The range of pre-modern, secular Hebrew literature is limited. From the late biblical period on, Hebrew was not a spoken language, and it was used primarily in religious contexts. An exception to this rule was the Hebrew literature that flourished in Spain, Provence, and Italy between the 10th and 14th centuries. Poets such as Samuel HaNagid, Judah HaLevi, and Immanuel of Rome wrote secular verse in addition to their many religious and liturgical poems. Prose fiction was much less common, though Abraham ben Samuel ha-Levi ibn Hasdai’s Ben ha-Melek ve-ha-Nazir–a work based on an Arabic version of a classic Indian story about the life of Buddha–is one interesting example.
Modern Hebrew literature–though mostly didactic in nature–began appearing in the late 18th century, in journals affiliated with the Haskalah or Jewish enlightenment. However, in places where the Haskalah was most “successful”–like Germany–assimilation was rampant, and Hebrew writing virtually disappeared. Indeed, the only people suited to develop Hebrew literature were those who had learned the language through traditional Torah study, men who had spent time inyeshivot or seminaries. These figures were overwhelmingly situated in Eastern Europe, and thus, modern Hebrew literature was born in cities like Vilna, Warsaw, and Odessa.
From the beginning, the prospects for modern Hebrew literature–particularly prose–were bleak. Could a non-spoken language reflect communal experiences? There were logistical problems as well. The first writers of modern Hebrew literature primarily used biblical Hebrew, but biblical Hebrew was not suited to modern literary needs. Its vocabulary was archaic and its syntax clumsy. Shalom Yakov Abramowitz–better known by the name of his famous protagonist Mendele Mokher Seforim (Mendele the Book Seller)–took monumental steps in trying to solve these problems. Instead of restricting himself to biblical Hebrew, Seforim relied heavily on the Hebrew of rabbinic literature, particularly the Mishnah(redacted c. 200 CE). Rabbinic literature discusses the minutiae of everyday life, and thus it provided him with an extensive lexicon.
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