A History of the Hebrew Language (1984); L. Glinert, The Grammar of Modern Hebrew (1989).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Hebrew language." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Hebrew language." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hebrew-language

"Hebrew language." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hebrew-language

HEBREW

HEBREW The Semitic language of the ancient Israelites and modern ISRAEL, closely related to Aramaic and Phoenician, more distantly to ARABIC. Hebrew is one of the oldest living languages, best known as the language of the Hebrew or Jewish BIBLE. In biblical times, it was called yehudit (Jewish) and in post-biblical rabbinic literature lashon kodesh (Holy Tongue). Scholars divide it historically into four phases: Biblical Hebrew (c.12c BC–c.AD 70), Mishnaic Hebrew (c.AD 70–500), Medieval Hebrew (6–13c), and Modern Hebrew (from the late 19c). The fourth phase is known to its speakers as ivrit, a revived form developed chiefly in Palestine by European Jewish settlers, especially after 1880. It became the predominant language of the state of Israel after 1948 and with Arabic is one of its official languages. It is often referred to as Israeli Hebrew. The ALPHABET consists of 22 letters, all consonants. Hebrew is written from right to left with or without vowel signs above and below the consonants. Currently, it has about 4 m speakers, most of whom live in Israel.

Hebrew in English

(1) Because of the influence of Bible translations, there have been words and names of Hebrew origin in English since Anglo-Saxon times. They include amen, babel, behemoth, camel, cherub, gehenna, leviathan, manna, rabbi, Sabbath, shekel, shibboleth. (2) A number of religious and cultural terms were introduced during the Renaissance through the works of scholars, such as Cabbala 1521, Talmud 1532, Sanhedrin 1588, Mishnah 1610, mezuzah 1650. (3) Since the 19c, Yiddish has been an indirect source of Hebraisms, by and large colloquialisms such as kosher ritually fit, all right, satisfactory, legitimate, mazuma money, cash, shamus a policeman, detective, chutzpah impudence, gall, goy a gentile, megillah a long story. (4) During the 20c, terms from Modern Hebrew, used mainly by English-speaking Jews, include kibbutz a collective Israeli farming community, hora a Romanian and Israeli round dance, moshav a cooperative Israeli farming community, sabra a native-born Israeli.

English in Hebrew

The lexical and semantic influence of English on Israeli Hebrew has been considerable. During British rule in Palestine (1917–48), English was an official language. Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, the influence of English on Hebrew continued through American Jewish immigration, various English-language periodicals (notably the Jerusalem Post), and English-language motion pictures and television programmes (though most are subtitled in Hebrew). Generally, BrE is the dominant influence, as with karavan (a light mobile home) not AmE trailer, and tships (chips) not french fries, but AmE is becoming increasingly popular and includes such colloquialisms as okey OK and hay Hi. See JEWISH ENGLISH.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"HEBREW." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"HEBREW." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hebrew-0

"HEBREW." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hebrew-0

Hebrew

Hebrew a member of an ancient people living in what is now Israel and Palestine and, according to biblical tradition, descended from the patriarch Jacob, grandson of Abraham. After the Exodus (c.1300 bc) they established the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and their scriptures and traditions form the basis of the Jewish religion. Also, the Semitic language of this people, in its ancient or modern form.
Epistle to the Hebrews a book of the New Testament, traditionally included among the letters of St Paul but now generally held to be non-Pauline.
Hebrew Bible the sacred writings of Judaism, called by Christians the Old Testament, and comprising the Law (Torah), the Prophets, and the Hagiographa or Writings.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Hebrew." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Hebrew." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/hebrew

"Hebrew." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/hebrew

Hebrew

He·brew / ˈhēbroō/ • n. 1. a member of an ancient people living in what is now Israel and Palestine and, according to biblical tradition, descended from the patriarch Jacob, grandson of Abraham. After the Exodus (c.1300 bc) they established the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and their scriptures and traditions form the basis of the Jewish religion. ∎ old-fashioned and sometimes offensive term for Jew. 2. the Semitic language of this people, in its ancient or modern form. • adj. 1. of the Hebrews or the Jews. 2. of or in Hebrew.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Hebrew." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Hebrew." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/hebrew-1

"Hebrew." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/hebrew-1

Hebrew

Hebrew adj. and sb. XIII. ME. ebreu — OF. ebr(i)eu (mod. hébreu) — medL. Ebrēus, for L. Hebræus — late Gr. Hebraîos — Aram. ‘ebrāyā’, for Heb. ‘ibrī’ lit. ‘one from the other side’ (sc. of the river).
So Hebraic XIV. — ChrL. Hebraicus — late Gr. Hebraïkós. Hebraism XVI. — F. or modL. Hebraist XVIII.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Hebrew." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Hebrew." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/hebrew-2

"Hebrew." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/hebrew-2

Hebrew

Hebrew Language of the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. Orginally spoken in Palestine, it is the language of the Old Testament. It declined during the Babylonian Captivity, supplanted by Aramaic. Hebrew persisted as a literary and liturgical language among Jews. The 19th-century Zionist movement revived Hebrew as a spoken language. It became the official language of Israel in 1948. See also Yiddish

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Hebrew." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Hebrew." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hebrew

"Hebrew." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hebrew

Hebrew

Hebrew •Andrew •Maseru, Nehru •aircrew • écru • breakthrough •Hebrew • see-through • corkscrew •walk-through •Nakuru, Nauru •froufrou • guru • woodscrew •thumbscrew • run-through • Timaru

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Hebrew." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Hebrew." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/hebrew-0

"Hebrew." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/hebrew-0