The Story of Hebrew

The Story of Hebrew

by Lewis Glinert


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The Story of Hebrew by Lewis Glinert

The Story of Hebrew explores the extraordinary hold that Hebrew has had on Jews and Christians, who have invested it with a symbolic power far beyond that of any other language in history. Preserved by the Jews across two millennia, Hebrew endured long after it ceased to be a mother tongue, resulting in one of the most intense textual cultures ever known. Hebrew was a bridge to Greek and Arab science, and it unlocked the biblical sources for Jerome and the Reformation. Kabbalists and humanists sought philosophical truth in it, and Colonial Americans used it to shape their own Israelite political identity. Today, it is the first language of millions of Israelis. A major work of scholarship, The Story of Hebrew is an unforgettable account of what one language has meant and continues to mean.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691153292
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 02/14/2017
Series: Library of Jewish Ideas
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 504,567
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Lewis Glinert is Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, where he is also affiliated with the Program in Linguistics. His books include The Grammar of Modern Hebrew and The Joys of Hebrew.

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The Story of Hebrew

By Lewis Glinert


Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8478-0


"Let There Be Hebrew"

Hebrew as the Hebrew Bible Saw It

Where did Hebrew come from? For the best part of three millennia, the answer has regularly been sought in the Bible itself:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

These famous words, verses 1–3 of Genesis 1 as rendered in the 1611 King James Version, speak of God speaking. They might thus be construed as describing the creation of the Hebrew language.

Or again, they might not. The Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh, as Jews traditionally call it) is studiously silent about Hebrew. In fact, the entire twenty-four books provide what amount to just three mentions of the Hebrew language by name, if indeed yehudit (the language of Judea) and sefat Kena'an (the language of Canaan) actually denote Hebrew. As for the two names that Jews have historically most often used for Hebrew, ivrit and leshon ha-kodesh (the holytongue), neither appears in the Bible. The language in which the Hebrew Bible was written and, one might assume, the language used by the Israelites since the birth of the Hebrew nation in Egyptian slavery, just seems to be there, humming in the background.

So are we meant to assume that Jacob and his sons spoke Hebrew? Going back further, what about Abraham? Noah? Adam? The text contains some hints about these questions, but it is by no means clear what to make of them. Take, for instance, this passage from Genesis 2, which comes after God has created Adam and placed him in the Garden:

Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him." So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. (Genesis 2:18–20)

Genesis here is making a major statement about language and society. What that statement is remains the subject of endless debate, but this much seems clear: Adam is not presented with words for the various animals; he devises them himself, whether arbitrarily or logically. But in what language? The Bible does not appear to say. But then comes Adam's promised "helper," and this:

She shall be called woman (ishah) because she was taken out of man (ish). (Genesis 2:23)

Not only does Adam coin the word for woman, he also assigns the woman a name:

And Adam called his wife's name Eve (Hava) because she was the mother of all living (hay). (Genesis 3:20)

By these linguistic associations, which work for Hebrew but by no means for other languages, Genesis is subtly implying that Adam spoke Hebrew. And similar linguistic associations are offered to explain the names of his sons Cain and Seth. So, too, for Noah:

and he called his name Noah, saying, "Out of the ground which the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief (yenahamenu) from our work and from the toil of our hands." (Genesis 5:29)

These are but a few examples. The Bible explains the naming of scores of persons and places, overtly or implicitly, by Hebrew word association.

True, much later on, the biblical prophets also liked to take advantage of the way the names of foreign places and potentates resonate in Hebrew. But they are clearly engaging in literary wordplay. Genesis, by contrast, seems to want us to imagine Adam, Noah, and certain other figures speaking Hebrew. Indeed, at one juncture, when Jacob, ancestor of Israel, and Laban the Aramean are staking a geographical boundary between their respective spheres of influence, Jacob assigns the boundary cairn a Hebrew name, while Laban assigns it a name that is clearly the Aramaic equivalent.

The first explicit reference to language in the Bible is in the Tower of Babel story. Before the tower, we're told, "the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech." But after:

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound (balal) the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:9)

What was the "one language"? Presumably, if Adam spoke Hebrew, that would be the answer. Some have suggested that this Hebrew, or whatever it was, could instead have been just a shared lingua franca rather than a universal mother tongue — a kind of antediluvian Esperanto. But that is not the obvious sense. What the book of Genesis seems to be telling us, implicitly and explicitly, is that in the beginning, humanity spoke Hebrew.

Digging below the Surface

What language, then, does God speak? We read that God creates light by verbal fiat:

And God said, "Let there be light." And there was light.

Ten times, in fact, God "speaks" in order to create (although some things He simply creates without speaking). In the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonides and other rationalist Jewish philosophers held that all instances of divine speech in the Bible should be understood metaphorically. Mystics, on the other hand, took this passage to mean that, by these speech acts, God was creating or deploying Hebrew itself, rather than waiting for a human being to do so. And this reading is not far from the plain sense of the text.

A closer look at the opening verse of Genesis gives reason to believe that Hebrew is being accorded primordial status. The first three words are bereshit bara elohim, usually translated "In the beginning God created" or, if we follow the word order of the Hebrew, "In-the-beginning, created God." The first two words begin with the same string of three letters, bet resh alef. What this might mean is altogether beyond the plain meaning of the words. At the very least, the Bible seems to be signaling something through the phonetic or graphic resonances between these first two words. Perhaps, then, the Hebrew letters or strings of letters throughout the Bible convey a level of significance (a "semiotic," to use linguistic terminology) quite separate from the plain sense of the words these letters form.

Of course, many talented authors, writing in many languages, have relied on meaningful resonance. But Hebrew's intrinsic features made it especially reverberant in a way that European languages are not. Almost the entire Hebrew word stock consists of groups of related words (what linguists call "clusters"), constructed on a skeleton of consonants (the "root") that vaguely conveys a meaning; through the insertion of specific vowels and the addition of prefixes and suffixes, real words, with specific meanings, are generated.

The closest thing to this in English would be a consonant skeleton like b-n-d, which yields the word cluster bind, bound, band, bond, binder, bondage, and the like. So, for instance, in biblical Hebrew, the root sh-m-r yielded: shamar (to guard, wait), nishmar (to take care, to be on guard), mishmar (detention), and mishmeret (vigil). Similarly, sh-l-m yielded shalam (to reach completion), shilem (to pay or to compensate), hishlim (to make peace), shalem (intact), shalom (peace), shalmon (bribe), and so forth. The Hebrew ear was always attuned to picking out these underlying patterns, and from them the authors of the Bible could create resonances on a grand scale. Every episode echoes to them; every name is pregnant with possibilities.

To return to an example used above: after the birth of Noah (Noah), a corrupted mankind declares that "this one [Noah] shall bring us relief (yenahamenu) ... from the toil of our hands," but "the Lord was sorry (vayinahem) that He had made man," and decides, "I will blot out (emheh) man." However, "Noah found favor (hen) in the eyes of the Lord." These verses play on the two possible meanings of n-h-m (relief or regret), the similarity between n-h-m and n-h, the similarity between these and m-h (bear in mind that n and m are similar sounds), and the mirror image between n-h and h-n.

Poetry and Prose in the Bible

As noted above, resonances and wordplay are among the basic tools of poets, and biblical poetry is replete with them. But the just -cited example of Noah confirms that they pervade biblical prose as well. And here, as Shemaryahu Talmon has observed, is one of the most striking distinctions between the Bible and the national and religious literatures of surrounding peoples: the Bible tells the history of Israel almost entirely in prose, deliberately turning its back on the epic poetry with which the cities of Ugarit, Ur, and every other Near Eastern cultic center recounted their cosmic beliefs. I would add that in so doing, the biblical authors injected a little of the stylistic flavor of everyday speech, and everyday transactions, into the elevated style of their sacred message. The biblical narrative is suffused with dialogue; what people say (and do) far overshadows how they look or even what the author says about them. Far from reinforcing the usual barriers between literate priesthood and presumably less literate people, biblical prose breaks them down.

Two other features of biblical style must have further sharpened its linguistic consciousness. First, the poetry is rich in metaphor. This is typically not the breathtaking or enigmatic sort of metaphor so common in modern poetry, but what Adele Berlin has called the "expressive permutations" of mundane, naturalistic comparisons with trees, animals, the skies, and so forth — thus the book of Psalms likens a righteous man to "a tree planted by the rivers of water" and the ungodly to "chaff which the wind driveth away" — as well as more elaborately constructed metaphorical "conceits" depicting, for example, wisdom and folly as two women of contrasting reputations.

Second, perhaps the most pervasive and familiar feature of biblical poetry (and often prose) is augmentation, or what is sometimes called parallelism: organizing verses into two matching or contrasting halves through syntax, semantics, meter, or some combination of these:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Sometimes, such verses read like "thought rhymes" or simple parallels, but often the parallel says (in James Kugel's words), "and what's more ..." And regularly, the parallel turns on delicate nuance and an attentive ear:

How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
How can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?
(Numbers 23:8)


Saul killed his thousands,
And David his ten thousands.
(1 Samuel 18:7)

Those for whom the Bible was the major (or the sole) written text could not help developing a sensitivity to such subtleties, and the resultant linguistic acuity became an ever-present feature of Hebrew culture in Israel and later in the Diaspora.

Biblical Hebrew is also stunningly flexible. Narrative, prophecy, law, proverbs, philosophy, elegy, romance — the biblical canon encompasses all of these genres and more. Here are some brief samples of its stylistic breadth:

And Caleb the son of Hezron begat children of Azubah his wife, and of Jerioth; her sons are these: Jesher, and Shobab, and Ardon. (1 Chronicles 2:18)

And if a man borrow aught of his neighbor, and it be hurt, or die, the owner thereof being not with it, he shall surely make it good. (Exodus 22:14)

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. (Ezekiel 1:4–5)

He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap. (Ecclesiastes 11:4)

How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? For ever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me? (Psalms 13:1)

Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes within thy locks: thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from Mount Gilead. (Song of Songs 4:1)

Running through it all is a spiritual thread that binds Israel's past, present, and future into divinely ordained duty and destiny. And this leads us to a perennial question.

Human Language? Or Divine Code?

Much of the Bible is explicitly presented as the word of God. One might then expect its texts to contain their fair share of mystery, as indeed they sometimes do. One might even expect wording that strains the bounds of human language. But that is generally not the case: the majority of the Bible is in a coherent and comprehensible Hebrew, regardless of subject matter. Yes, there are exceptions: in Job, and in many of the Psalms, the vocabulary is unusual, the syntax dense, the verb forms often intentionally ambiguous. But generations of interpreters have taken it for granted that there is also a plain sense even to such highly charged Hebrew.

Still, beyond the sounds and letters, did the biblical authors engage in hidden code? In Jeremiah 25 we find a mystifying reference to the "King of Sheshach." This is the only mention of such a kingdom in the Bible, and the name does not resemble any found in ancient inscriptions or texts. If, however, we apply the so -called atbash cipher — whereby the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph) is replaced with the last (tav), the second with the penultimate, and so forth — Sheshach becomes Bavel, or Babylon. In the context of the verse, it makes perfect sense that Jeremiah would speak of the king of Babylon here, and one can even imagine that he coded his speech to avoid angering the wrong people.

The earliest reference we have to the atbash cipher is hundreds of years later, in the Talmud, but the possibility that it was used deliberately in Jeremiah is, at the very least, seductive. Nevertheless, if not the sole example of code in the Bible, it is one of the very, very few. The biblical authors are not reticent about saying what they mean.

And what of numerology (gimatria or gematria), an interpretive tool later favored by many rabbis that assigns the letter alef the value 1, bet 2, and so on? Did the biblical authors knowingly employ a system whereby the reader could deduce hidden meanings by computing the numerical values of words? For instance, some rabbis noted that the phrase safa ahat (one language) in the Babel story has the same numerical value as leshon ha-ko desh (holy tongue). Yet, once again, nothing so strange has been found in the Bible as to compel us to think that the biblical authors had numerology on their minds.

A Life outside the Bible

We have postponed two basic questions: What was the Hebrew Bible itself in the biblical age, and when was it composed?

The Hebrew Bible as we know it finished taking shape in the land of Israel in the second century CE, when the rabbinic sages decided for posterity which books should be deemed Jewish scripture and which not. They called this canon of twenty-four holy books the Tanakh. Christians often call it the Old Testament. A religiously more neutral term is the Hebrew or Jewish Bible.

How most of the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible took shape — and when — is largely a matter of speculation. The earliest parts date back to the second millennium BCE, the latest to the first centuries after the exile to Babylon in 586 BCE — a time span approaching one thousand years. Just a single fragmentary biblical text has been unearthed by archaeologists from the biblical era itself: the Priestly Blessing from the book of Numbers, etched on two silver amulets dated to the seventh century BCE, the age of the Judean monarchy.

Although no full-length nonbiblical works in Hebrew have been found from this period, either, archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of short inscriptions stretching back to the tenth century BCE. These are official letters, cultic formulas, seals, jar labels, business receipts, petitions, and so forth, all written in a very biblical Hebrew:

Two months: (fruit) picking
Two months: sowing
Two months: late sowing
One month: flax harvest
One month: barley harvest
One month: final (?) harvest
Two months: pruning (vines)
One month: summer fruit
Gezer Calendar


Excerpted from The Story of Hebrew by Lewis Glinert. Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

Introduction 1

1 “Let There Be Hebrew” 8

2 Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome 22

3 Saving the Bible and Its Hebrew 59

4 The Sephardic Classical Age 74

5 Medieval Ashkenaz and Italy:
Sciences, Sonnets, and the Sacred 102

6 Hebrew in the Christian Imagination, I: Medieval Designs 124

7 Hebrew in the Christian Imagination, II: From Kabbalists to Colonials 139

8 Can These Bones Live? Hebrew at the Dawn of Modernity 168

9 The Hebrew State 212

Epilogue 246

Acknowledgments 251

Notes 253

Further Reading 261

Index 265

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