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A Brief History of the Hebrew Language

Lashon HaKodesh -

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A Brief History of Hebrew

Disclaimer: This page provides a rudimentary overview of the history of the Hebrew script and is by no means intended to replace careful study of paleolinguists and other specialists in the field of ancient writing systems. For scholarly research, please see the Links page.

Leshon HaKodesh

About the Name "Hebrew"

  • Hebrew (Ivrit: ) is the name given to one of the world's oldest languages.
  • The name derives from Eber ('ever) (), the son of Shem; 'ever means "region across or beyond" and derives from a root that means to pass over.
  • Shem is called , "the father of all of the sons of Eber" (Gen 10:21); and therefore Hebrew descendants are called Semites.
  • In the Scriptures, Hebrew is used as an adjective () to describe Jews who are "from the other side" (i.e., of the Euphrates River). Modern Hebrew is called Ivrit.
  • In Genesis 31:47, Laban and Jacob refer to a heap of stones in their native speech. Laban uses the phrase "Yegar Sahaduta" which is Aramaic, but Jacob uses () "Gal-Ed" which is Hebrew.

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Primordial Origins

  • The Garden of Eden, or gan eden () is known as the first paradise, the location for the origin of man made b'tzelem elohim, in the image of God. This image included the ability to use a God-given language (a theory that an original source language was given in Eden is called "Edenics"). Man was exiled from Eden, however, and began to be dispersed upon the face of the earth.
  • The Great Flood, or mabul () effected judgment upon the antediluvian clans for their constant wickedness before the LORD. The only survivors were the direct descendants of the clan of Noach.
  • The Toldot b'nei Noach (the generations of Noah, or Table of 70 Nations as listed in Genesis 10) indicate some of the earliest migration of clans. Noah's son Shem is also called  , "the father of all of the sons of Eber" (Gen 10:21); his toldot is given in Genesis 11:10ff.
  • The Tower of Babel, or migdal bavel () located in the "plains of Shinar" of ancient Mesopotamia (Gen 11:1-9) is historically identified as the original site of ancient Babylon. Perhaps the tower was a form of idolatrous ziggurat meant to unify the ancients.
  • Abraham, a descendant of the clan of Eber, was called by God from Ur of the Chaldees (i.e., kasdim) c. 1800 BCE? to the land of Canaan. The language in Canaan at that time has been called "proto-Canaanite," the parent language of the dialects of Hittites, Amorites, Hivites, Jebusites, Perizites. In relation to the Hebrews, proto-Canaanite script may be called ketav Ivri.
  • During the 400 years that Abraham's clan was in Egypt (Genesis 15:13), the Hebrews still spoke a Canaanite variant (e.g. Joseph's brothers in Egypt: see Genesis 42:23). An article of orthodox Jewish faith is that God originally revealed the Torah to Moses using Ketav Ashurit (from ashrei), not ketav Ivri, since the earlier script was considered profane and riddled with paganism. After Moses broke the first set of tablets, however, God wrote the second set using the profane script.
  • After the Babylonian captivity, ketav Ashurit was fully restored to the Jewish people by Ezra the Scribe and came to be called Lashon HaKodesh (the holy language). This same script has been used until this day for the writing of Torah scrolls. Modern soferut (scribal arts) include the Bet Yosef, Bet Ari, and Sephard styles of ketav Ashurit for Sifrei Torah (torah scrolls).
  • A Midrash on the Migdal Bavel (Tower of Babel) teaches that at the end of time all people will once again speak one language, and that will be a purified form of the Hebrew tongue. There is also d'rash on the verse: "For then I will make the peoples pure of speech, so that they all invoke the LORD by name And serve Him with one accord" (Zeph 3:9) that indicates the same.

Proto-Canaanite Pictographs

Like other ancient writing systems, the Hebrew alphabet originally was written using a pictographic script:

Note: For more information about pictographs and their meanings, click here.

The Phoenecian Script

The Phoenician alphabet developed from the proto-Canaanite alphabet, which was created sometime between the 18th and 17th centuries BC.

Image courtesy of Omniglot

The Proto-Hebrew Script

This is also called early Aramaic Script. The key extant example is the Moabite Stone. This was the Hebrew (ketav Ivri) used by the Jewish nation up to the Babylonian Exile (or, according to Orthodox Jews, until the Exodus from Egypt).  At the end of the 6th century BC ketav Ivri was replaced by the Hebrew square script (ketav meruba).

Image courtesy of Omniglot

Note: Ketav Ivri was essentially the Phoenician alphabet that added semantic meaning through the novel use of dual-purpose "vowel letters" (i.e., Aleph, Hey, Vav). This script was used during in the First Temple period (though it was also used as a symbol of nationalistic revival in the Second Temple Period. A modified version of this script (Samaritan) is still extant today (see next).

The Samaritan Script

While the Jews adopted the Aramaic alphabet (under the leadership of Ezra the Scribe), the Samaritans held on to the original forms of proto-Hebrew, perhaps to show themselves the true heirs of Judaism. For this reason Ezra chose the Aramaic square script (called Ketav Ashuri or Ketav Meruba).

Classical Hebrew Script (ketav Ashurit)

After the Babylonian captivity, ketav Ashurit was adopted by the Jews (under the leadership of Ezra the Scribe) and called Leshon HaKodesh (the holy language). This was done probably to distance themselves from Samaritanism. The Aramaic characters were chosen as the official script for the Torah scrolls in the 5th century BC (the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were written during a transitional period where both the older ketav Ivri script is used with ketav Ashurit).

This classical Hebrew script was used for centuries before the time of Messiah, and has remained unchanged unto this day:

Modern Hebrew Cursive

The modern Hebrew script (used in Israel today) derives from Polish-German Jews.

Rashi-Style Hebrew

The Rashi style is used mainly to write commentaries on texts. It is named in honor of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 AD) a.k.a. Rashi, one of the greatest medieval Jewish scholars and bible commentators:

Note: Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and Yiddish (Judeo-German) both evolved during the middle ages and use the Hebrew characters for transliteration only. Ladino uses a Rashi-style script, whereas Yiddish uses the standard square script.

Periods of Hebrew

Scholars often divide the Hebrew language into four basic periods:

  1. Biblical Hebrew – aka Classical Hebrew; by the time of Jesus, Aramaic was the common language, but Hebrew was used in synagogues and in Temple worship. Jesus knew and spoke Biblical Hebrew.
  2. Mishnaic Hebrew – aka Rabbinic Hebrew; Talmud and Midrash; 2nd century AD. Note that the grammar and vocabulary of this Hebrew is very different than Biblical Hebrew.
  3. Medieval Hebrew – Used to translate Arabic works into Hebrew, e.g., Maimonides and other medievalists.
  4. Modern Hebrew – 19th century to present. Eliezar Ben Yehuda (1858-1922) led the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language. After immigrating to Israel in 1881, he began promoting the use of Hebrew at home and in the schools.
Eliezar Ben Yehuda

Of Related Interest

Word Pics

Hebrew Word Pictures by Dr. Frank Seekins. The book that shows how the ancient Hebrew letters declare the Gospel! Discover the ancient script that reveals penetrating truth about the Word of God! Includes an Audio CD that will help you learn the word pictures and hear all the examples.

Click for details

Ancient Hebrew Alphabet Chart. This is the ultimate Alphabet Chart, with over 20 alphabets arranged so you can easily compare Hebrew to any of the languages of Biblical and Modern times. Using this chart, you will see how Hebrew has developed over time.  High color, laminated: 16.25 X 12.5.

Click for details

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