Biblical Hebrew

Hebrew, the language of the Bible, is an ancient language preserved, down the centuries, as a Holy language used in prayer and holy writings. It is only in the past 100 years that this ancient language has been reborn as a vibrant, developing language and the native language of the Israeli people.


Many people want to learn Hebrew either because they are considering making their home in Israel, because they wish to better understand Israeli culture, for business reasons, as an academic course or simply because they identify with the Jewish People.


As you begin your study of this ancient and yet young, vibrant and constantly developing language, it might be interesting to get a better understanding of the ancient roots of Hebrew, a language dating back thousands of years and the original language of the Bible.


What is Biblical Hebrew?

Hebrew is a Semitic language -- a family of languages spoken in the Middle East, North Africa, and East Africa. Biblical Hebrew developed in the Middle East along with other Semitic languages such as Phoenician and Canaanite. Unlike them, Biblical Hebrew was preserved down through the centuries primarily as a Holy language used by the Jews in their prayers and scriptures during the Diaspora. Today’s Modern Hebrew, which is based on Biblical Hebrew includes some significant differences and adaptations. Biblical Hebrew is generally accepted as being used from the 12th century BCE to the year 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.

Biblical Hebrew has a small vocabulary – some 65,000 words as opposed to the 660,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Because it is such a concise language, one word can have many meaning depending on its context. For example, the word “Shalom” used as a greeting has a literal meaning of “Peace” but is also used to say hello and to express concepts such as health, assistance, happiness and friendship.


Over time, as with all languages, Biblical Hebrew changed and developed. There are three accepted stages in the languages development and evolution:

  • The Archaic Period – as can be seen in poems in the Pentateuch and the Prophets.
  • Standard – the language of the books of the Old Testament from Genesis to Second Kings.
  • Late – As found in books of the Old Testament attributed to a period after the Exile and which include Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, and Chronicles.

Biblical Hebrew is known to us primarily through the Hebrew Bible and other associated texts from that period. Scholars suggest that the language of the Bible (Old Testament), as a religious document, was a formal one that did not use the accepted lexicon or vernacular of the time and thus spoken Biblical Hebrew may well have been different from the written. Having said that, there is some evidence in Biblical texts written in the Standard version, of different Hebrew dialects such as that of Judea (the dialect used in the vast majority of the Bible) and the northern dialect.


Biblical Hebrew as a Window into the Culture of the Biblical Era

The vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew reflects the life and culture of the Jewish people during Biblical times. Biblical Hebrew affords us an opportunity to gain a glimpse into life during those times.

Evidence of the fact that society at this time was an agricultural society, may be found in the use of unique Biblical Hebrew words relating to agriculture and nature. One example is that some 117 plant species are named in the Bible (18 of which are thorns and thistles – evidence of the climate).


The majority of words in Biblical Hebrew relating to technology and commerce have been shown to have been taken from foreign languages prevalent in the area at the time. As a mayor crossroad for trade routes such the Silk Road, the inhabitants of Biblical Israel came into contact with travelers from many far off lands from India to Southern Arabia and Nubia, to China and possibly beyond the Greek Islands. In fact, it is safe to assume that their geographical awareness was far more developed than that of the Europeans at this time. As a result, the population was exposed to many languages and cultures and, over time, the language adopted many of them.


Biblical Hebrew also includes many words that can be found, in one form or another, in many neighboring languages. Known as “travelling” words, it is often impossible to know the origin of these words.


However, there are two central languages whose influence was paramount on the development of Biblical Hebrew:

  • Acadian, the language of the Babylonians and Assyrians, contributed many words to the Biblical Hebrew lexicon – for example the names of the Hebrew months in use today are of Acadian origin.
  • Aramaic is perhaps the language that has had the greatest influence on Biblical Hebrew (and also on the development of Hebrew during the Diaspora). This includes the adoption of the Aramaic alphabet during the Second Temple period and the fact that the subtle influences of Aramaic still prevail in Modern Hebrew.
  • As evidence of the fact that the culture of the people at that time was a predominantly agricultural one, we find, many unique Biblical Hebrew words relating to agriculture and nature. One example is that some 117 plant species are named in the Bible) 18 of which are thorns and thistles – evidence of the climate).


    Modern Hebrew – a subset of Biblical Hebrew?

    Modern Hebrew has its roots firmly planted in Biblical Hebrew. But, over the centuries, the language has evolved and developed and adapted to meet the changing needs of society. In just the same way that Shakespearian English is similar but different from modern English, so Modern Hebrew is a similar, yet different from Biblical Hebrew.

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