5 Fascinating Facts About the Hebrew Language
My late mom was born in 1943. My great-grandparents raised her, and her native languages were English and Yiddish. She spoke very little Hebrew. I spent several years at a yeshiva where I learned Hebrew. I grew up speaking a lot of Hebrew and very little Yiddish. The contrast between the language my mother knew and the language I knew is one of the most important stories of modern Jewish history.
In a new book, “The Story of Hebrew,” Lewis Glinert explores the often hidden history of the Hebrew language. Glinert is Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College. The book brings to light many facts about this most ancient and fascinating of languages.
The following are some of the most interesting ones I found.
1. Upper Class Second Temple Jews Preferred Aramaic
While Hebrew education thrived after the Second Temple restoration, vernacular Hebrew had little prestige. Formal Hebrew studies continued during this time. However, there was also a widely spoken vernacular Hebrew in this period. It was the language of Jews who had never been sent into Roman exile. This version of Hebrew was often held in great contempt. Upper class Jews probably preferred another language: Aramaic. Aramaic was a far more widely spoken language back then. This was the language most wealthy Jews back then probably used on a day-to-day basis.
2. The Masoretes Created a Standardized System of Pronunciation About a Thousand Years Ago
In the aftermath of the diaspora, Jews scattered even further. Hebrew pronunciations and writings were often unclear or lost. From the seventh to about the eleventh centuries, a group of scholars set about establishing standards for written Hebrew. Torah scholars and scribes known as Masoretes created a common cannon that is still used today. Led by a group of leaders centered in Tiberias, they “preserved the living sound and shape of biblical Hebrew,” and let people know how Hebrew was pronounced and used in the early centuries of the Common Era.
3. Christian Leaders Often Studied Hebrew
During the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Christian leaders sought to look at original sources in order to get a better understanding of Christianity. To do so, they increasingly turned to the study of Hebrew. Protestant Reformers sought to rid the Bible of what they saw as Catholic concepts that got in the way of the original Biblical texts. Reformation leaders like Martin Luther learned a great deal of Hebrew to get to these roots.
These Christian Hebraists did not necessarily respect Jews. Indeed, Martin Luther spend much of his last years crafting virulently anti-Semitic messages. In England, the creators of the King James Bible studied Hebrew closely. In America, early Puritans moved away from saint’s names for their children. Instead, they took names for their children from the Old Testament. The first book published in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a direct translation of the Book of Psalms from Hebrew. Pre-Revolutionary American Ivy League trained religious leaders spent many years mastering basic Hebrew.
4. Itamar Ben-Avi Was The First Modern Day Native Hebrew Speaker
For over a thousand years, there weren’t any native Hebrew speakers. People studied it the way they studied Latin and other dead languages. That all changed when Deborah and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda settled in Jerusalem. The two parents were determined to raise children who would be native speakers.
Itamar Ben-Avi, who was born in 1882, was their oldest son. His parents did their best to surround him with Hebrew every waking hour. He would grow up to be a noted journalist and respected activist for the cause of establishing a Jewish state. Many religious Jews disagreed with the decision to raise children speaking only Hebrew. To them, Hebrew was a language reserved solely for holy texts rather than everyday speech. Nevertheless, Hebrew as a living language to be taught to children from the very first quickly caught on. Many of his fellow residents of Jerusalem followed in Eliezer Ben-Yehuda‘s footsteps, creating a group of native Hebrew speakers where none had been before.
5. We Don’t Know Exactly How Hebrew Was Revived
The Zionist movement decided to make Hebrew the centerpiece of their movement. They felt it could help united Jews of varied backgrounds and languages. Given the decision to literally revive what had been a dead language, most people would imagine the process of doing would be closely watched. After all, this was a momentous choice.The leaders of the movement aimed to bring to life a dead language.
Yet, according to professor Glinert, “while this was the first and perhaps the only known case of the total revival of a spoken language,” we really don’t know how they did it. A group of largely Russian Jews took the literary Hebrew they knew and they made it a modern language. Ancient Hebrew words like “adom,” meaning, “red” were joined by new words like “varod,” meaning pink. All we know is they did it, creating a unified language for all Israelis.
And so the Yiddish of my turn of the century great-grandparents was shoved aside in favor of the Hebrew I was taught in the 1970’s. Today, Yiddish is still spoken by many Orthodox Jews. In the Brooklyn where I grew up, head to Borough Park or Crown Heights and you will hear it on the streets.
Ultimately, it is these two visions of Judaism that stand side by side in the modern world. The ability to fiercely cling to tradition and the ability to reshape the modern world and bring a new language to life are both part of our collective Jewish heritage.
Stacy Mintzer Herlihy is a freelance writer and co-author of “Your Baby’s Best Shot: Why Vaccines are Safe and Save Lives,” (Rowman & Littlefield paperback 2016). Currently at work on a second book about teenagers and smoking, Ms. Herlihy lives in New Jersey with her family and two very spoiled mush cats.