Hebrew: Its History and Centrality

Hebrew has undergone many changes, but as the language of the sacred texts, it has always had a special place in Judaism.


Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Hebrew was the language spoken and written by the ancient Israelites and, in various forms, throughout the history of the Jewish religion. The Bible (the “Old Testament”) is in Hebrew with the exception of parts of the books of Ezra and Daniel, a single verse in Jeremiah, and two words in the Pentateuch. These are in the sister language of Hebrew, Aramaic.

Both Hebrew and Aramaic belong to the Semitic branch of languages. Scholars have detected various forms of Hebrew in the Bible itself; the poetic portions, for example, preserve traces of archaic Hebrew case‑endings and have other distinguishing features.

Attempts have been made from time to time to read religious ideas into the very forms of biblical Hebrew. A good deal of [the 19th-century rabbi] Samson Raphael Hirsch‘s work is based on the supposed uniqueness of biblical Hebrew in conveying religious ideas by its structure and vocabulary. Such attempts are bound to fail once it is appreciated that Hebrew is only one among the Semitic languages, all of which have basically the same forms and structures.

Yet even a non‑Jewish scholar, A. B. Davidson (called by his colleagues “Rabbi” Davidson) can write, in his An Introductory Hebrew Grammar (Edinburgh, 1923; p.3) that there is a unique regularity in biblical Hebrew so that the student “will find its very phonetic and grammatical principles to be instinct with something of that sweet reasonableness, that sense of fair play, we might almost say that passion for justice, for which the Old Testament in the sphere of human life so persistently and eloquently pleads.”

history of hebrewPost‑biblical Hebrew has developed forms of its own. This is the scholarly language used by the Tannaim, the teachers of the first two centuries C.E., while the language of the people was Aramaic. Since the Mishnah is in this form, it is known as Mishnaic Hebrew, although its use is attested before the actual Mishnaic period.

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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