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How Jews have actually felt about Hebrew, through history

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In The Story of Hebrew, Lewis Glinert of Dartmouth College walks his readers through 3,000 years of Jewish history to show the shifting attitudes that Jews (and sometimes Christians) had toward the Hebrew language.

At the beginning of their history, Jews spoke Hebrew in their daily lives. But after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, the Jews who were exiled to Babylonia and other countries did not. Even the community that returned to the Land of Israel less than 100 years later to build the Second Temple often spoke Aramaic and possibly some Greek and Latin at various times. By the time of the destruction of the Second Temple almost 2,000 years ago, Hebrew was not a spoken language, even in Israel – and certainly not outside of it.

‘Pre-modern Jews were extremely dedicated to Hebrew. They read it silently, memorized Hebrew texts and wrote long commentaries on them’

Glinert points out that “the Talmud and the Midrash make no mention of any efforts to keep spoken Hebrew alive.” But written Hebrew took on new importance 1,800 years ago, with the writing of the Mishnah, the first codification of rabbinic law, in Hebrew. Another significant turning point was the decision to recite Jewish prayers in Hebrew. True, the Bible was in Hebrew, but Jews had already begun writing Jewish books in Aramaic and Greek. If they had chosen to use their spoken language(s) for their laws and prayers, that might have been the end of Hebrew as a living language.

The Story of Hebrew by Lewis Glinert (Princeton University Press)

Instead, between the years 100 and 1900 CE, most crucial Jewish religious texts were written in Hebrew. As a result, literate Jews read Hebrew, but spoke a different language, often one they could not read. Linguists refer to this as “diglossia” – a situation in which two languages are used under different circumstances within one community. It was commonplace in the pre-modern world. Most literate Christians in France at the turn of the first millennium, for example, spoke French, but read Latin. Literate medieval Muslims spoke a very different dialect of Arabic than the formal literary Arabic that they read, but did not speak. (This is true for many modern Muslims, too.)

t’he model of the Mishnah inspired such writers as Rashi, who lived in northern France in the 11th century, to compose Bible commentaries in a rich, readable Hebrew’

Pre-modern Jews were extremely dedicated to Hebrew. They read it silently. They memorized Hebrew texts and wrote long commentaries on them. They recited and chanted Hebrew prayers daily. They discussed Jewish law in letters and books written in Hebrew. But they almost always used a different language to speak to their spouse or neighbours, even Jewish ones.

Glinert points out that written Hebrew also had its ups and downs. The Babylonian and Jerusalem talmudim were not written in Hebrew, but in forms of Jewish Aramaic that presumably corresponded more closely with the Jews’ spoken language. In medieval Jewish communities in Christian countries, the idea that books with religious Jewish content should be in Hebrew caught on much more than it did in Jewish communities in the Muslim world. These latter Jews at times preferred Judeo-Arabic, a kind of Judaized form of Arabic written in Hebrew letters. Judah ibn Tibbon, a leading Jewish translator from Judeo-Arabic to Hebrew who lived in 12th-century Provence, explained why: “It was the language that people understood, and it is an adequate and rich language for any topic or need – direct, lucid and capable of rendering your thoughts so much better than Hebrew.”

Maybe so, but the model of the Mishnah inspired such writers as Rashi, who lived in northern France in the 11th century, to compose Bible commentaries in a rich, readable Hebrew. Even though Moses Maimonides wrote his 12th-century philosophical works in Judeo-Arabic, he wrote his code of Jewish law, Mishneh Torah, in Hebrew. Later in life, he expressed regret that he had written his commentary on the Mishnah in Judeo-Arabic, instead of in Hebrew.


The amazing story of the more recent history of the Hebrew language occupies a large part in the book. Glinert explains entertainingly the often draconian steps that were taken in the Land of Israel, in the decades before and after the establishment of the Jewish state, to revive Hebrew as a spoken language, against the greatest odds.

All of this Glinert narrates clearly and with good humour. Entertaining illustrations include: a page from Isaac Newton’s notebooks, where he explains, in Latin, the difference between the Talmudic phrases “ta shema” and “ta chazei” (“come and hear” and “come and see,” respectively); a page from Franz Kafka’s notebook, where he explains a number of Hebrew words from Leviticus Chapter 25 in German; and a sign from 1950 that was posted in medical offices in Israel with a drawing of a human body showing each limb and organ labelled in Hebrew, in order to help patients communicate with their physicians about their aches and pains (many physicians presumably were also learning Hebrew on the job).

Hebrew is now the spoken language of almost seven-million Jews – certainly the largest number of Hebrew speakers in history (and probably the language spoken daily by the largest number of Jews in the world today). At the same time, while Hebrew literature of all genres is being produced in Israel on a daily basis, we may now be living in the worst of times from the perspective of written Hebrew: never before in history have such a high percentage of Jews (close to 50 per cent of them, by my estimate) been literate in another language, or languages, but not in Hebrew.