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Ancient Hebrew Literature

Hebrew is an ancient language, one that has been in use for many thousands of years. Its beginnings lay in ancient religious writings of which the most well known is the Hebrew Bible (the Tanach (Torah, Nevi'im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings)). Over the centuries, and especially after the exile of the Jews from the Land of Israel and the beginnings of what we now call the Diaspora, Hebrew literature continued to develop. For many centuries, Hebrew or Jewish literature was primarily a Holy language used to comment and interpret the Bible and other fundamental religious works.

Many books have been written on ancient Hebrew literature. The aim of this article is to give you, the reader, an overview of ancient Hebrew literature that will enable you to better understand the development of Modern Hebrew literature and culture which traces its roots far back in the origins of the Jewish People.

The Very Beginnings

Hebrew literature begins with the Tanach, the torah or, as more commonly known, the Old Testament. It should be noted that the Old Testament is a later Christian translation and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Thus, throughout this article we shall refer to the Hebrew Bible rather than the Old Testament.

This epic work, which has had a profound effect of peoples across the globe for two millennia, puts down in writing the oral history of the Jewish people dating back to approximately 1500 BCE. The earliest texts are considered to have been written around the year 1200 BCE.

Consisting of 24 books divided in to three sections: the Torah (the Law), the Nevi'im Prophets), and the Ketuvim (Writings).

The Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses are generally thought to be an amalgamation of oral history and lore taken from four major sources and compiled around 6th Century BCE. Other books of the Tanach were added later. The Hebrew Bible is a compilation of Jewish History, and yet it has an “end” even though the Jewish people continue to thrive. Many books written during the latter period of ancient Jewish history were excluded from the bible, including the Books of the Maccabees. It is thought that the Hebrew Bible was finalized around the time of the Destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the Diaspora.

The Mishnah

An important Jewish religious text that attempts to redact various interpretations of biblical texts and laws into one, accepted definition. Compiled between the years 180 – 220 CE by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the Mishnah was vital in preserving Jewish law and lore at a time when there was fear that the oral traditions of the Second Temple period were in danger of being forgotten.

The Gemmara

Essentially a commentary and analysis on the Mishnah. This collection of rabbinical texts is the result of generations of discussions in two main religious centers in Israel and Babylon. This resulted in two versions of the Gemmara; the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem) – 350 – 400 CE) and the Bavli (Babylon) 500 CE.

Together, the Mishnah and the Gemmara form the Talmud.

From the Exile onwards

After the destruction of the Send Temple and the exile of the Jewish People, many vibrant, thriving Jewish communities were established in North Africa and the Spanish peninsula. These communities gave birth to some of the greatest rabbis, philosophers and Jewish thinkers ever known, people whose written words have survived until today and whose influence on the development of the Jewish people is still felt. Understanding that we cannot, in this short article, discuss all the great writers of this period. We will provide a brief introduction to the more well known.

Maimonides - Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam) – 1135 (or 1138) - 1204

The Golden Age of Spanish Jewry is symbolized by one person: Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides or the Rambam. A Jewish philosopher, commentator on the bible, Jewish Law and a much respected physician, he was also an astronomer, mathematician, linguist, poet and a critic. Maimonides had and continues to have great influence on the Jewish people.

Kitāb al-Sirāj – In this, the first of the Ramban’s major works, Maimonides explained individual words and phrases from the Mishnah. The work includes a series of introductory pieces that address philosophical issues that appear in the Mishnah. One of the most notable is the Thirteen Articles of Faith.

Mishnah Torah – is a code of Jewish law that he wrote in Hebrew over the course of 10 years that discusses all aspects of Jewish law and doctrine.

Guide to the Perplexed - The Guide for the Perplexed or Moreh Nevuchim in Hebrew is another of the Rambam’s monumental works. Taking over 15 years to complete, the work seeks to achieve an accommodation between science, philosophy, and religion. Originally written in Arabic the work was translated into Hebrew during Maimonides’ lifetime. Of all the Rambam’s works, the Guide to the Perplexed has exerted a considerable influence on religious thought down through the ages and has been translated into many languages.

Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi - Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki) – 1040 - 1105

A French rabbi who wrote a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud and the Tanach that is still a major reference work today. Rashi had the ability to show the basic meaning of the often convoluted texts in a succinct and articulate manner. His commentary on the Tanach — especially the Pentateuch ("Five Books of Moses") — is used today as the most important reference work when studying the Tanach and has spawned hundreds of books and treatises discussing Rashi’s commentaries.

Joseph ben Ephraim Karo, Born in Toledo, 1488, died in Safed, 1575

The author of one of Judaism’s most important and influential works - the Shulchan Aruch. Considered by many to be the last great codification of Jewish law, this work discusses in detail all Jewish law and is used as a reference by Jews across the world.

Karo's literary works are considered to be masterpieces of Hebrew literature of the time. In the Maggid Meisharim (1646 “Preacher of Righteousness) written as a diary in which Karo , over a period of fifty years, recorded the nocturnal visits of a mystical mentor who encouraged him to be righteous, austere and to study the Kabbalah.

Secular as well as religious

But Hebrew Literature wasn’t confined to purely religious subjects. "Fox Fables" by Berechiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan was a collection of Hebrew fables similar to Aesop's fables. Medieval Jewish poetry was written in Hebrew by poets living in the then Palestine such as Yose ben Yose, Yanai, and Eleazar Kalir. Many of these poems were later compiled in what is known today as the ”siddur" by Rabbis Amram Gaon, Saadia Gaon and others.

Later Spanish, Provencal, and Italian poets composed religious and secular poems in Hebrew. Of particular note are Solomon ibn Gabirol, Yehuda Halevi, and Yehuda al-Harizi.

To summarize

It is often said that Hebrew was a dead language until revived during the Age of the Enlightenment. However, nothing could be further from the Trudy. Whist the use of Hebrew as a spoken language may have been limited, it was a flourishing and vibrant written language used for both religious and secular texts.

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