top of page
  • Writer's pictureKAT-Blad

A Linguistic History of Judaism: Hebrew

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

Written by Kyle Fingerhut


I’d like to start this series with the first and last (in some sense) language of the Jewish people.


Some thousands of years ago, Hebrew was the common language of the Jewish people. When the Romans destroyed the second Jewish Temple in 70 C.E., however, its use rapidly declined. This was settled when Hadrian expelled, enslaved, and killed many of the remaining Jews (a common trope). The language, which is also that of the Torah, remained alive exclusively for liturgical purposes.


At that point in history, Aramaic became the common language spoken among Jewish people. For the next 800 or so years, Hebrew remained a solely liturgical language. For example, my great-grandparents in Poland, Ukraine, and Morocco only knew of it for reciting prayers, reading the Torah, and similar religious tasks.


It's worth noting that not even in the realm of Jewish liturgy did Hebrew reign supreme. Once the Jews took Aramaic as their common tongue, Jewish law, also known as the Talmud, was written in Aramaic, not Hebrew. Centuries later, however, Rabbis such as Rashi (a French Rabbi) continued writing Jewish law and did so in Hebrew.


Of course, this liturgical survival and occasional usage throughout the centuries was insufficient in keeping Hebrew alive as a spoken language. That was the case until the Haskalah (השכלה) “wisdom”, or Jewish Enlightenment, came into being in the eighteenth century. This movement brought Hebrew language newspapers, such as Hamagid (המגיד) “the declarer” in Russia which was published weekly but made its way around the world and eventually shifted its headquarters to Berlin Kraków.


At this point, Yiddish (a Jewish variety of German with Hebrew and Slavic influence) was spoken in Eastern and Central Europe, and Ladino (a Jewish variety of Spanish with Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Turkish influence) was mainly spoken in North Africa and Turkey by Jews expelled (that trope again) from Spain and Portugal.


Members of the Haskalah got to work at improving Hebrew and equipping it for use in the modern world. They viewed Yiddish and Biblical Hebrew negatively and aimed to “purify” Hebrew. Meanwhile, in the late nineteenth century, many poets, playwrights, and translators began to produce works in an early version of Modern Hebrew, heavily aiding the efforts to revive the language. Many of these artists, however, embraced the use of Yiddish to express otherwise impossible concepts with the limited vocabulary and syntax of Biblical Hebrew.


As Jews were being expelled or tortured in their own countries, many fled to Palestine. The question of what common language the Jews would use to communicate was hotly debated. For Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the leading proponent for the revival of Hebrew, it was of paramount importance that Hebrew be the land's common tongue. It was clear to him that when Jews in Palestine sought to understand each other and lacked a common language, they would revert to some broken form of Hebrew. He created a thesaurus of contrived Hebrew words required for a modern language forged from Biblical Hebrew forms.


Though some viewed Yiddish as the most suitable lingua franca of Jews in Palestine, the influx of immigrants fleeing from Nazi Germany sought to leave Yiddish behind along with its memories of persecution, exile, and murder. Meanwhile, the large number of non-European immigrants who did not speak Yiddish had no connection to the language. Furthermore, the desire to recreate a unified Jewish identity in Palestine led to the adoption of Hebrew, a similarly "recreated" language. Once Israel was established, to enforce this decision, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion even used tools to suppress Yiddish from being spoken such as extra taxes being levied on Yiddish shows. All education, youth movements, and military service were to be carried out in Hebrew.


Hebrew remains the only language to have ever been brought back to life. While it was an incredible feat, it has also brought unintended consequences such as the current “definitely endangered” status of the Yiddish language. Once, Israel sought to lessen the usage of Yiddish through force, and nowadays, Israeli universities offer courses in Yiddish to keep the dying language alive. There’s also a new generation of people who are interested in learning their ancestors’ languages, including Yiddish.


It is unclear whether the suppression of Yiddish was necessary to promote Hebrew or whether Yiddish could have been better protected. After all, eighty-five percent of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers, so it seems that (short of adopting Yiddish as a national language) Israel could not have done much to sustain it.


If you’d like to get a taste of the Hebrew language, here is a link to my Hebrew playlist on Spotify.


I hope you enjoyed this article!


References

Hebrew: A dead language revived (2022) Unpacked. Available at: https://jewishunpacked.com/hebrew-a-dead-language-revived/#:~:text=But%20when%20the%20Romans%20destroyed,the%20final%20native%20Hebrew%20speakers. (Accessed: December 7, 2022).


Laub, K. (1987) Long suppressed, Yiddish is making a comeback in Israel, AP NEWS. Associated Press. Available at: https://apnews.com/article/9d46cc421298178d834b94bc067c1821 (Accessed: December 7, 2022).


Saenz-Badillos, A. (2022) The revival of Hebrew, My Jewish Learning. Available at: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-revival-of-hebrew/ (Accessed: December 7, 2022).


Schaechter, R. (2022) 85% of the Jews killed in the Holocaust spoke Yiddish. here's how to honor them., The Forward. Available at: https://forward.com/forverts-in-english/500981/85-of-the-jews-killed-in-the-holocaust-spoke-yiddish-heres-how-to-honor-them/ (Accessed: December 7, 2022).


Image by zofiaEliyahu from Pixabay.

38 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page