Author Archives: Angel Saenz-Badillos

Angel Saenz-Badillos

About Angel Saenz-Badillos

Dr. Angel Saenz-Badillos is Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at Universidad Complutense, Madrid.

The Beginnings of the Hebrew Language

Reprinted from A History of the Hebrew Language with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

Within Biblical Hebrew itself, subdivisions can be made according to the period or stage of the language. The earliest Hebrew texts that have reached us date from the end of the second millennium B.C.E. The Israelite tribes that settled in Canaan from the 14th to 13th centuries B.C.E.–regardless of what their language might have been before they established themselves there–used Hebrew as a spoken and a literary language until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

It is quite likely that during the First Temple period [1006-587 B.C.E.] there would have been significant differences between the spoken and the written language, although this is hardly something about which we can be exact. What we know as Biblical Hebrew is without doubt basically a literary language, which until the Babylonian exile [following the fall of Jerusalem] existed alongside living, spoken, dialects.

The exile marks the disappearance of this language from everyday life and its subsequent use for literary and liturgical purposes only during the Second Temple period [515 B.C.E.-70 CE]. The latest biblical texts date from the second century B.C.E., if we disregard Biblical Hebrew’s survival in a more or less artificial way in the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, and in certain kinds of medieval literature.

The Hebrew of the poetic sections of the Bible, some of which are very old despite possible post‑exilic revision, as well as the oldest epigraphic material in inscriptions dating from the 10th to sixth centuries B.C.E., we call Archaic Hebrew, although we realize that there is no general agreement among scholars regarding this term.The language used in the prose sections of the Pentateuch and in the Prophets and the Writings before the exile we call Classical Biblical Hebrew, or Biblical Hebrew proper. Late Biblical Hebrew refers to the language of the books of the Bible written after the exile.

The Revival of Hebrew

Reprinted from A History of the Hebrew Language with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

The transition from Medieval to Modern or Israeli Hebrew came about slowly, over several decades. According to some experts, a new phase of the language had already begun in the 16th century. Among its earliest manifestations were A. dei Rossi’s Me’or Einayim (1574), the first Hebrew play by J. Sommo (1527‑92), and the first Yiddish‑Hebrew dictionary by Elijah Levita (1468‑1549). Hebrew continued to be used in writing, and attempts were made to adapt it to modern needs.

The Haskalah

The 18th century saw the first examples of Hebrew newspapers, in connection with which I. Lampronti (1679‑1756) at Ferrara and, from 1750, M. Mendelssohn at Dessau were pioneers. From 1784 until 1829 the quarterly review Ha‑Me’assef appeared fairly regularly. Edited by the “Society of Friends of the Hebrew Language,” it received contributions from important figures of the Haskalah [the Jewish Enlightenment]. The first regular weekly, Ha‑Maggid, began publication in Russia in 1856.

revival of hebrewIn the second half of the 18th century, the Haskalah made a significant impact on the language. The new “illuminati” or maskilim viewed Rabbinic Hebrew with disdain, believing it to be full of Aramaisms [i.e. Aramaic derivatives] and replete with grammatical errors, and they lamented the sorry state of Hebrew in the Diaspora. According to them, the blame lay with the paytanim [medieval liturgical poets], the influence of Arabic in medieval philosophy, the use of the “corrupt” Yiddish language, and with the inadequacies of Hebrew itself in comparison with other languages.

The most important representatives of this cultural movement tried to restore Hebrew as a living language. Not only did they attempt to purify the language and to promote correct usage, but they also increased its powers of expression, and showed little aversion to calquing modern terms from German and other western languages.

Although certain figures regarded Rabbinic Hebrew as a legitimate component of the new language, the majority settled on a pure form of Biblical Hebrew for poetry and on an Andalusian style of prose, similar to that used by the Ibn Tibbons [a family of Jewish translators who flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries].