Hebrew language and history are intertwined. To learn about one, you must also take the other into consideration. Without the history of Hebrew people, the history of the Hebrew language and its origins loses a lot of its meaning and becomes confusing. But, when you study them together, you’re left with a vivid and inspiring story. So, for the purposes of this writing, we’ll discuss both in order to learn about the Ancient Hebrew people, their language, and how it morphed into modern Hebrew.
Judaism is a complex religion with many laws and beliefs, which could take up the majority of this writing if we allowed it to, so this is going to be a brief overview. The Hebrew people believe that there is one God, YHWH, or Yahweh (It translates to “I am”). It’s also believed that saying his actual name is forbidden, so he’s referred to as El or Elohim in their Bible.
They believe he can’t be seen, but is everywhere and sees everything, which was a pretty revolutionary idea when the religion was first formed. They believe that the first man to speak about and spread the concept of God and his teachings was Abraham. And, they believe that they are God’s “chosen people” who were given his laws, the Torah, so that they could and would follow them.
Ancient Hebrew Civilization
The ancient Hebrew people were nomadic and had an agricultural lifestyle. They moved from one field, pasture or water source to the next. When food, water or resources started dwindling, they moved. As nomadic people, they lived mostly in tents. Once the kingdom, and therefore civilization, was established tents were very popular. This was even true during the time of King Solomon, and they were especially used by poor people. Some people lived in caves instead, enlarging the natural cave and attaching a wall to the front.
A lot of their time was spent outside. This was because they came from nomadic people, but also because of the warm climate in the Middle East. The cooking took place outside, and shops consisted of counters placed by the street. And structures were built from stone, instead of wood. There weren’t forests around, so wood was scarce and expensive. Because they spent a lot of time outside, nature was a major part of their lives, and it impacted them greatly.
Those who were wealthy built houses from mud bricks, which had flat roofs. Furniture in such houses was very simple. They usually contained straw mats for sleeping on the floor, tables and chairs, jugs for grain, water, wine and oil, and wall-held lamps. Smoke from fires or from cooking either went out through windows or doors because there were no chimneys. And, any domestic animals stayed inside with the people.
A lot of what they ate was similar to what Mediterranean people eat: homemade bread, meat, fish, lentils, goat cheese, fresh fruits, olives and wine. The difference in what they ate was that it had to be Kosher. Their meat came from freshly slaughtered animals who chewed cud and had split hooves. They only ate fish if they had fins and scales. And the production of wine was monitored to make sure that no one put blood in it, as people from other cultures sometimes did this to make it ferment faster.
The tribes first established a kingdom and civilization in Canaan during the 1st millennium B.C.E. It then split up into two separate kingdoms due to a succession dispute, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. In 722 B.C.E., the Assyrians destroyed Israel. In 586 B.C.E., Babylonians conquered Judah, forcing the higher classes into captivity.
They even went as far as to destroy Solomon’s Temple. Eventually, Judah was made a Persian providence, to which the Jews were allowed to return and rebuild their Temple. During this time, there was a lot of Aramaic influence on their language. Many in the north spoke Aramaic, but Hebrew was still predominantly spoken in Judah until the Babylonian exiles returned speaking Aramaic.
Then in 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great conquered Judah. Judea was made independent for a while when the Hasmonean dynasty came about, but then their independence was revoked and they were back under Roman rule, with Herod the Great appointed as their governor. The first Jewish revolt came in 70 C.E., which was quashed when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. And a second revolt in 132-135, the Bar Kokhba Revolt, resulted in a large portion of the Jewish population fleeing Judea.
For 2,000 years after the dispersement caused by Rome, the Jewish people remained spread across the globe. They preserved their religion and traditions, along with their language. Then, they survived the Second World War, which saw the extermination of 1/3 of their people. Then they re-established Israel as their own state in 1948.
The Twelve Tribes of Israel
The Twelve Tribes of Israel were a traditional way that the ancient nomadic Hebrews divided themselves. The tribes descended from the sons of Jacob, and were called “Israel” because Israel was the name that God gave Jacob. The tribes are as follows: Reuben; Simeon; Judah; Issachar; Zebulun; Benjamin; Dan; Naphtali; Gad; Asher; Ephraim; Manasseh.
When Jacob and his family went to Egypt, they started out with 70 people in their family. In Egypt, their people thrived. One of them, Joseph, even became a viceroy of Egypt. After Joseph’s death, the Pharoh horribly oppressed the Israelites and forced them into back-breaking labor.
God made himself known to Moses, who rescued them and helped them escape from Egypt. By this time, there were at least 600,000 of them. They received their laws, the Torah, at Mount Sinai, and then wandered the desert for 40 years before arriving in Cannan with a new leader, Joshua.
Each of the tribes was given a section of land to settle. During this time, there was no real leadership system in place. But, due to mounting military pressure, the tribes decided to establish a monarchy and crowned Saul as their king. When he died, most of the tribes accepted Saul’s son as the new king, except for the tribes of Judah and Simeon, who favored David. David and his followers won out and he ruled over all 12 tribes from Hebron and then Jerusalem. When he died, he was succeeded by his son, Solomon.
Solomon’s death was the event that really caused trouble among the tribes. This time, Judah and Benjamin split off from the other tribes for good, remaining loyal to the Davidic line. The other tribes in the north then went on to create their own monarchy, which resulted in a succession of dynasties of its own.
