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Gottlieb Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur

Hebrew is a language spoken in its modern form in Israel and in its ancient form in which most of the Jewish religious (biblical and rabbinical) texts are written. Hebrew is a Semitic language, related to Aramaic and Arabic. Like Aramaic and Arabic, it is written from right to left.

The original Hebrew largely died out as a spoken language. Modern Hebrew is spoken in Israel and is a restoration of Ancient Hebrew with many differences to the older form.[1]

The Old Testament is written almost entirely in Classical Hebrew, with some portions in Aramaic.



Classical Hebrew, or Biblical Hebrew, is an archaic form of the Hebrew language, in which the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh was written, and which the ancient Israelites spoke. The surviving literature in classical Hebrew includes the Bible, the Midrash, and the works of Maimonides.

Non-creationists commonly classify Hebrew as an Afro-Asiatic language, and suggest that that family has its origins in the 8th millennium BC.[2] Yet all authorities agree that Hebrew had its origins in the country of Haran, an account consistent with Genesis 11-12 . The earliest known work written in Hebrew is the Gezer calendar, written in an old Semitic alphabet very similar to the Phoenician alphabet that formed the basis of the Greek and Latin alphabets. The Gezer calendar currently dates to the 10th century BC, or the reigns of Kings David and Solomon.[2]

Mother Tongue

As the language of the Old Testament of the Bible, Hebrew is thought to be the language of God. When God dispersed the people from the Tower of Babel, those who remained in Babylon spoke a corrupted offshoot of Hebrew called Babylonian. Another offshoot headed north of Mesopotamia, speaking what academic linguists call Indo-European, which Greek, Latin, and English are thought to have come from. Arabic is a further corruption of the Babylonian language and is thus further still from God.


In 586 BC, after the Fall of Jerusalem, the captive Jews began to speak Aramaic, the official language of the Babylonian empire and later of the Persian empire, after Cyrus the Great conquered Babylonia and essentially adopted its language. The Jews continued to use Aramaic after the Restoration, and Aramaic was their common vernacular at the time of Christ. Following the Diaspora, or the events surrounding the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the evacuation and renaming of Judea in 135 AD by Emperor Hadrian, even Aramaic gave way to the languages spoken in the regions where individual Jews had been deported.

Hebrew continued only as a liturgical language, one that rabbis were required to learn in order to read and understand the Old Testament in the original. The efforts of the Masoretes, the preservers of the Masoretic Text, were critical in preserving the most extensive ancient Hebrew manuscript in a form remarkably close to the original. All "autographs" of the Bible had been lost by that time, and the Dead Sea Scrolls would not be discovered for another eighteen centuries.[3]

Revival and reinvention

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, circa 1881

Modern Hebrew is the Hebrew variant presently spoken in Israel. It is referred to as modern to distinguish it from its classical variant. The name of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda has an inextricable association with modern Hebrew. Without him, modern Hebrew might not today be spoken. Also, and more importantly, he more than any other man made Modern Hebrew what it is.

Beginning in 1881, Ben-Yehuda, a Belarusian émigré who anticipated (and perhaps provoked) the First Aliyah (1882-1904),[4] campaigned assiduously to adapt classical Hebrew for use in normal everyday conversation and to encourage Jews everywhere to speak it.

Ben-Yehuda had two principal goals. One was to convince all Jews to speak Hebrew as a primary or "native" language, not as a secondary or liturgical language. Ben-Yehuda had been told that a common language was one of two necessary marks of distinction for a self-determining people. When others told him that the Jews had no common language, he declared, "We shall create one!"[4] He did not actually mean to create an entirely new language, but rather to convince Jews to use a language that they already knew how to read, for a much wider purpose than that for which Jews used it at the time.

The other was to make Hebrew suitable for everyday use. The available literature in classical Hebrew, beyond the Bible, was comparatively lacking, and the Bible did not specifically address every conceivable mundane concern of human affairs. Thus a large part of the challenge that Ben-Yehuda and his co-workers faced was rediscovering, deducing, or even inventing words for concepts that the Bible never mentioned, including many that simply did not exist in ancient Israelite and immediate post-exilic history. (That process continues today, under the guidance of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, as it also does for the French language under the guidance of the Académie Française.)

