The Hebrew Language

Hebrew is the traditional language of the Jewish people. There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet (commonly referred to as the aleph-bet, after the first two letters, aleph and bet). In addition, the language includes five final letters: When the letters khaf, mem, nun, pey, and tzade are the last letters of a word, they are written differently.

Hebrew is a Semitic language–like Arabic and Aramaic–and like most ancient Semitic languages its alphabet has no vowels. However, sometime between the middle and end of the first millennium, rabbis known as the Masoretes instituted a system of dots and dashes to indicate how words were to be pronounced. Torah scrolls and most contemporary Hebrew writing are still written without vowels.

hebrew letters

Unlike English, Hebrew is read and written from right to left. There are numerous types of Hebrew script. The most familiar is the block letters used in Torah scrolls and most printed texts. This was originally referred to as ktav ashuri, or Assyrian script. It is contrasted with ktav ivri, which was an earlier script probably used until a few hundred years prior to the Common Era. In addition, there is a cursive script for Hebrew as well as a script named after the medieval commentator Rashi, which was used in Rashi’s works on the Bible and Talmud, as well as in other texts.

The earliest Hebrew texts date from the end of the second millennium BCE. Hebrew was employed as both a written and spoken language until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. After that, Hebrew was used primarily as a literary and liturgical language. The Bible (except for parts of Ezra and Daniel) is written in Hebrew, as is the Mishnah, the corpus of Jewish law edited during the second and third century CE.

The Gemara–books of rabbinic legal discussions interpreting the Mishnah–is largely written in Aramaic with some Hebrew, while medieval Jewish literature is written primarily in a combination of Hebrew and Aramaic.

jewish languages quizBecause it is the language of sacred texts, Hebrew itself was often considered sacred. In post-biblical times, it was referred to as lashon ha-kodesh, the holy language. Hebrew was often thought to be the language of the angels, and indeed, of God. According to rabbinic tradition, Hebrew was the original language of humanity. It was spoken by all of humankind prior to the dispersion described in the Tower of Babel story in Genesis. In addition, the Hebrew language was thought of as the tool that God used to create the world. A midrash states that, “Just as the Torah was given in lashon ha-kodesh, so the world was created with lashon ha-kodesh.” Similarly, the mystical book Sefer Yetzirah, describes the creation of the world through the manipulation of the Hebrew alphabet.

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