Modern Hebrew’s Founder
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was the founder of the modern Hebrew language, and his story is both inspirational and fascinating. His birth name was Eliezer Perelman, and in 1858 he was born in Lithuania to a Chabad Hasid (a sect of Hasidic Jews). So, his education was intended to be traditional and religious. However, the head of the school introduced him to non-religious literature.
He was eventually transferred to a Russian school, but he clung to Hebrew literature, especially works regarding Jewish nationalism. He viewed Jewish nationalism as a way to embrace Hebrew culture without religious connotations. He desperately yearned for Israel to become a free state that spoke the Hebrew language.
He came to Jerusalem in 1881 and created the first household to speak modern Hebrew. He and his wife also raised the first child to speak modern Hebrew, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda. But, he met a lot of scrutiny. The Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem only spoke and used Hebrew for religious reasons, so him using it for non-religious reasons was seen as trouble.
They actually excommunicated him and declared him a “herem”. But, he persisted with his work. He started getting other families to speak the language, as there became more and more secular nationalists. His passion project became his son, because surely if a child could learn the language, the nation could. So, he isolated his son from other children who spoke different languages so that he wouldn’t learn them.
He began work on a dictionary of modern Hebrew words from the time he arrived in Israel. He frequently printed lists of Hebrew words in his publication, Hatzevi. His completed project was 17 volumes, called the Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew. He began work on publishing it in 1910, but it wasn’t complete until after 1922- after he died. But, while he was alive, he got a lot of things accomplished.
He got teachers to agree to teaching modern Hebrew because it was a practical solution in a place that had many immigrants. He also co-founded the Language Council, Va’ad Halashon, and established their rules and principles. It’s located in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but today it’s called the Academy of Hebrew Language. Even though the name has changed, to this day, it still develops Hebrew words for the modern Hebrew culture.
History of Hebrew Language
The Hebrew language’s history consists of 4 major periods: Biblical or Classical, Rabbinic or Mishnaic, Medieval, and modern. Biblical or classical Hebrew was used up until the 3rd century B.C. E and is the language that most of the Old Testament is written in. Rabbinic or Mishnaic Hebrew was developed around 200 C.E. It was never a spoken language and was only written.
Medieval Hebrew was used from the 6th-13th centuries C.E. Many of the words in this language were borrowed from other languages, such as Greek, Arabic, and Spanish. And, Modern Hebrew is currently the national language of Israel.
Biblical Hebrew is very old and comes from the ancient, nomadic Hebrew people. It’s generally accepted that the oldest form of written Hebrew comes from some of the poems found in the Old Testament, particularly “the Song of Deborah” in chapter 5 of Judges. The languages that this version of the Hebrew language borrowed from were Akkadian and Sumerian, as well as other Canaanite languages. It was written using only consonants and had a 22 letter alphabet.
When reading ancient Hebrew, you have to keep ancient Hebrew culture in mind, not modern western culture. Most of the thoughts expressed in ancient Hebrew are concrete, not abstract. All of their words and thoughts relate to something that can be sensed by one of the five senses.
For instance, the word “aph” means nose or nostrils, but it also means anger because your nostrils flare when you’re angry. Their language is also closely related to that of their agricultural culture. One example of this is found in the words “rain” and “flood”. To anyone who lives in an urban environment, these words have negative connotations, being considered a nuisance, or associated with destruction and death. But, they were good things for the ancient Hebrew people because they needed them to survive and thrive. Floods meant that water got to low-lying desert regions that ordinarily didn’t get much rain.
Mishnaic Hebrew was confusing. It borrowed words from the Latin and Persian languages, although the vowels were mostly borrowed from the Aramaic language. Mishnaic Hebrew was never meant to be a spoken language, but was instead a written language. But, it seems that it was and is hard to read. Many of the consonants were either combined together, or confused with one another.
Medieval Hebrew saw the comeback of the spoken Hebrew language. This was from around the 9th-18th centuries. Creators of the liturgical poem, called the piyyut (which is a Greek word), started taking old Hebrew words and giving them new meanings, or creating entirely new words during the 6th-9th centuries. The Spanish-Hebrew poets from 900-1250 followed their lead. The result was an additional 2,000-3,000 words.
Around a thousand years ago, the Masoretes created a system called “nikkudot”. This system consists of dots or dashes which appear either above or below a letter. These dots and dashes helped to clarify pronunciation, and helped to develop a more standard pronunciation of Hebrew words.
Biblical vs. Modern Hebrew
There are lots of differences between Biblical and Modern Hebrew, besides the most obvious one, which is age. Biblical Hebrew’s written form has changed several times throughout the ages. In around the 12th century B.C.E., the Phoenician alphabet was adopted by the Hebrews, which resulted in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. Then gradually, the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was replaced by the Aramaic alphabet, which was used as the basis for the modern Hebrew alphabet.
Modern Hebrew is based on Biblical Hebrew, but uses a syntax based on Mishna. It’s the only colloquial spoken language that’s based on a written language. The pronunciation is a modified version of the language spoken by Sephardic, or Hispano-Portuguese Jews. And, the guttural consonants are a thing of the past, either lost entirely, or at least not as distinguished as they are in Biblical Hebrew.
This Was Only the Beginning…
The Hebrew language and history are very fascinating. They are so vast that this writing is only the tip of the iceberg. If you enjoyed reading this, then go out and read more. There is a vast wealth of knowledge about the Hebrew people, their history, their culture, and their ever-evolving language!