Orthodox Jews often opposed his efforts, regarding as blasphemous any effort to speak the Sacred Language in everyday contexts. As a further complication, Ben-Yehuda had been nonreligious, or even anti-religious, ever since he had fallen in with his heretical professor at his yeshiva in Byelarus. The Orthodox community knew this and therefore regarded all of his ideas with suspicion.[5]

In addition, members of the "Odessa School" and certain scholars who were part of the Second Aliyah (1904-1914) took exception to Ben-Yehuda's newly coined words, which they considered "artificial."[4]

But Ben-Yehuda pursued his goal with single-minded attention, by first insisting that everyone around him (and especially his wife and children) speak Hebrew exclusively and then by various other methods calculated to popularize, refine, and promulgate the language. He published the first all-Hebrew newspapers, promoted the intensive model of Hebrew-to-Hebrew instruction in Jewish schools, established the Hebrew Language Council in 1890 (the forerunner of the present Academy of the Hebrew Language), and began work on the seventeen-volume Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew that his second wife and son would finish after his death.

Ben-Yehuda lived to see a generation of Jews grow up in British Mandatory Palestine having learned to speak, read, and write Hebrew as a language of normal conversation and correspondence, and thus more than a liturgical aid. On November 29, 1922, British authorities declared Hebrew to be the official language of the Jewish people of that land (which would later be known as the State of Israel) less than three weeks before his death.

Ben-Yehuda's various dailies ceased publication at the beginning of the First World War and never resumed.[4] But Ben-Yehuda's Dictionary remains today one of the most important references for modern Hebrew, though the Academy of the Hebrew Language continues to function as the arbiter of proper Hebrew vocabulary, grammar, and usage.

Hebrew Language Structure

Hebrew is a "root" language with basic meanings of words derived from root words (words which cannot be broken down any further). Many roots are trilateral, meaning that they are composed of three consonants. Vowels, until the introduction of Niqqud, were not written.

Thus, in Hebrew, the root KTB(or V) have something to do with "writing". From this basic root, there is derived KoTeV=writing or author, KaTTav= reporter, KaTuV=written, K'TuVim= Scriptures, KaTaVti= I wrote, eK(kh)ToV=I will write, K'ToVet=inscription or address, and so on. This "root" aspect of Hebrew is common to all Semitic languages. Thus, in Arabic, KTB appears in KaTaBa= "he wrote", maKTuB= "letter", KaaTiB= author, KuTiBat=it (fem.) was written, etc. In Aramaic, KTB appears in KeTaV= "he wrote", KaTVat= "she wrote", KeTuBa= "marriage contract", KeTiVat= was written (feminine), KaaTiV= writing. (In Aramaic the definite article for "the" is A (Aleph) added at the end of a noun rather than at the front. Thus the Hebrew "HaMeLeKH"= the King, becomes in Aramaic MaLKA)

Note that even though roots like KTB are written without vowels, this does not mean that they are pronounced without vowels. KTB is pronounced katab (the a sounds "ah") [6], but this can be easily guessed without the aid of Niqqud.

Noun, Adjective and Verb in singular

1. Hebrew writing expresses the basic meaning of the word in consonants (capital letters in this article). Y,L,D are the 3 consonants for "child", "boy". YeLeD is a boy. The feminine is formed usually by adding an "ah" sound (some of the inner vowels may change). YaLDah is a girl.

2. Verbs follow the same pattern: QaM means "gets up", "arises" for masculine; QaMah is for feminine.

Ha means "the", and it is attached to the word.

HaYeLeD QaM means "The boy gets up". HaYaLDah QaMah means "The girl gets up".

3. There is no word in Hebrew for "is" and "are" in the present tense. Therefore, HaYeled Qam also means "The boy is getting up"; HaYaLDah QaMah also means "The girl is getting up".

Tov means "good". HaYeLeD Tov means "The boy is good", HaYaLDah ToVah means "The girl is good".

Noun, Adjective and Verb in plural

1. Masculine nouns, adjectives and verbs usually are made plural by adding the sound "im" (the i sounds "ee") to the end for masculine, and the sound "ot" to the end for feminine (some of the inner vowels may change).

HaYeLaDim ToVim means "The boys are good". HaYelaDot ToVot means " The girls are good".

Attributive Adjectives

1. The adjective goes after the noun in Hebrew instead of before the noun as in English. You must put the Ha in front of the adjective, as well as in front of the noun.

Example: GaDoL means "big". If you want to say "The big boy is good", you must say: HaYeLeD HaGadol Tov. (It is like you are saying: The boy, the big one, is good.) The big girl is good, Ha YaLDah HaGeDoLah ToVah. The big boys are good, Ha Yeladim HaGeDoLim ToVim. The big girls are good, Ha YeLaDot HaGeDoLot ToVot.

