Hebrew pronunciation ) is a Semitic language of the
Afro-Asiatic language family. Culturally, it is considered
the language of the Jewish people, though other Jewish
languages that originated among diaspora Jews exist.
Hebrew in its modern form is spoken by most of the seven
million people in Israel while Classical Hebrew has been
used for prayer or study in Jewish communities around the
world for over two thousand years. It is one of the
official languages of Israel, along with Arabic. Ancient
Hebrew is also the liturgical tongue of the Samaritans,
while modern Hebrew or Palestinian Arabic is their
vernacular, though today about 700 Samaritans remain. As a
foreign language it is studied mostly by Jews and students
of Judaism and Israel, archaeologists and linguists
specializing in the Middle East and its civilizations, by
theologians, and in Christian seminaries.
The core of the Torah (the first five books of the
Hebrew Bible), and most of the rest of the Hebrew Bible,
is written in Classical Hebrew, and much of its present
form is specifically the dialect of Biblical Hebrew that
scholars believe flourished around the 6th century BC,
around the time of the Babylonian exile. For this reason,
Hebrew has been referred to by Jews as Leshon
Holy Language", since ancient times.
The modern word "Hebrew" is derived from the
word "ivri" (plural "ivrim") one of
several names for the Jewish people. It is traditionally
understood to be an adjective based on the name of
Abraham's ancestor, Eber ("ever"
עבר in Hebrew) mentioned in Genesis
10:21. This name is possibly based upon the root "`avar"
meaning "to cross over" and homiletical
interpretations of the term "ivrim" link it to
this verb. In the Bible, "Hebrew" is called Yehudith
because Judah (Yehuda)
was the surviving kingdom at the time of the quotation,
late 8th century BCE (Is 36, 2 Kings 18). In Isaiah 19:18,
it is also called the "Language of Canaan" (שְׂפַת
Hebrew belongs to the Canaanite group of languages. In
turn the Canaanite languages are a branch of the Northwest
Semitic family of languages.
Hebrew flourished as a spoken language in the kingdoms
of Israel and Judah during the 10th to 7th centuries BCE.
Scholars debate the degree to which Hebrew was a spoken
vernacular in ancient times following the Babylonian
exile, when the predominant language in the region was Old
Hebrew was extinct as a spoken language by Late
Antiquity, but it survived as a literary language and as
the liturgical language of Judaism, evolving various
dialects of literary Medieval Hebrew, until its revival as
a spoken language in the late 19th century.
The earliest Hebrew writing yet discovered was found at
Khirbet Qeiyafa in July 2008 by Israeli archaeologist
Yossi Garfinkel. A 3,000-year-old pottery shard bearing
five lines of faded characters was found in the ruins of
an ancient town south of Jerusalem. Garfinkel noted that
the find suggests Biblical accounts of the ancient
Israelite kingdom of David could have been based on
The Gezer calendar also dates back to the 10th century
BCE at the beginning of the Monarchic Period, the
traditional time of the reign of David and Solomon.
Classified as Archaic Biblical Hebrew, the calendar
presents a list of seasons and related agricultural
activities. The Gezer calendar (named after the city in
whose proximity it was found) is written in an old Semitic
script, akin to the Phoenician one that through the Greeks
and Etruscans later became the Roman script. The Gezer
calendar is written without any vowels, and it does not
use consonants to imply vowels even in the places where
later Hebrew spelling requires it.
Numerous older tablets have been found in the region
with similar scripts written in other Semitic languages,
for example Protosinaitic. It is believed that the
original shapes of the script go back to Egyptian
hieroglyphs, though the phonetic values are instead
inspired by the acrophonic principle. The common ancestor
of Hebrew and Phoenician is called Canaanite, and was the
first to use a Semitic alphabet distinct from Egyptian.
One ancient document is the famous Moabite Stone written
in the Moabite dialect; the Siloam Inscription, found near
Jerusalem, is an early example of Hebrew. Less ancient
samples of Archaic Hebrew include the ostraka found near
Lachish which describe events preceding the final capture
of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian
captivity of 586 BCE.
Main article: Classical Hebrew
In its widest sense, Classical Hebrew means the
spoken language of ancient Israel flourishing between the
10th century BCE and the turn of the 4th century CE. It
comprises several evolving and overlapping dialects. The
phases of Classical Hebrew are often named after important
literary works associated with them.
- Archaic Biblical Hebrew from the 10th to the
6th century BCE, corresponding to the Monarchic Period
until the Babylonian Exile and represented by certain
texts in the Hebrew Bible (Tanach), notably the Song
of Moses (Exodus 15) and the Song of Deborah (Judges
5). Also called Old Hebrew or Paleo-Hebrew. It was
written in a form of the Canaanite script. (A script
descended from this is still used by the Samaritans,
see Samaritan Hebrew language.)
The literary and narrative use of Hebrew was revived
beginning with the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement. The
first secular periodical in Hebrew, Hameassef (The
Gatherer), was published by Maskilim literati in Königsberg
(today's Kaliningrad) from 1783 onwards. In the mid-19th
century, publications of several Eastern European
Hebrew-language newspapers (e.g. HaMagid, founded in Lyck,
Prussia, in 1856) multiplied. Prominent poets were Chaim
Nachman Bialik and Shaul Tchernichovsky; there were also
novels written in the language.