The Pioneers of Modern Hebrew Literature

Writing Hebrew literature in the 19th century was no simple matter, and those who did were the elite of the elite.

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The young boys were led through the Pentateuch verse by verse, each Hebrew phrase being given its Yiddish equivalent in a kind of oral interlinear translation. Other books of the Bible might be accorded some attention when preparation was being made for their public reading at the appointed festivals (Song of Songs at Passover, Ruth at Shavuot, and so forth), and biblical texts fixed in the daily prayers, including dozens of Psalms, would be gotten by heart through sheer force of repeated recitation. But there would be no formal teaching of principles of grammar, no vocabulary lists, no exercises in composition. Indeed, the teenage students who happened to get hold of a Hebrew grammar treated it pretty much as underground literature, knowing that their rabbinical mentors would regard as an act of subversion any attempt to study the Holy Tongue systematically, with "secular" tools, as though it were a language just like any other.

By the time a boy reached the age of legal induction into Jewish manhood at 13, if he was an alert pupil and if his schoolmaster had not been totally incompetent (incompetence being more or less endemic to the system), he could read biblical Hebrew with an approximation of understanding, would have had some introduction to the primary rabbinic text, the Mishnah, and to the main medieval Hebrew commentaries on the Pentateuch, and would have a reasonably adequate understanding of the Hebrew of the prayer book. In fact, the extreme unevenness of instruction meant that most products of the heder were functionally illiterate in Hebrew, retaining only the most rudimentary vocabulary and a fuzzy or mangled understanding of particular texts.

After the age of 13, a large part of the student body dropped out, some after a year or more of additional instruction, to become apprentices, to assist in the family business, or otherwise to enter the workforce, and sometimes to be married off by their parents by the time they were 15. The more gifted went on to the yeshiva, or talmudic academy, often having to move to a larger town where there was such an institution. The subject of study at the yeshiva was exclusively the Babylonian Talmud, a vast corpus of texts composed in a mélange of Hebrew and its cognate language, Aramaic; as always, the language of discussion among students, and between students and teacher, was Yiddish.

The school days were long, the demands relentless; students worked over the difficult texts and their commentaries in pairs, and then listened to a general lesson from the yeshiva instructor. The complementary intellectual qualities they were encouraged to develop were a prodigious retention by heart of the talmudic texts and their biblical precedents (beqi'ut) and an analytic sharpness accompanied by inge­nuity (harifut). Most boys left the yeshiva by their late teens, some, having received ordination, to take up rabbinical posts, many, having entered into an arranged marriage, to enjoy a period of private learning subsidized by a prosperous father‑in‑law who was willing to pay this price in order to have his daughter married to a man of learning.

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Robert Alter

Robert Alter is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967.