The word "in", and "in" with the word "the"

1. The consonant B means "in" (It has only the slightest vowel sound). It is attached to the next word. Hebrew has no indefinite articles such as "a", a noun is indefinite simply by leaving the definite article out.

Example: House is BaYiT. The big girl is in a house, HaYaLDah HaGeDoLah BBaYiT.

2. When you want to say "in the" it should be BeHa. But this is shortened and becomes Ba.

The big girl is in the house, HaYaLDah HaGeDoLah BaBaYiT. The good children are in the house, Ha YeLaDim HaToVim BaBaYit.

The Hebrew Script

The present day Hebrew alphabet is based on the old Aramaic alphabet, which in turn was based on the Phoenician alphabet. The term "alphabet" is something of a misnomer here, though, as Hebrew script is not in fact an alphabet, but an abjad; that is, a script with only consonants. Diacritics in the form of dots, called "niqqud" (נִקּוּד), are used to indicate vowels. However, the Hebrew script is not a pure abjad, either, and the characters alef, he, vav, and yod are sometimes (in the case of vav and yod, frequently) used to represent vowels. When consonantal letters are used in this fashion, they are called matres lectionis (Latin, "mothers of reading").

Hebrew in the Bible

The Hebrew of the Old Testament, though "classical", is not uniform. Some of the Hebrew, as in the Song of Deborah, is very archaic. The narrative portions relating to Deborah are more "modern". The same is true of the poetic Song of Moses and its corresponding narrative. This indicates that the poetic portions were written much earlier than the narrative and very close to the time of the event itself. This suggests that the events were passed on orally and in song to the next generation before they were written down. Deuteronomy displays a type of Hebrew similar to some of the Prophetic literature. What all this indicates is the "freedom" found in the Hebrew language of the Bible. In comparative terms to our modern sense and usage, it would be as if King James English with its magnificent cadences, Revised Standard English, more accessible and approachable to the modern man, and New International English, more familiar to the "man in the street", were to be used in one and the same version of the Bible to fit different "moods" and different usages and succeeding centuries. This evinces a most convincing and natural development of the language just as there is a most convincing and natural development of the culture and of the people of the Bible. Biblical Hebrew is thus shown to be very far different from an artificial or "school room" construct. It is a living language – or, more properly, living languages – used for different purposes and at different times.

Unlike Greek, which has an ample vocabulary, and case ending to determine which words are to be read with which words, what parts of speech (subject, object etc.). Hebrew is a contextual language - that is relatively few words but each word having a variety of meanings. This requires knowledge of the literature, and literatures - that is, knowledge of the context to determine the precise meaning. Biblical Hebrew has a help in this, though, and that is "signs" (t'amey Hamikr'a) that accompany the text, usually above the letters, sometimes to the side, which are divided into two main categories - conjunctive and disjunctive. The conjunctive tie two words together, the disjunctive indicate that the words are separate in thought. These two categories of signs also serve as punctuation - full stop (period), semi-stop (coma),and even thought groupings. they were written down by the Masoretes of the 5th cent A.D., that is the people that carried on the earlier tradition of how things were understood. Masoret=tradition. Thus, In Isaiah 9:6, the Hebrew words themselves can bear the meaning "His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor of the Mighty God..." or His name shall be called " Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God...". But the T'amey Hamikr'a decide the case. Between "Counsellor" and Mighty God" there is a disjunctive. Therefore, His name shall be called Counsellor, the Mighty God..." is correct - according to the understanding that the Masoretes received.

These "signs" also bear traditional melodies that vary according to the various dispersions of the Jews - Babylonian, Yemenite, Ashkenazic, Sephardic,etc. Yet, there are melody lines common to all the dispersions. This could only have occurred when all the dispersion were together. That was in the 1st Century before the Exile of the Jews by the Romans at 70 A.D. It is thus possible to reconstruct the melody, in part, that Jesus used when he sang, as was the custom, the prophetic portion in the synagogue. Some of these themes reappear in the Gregorian chant of the Church.

See also


  1. http://www.adath-shalom.ca/rabin_he.htm
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Hebrew language," <http://www.wordiq.com/>, accessed September 24, 2009.
  3. The only translation of the Hebrew text that was even remotely authorized was the Septuagint, a project of the Great Library of Alexandria. The Masoretes undertook their project after having rejected the Septuagint as profane.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Naor M, "Flesh-and-blood Prophet," Haaretz, 13 September 2008. Accessesd 24 September 2009.
  5. Kantorwitz L, "Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the Resurgence of the Hebrew Language," The Jewish Magazine, December 1999. Accessed September 24, 2009.
  6. http://lexiconcordance.com/hebrew/3789.html