Lesson Notes


Lesson Focus

The Focus of This Lesson Is the History of the Modern Hebrew Language.


Hebrew is a Semitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family. It belongs to the Canaanite group of languages, which are a branch of the Northwest Semitic family of languages. Scholars believe that it developed from a dialect of the Canaanite language, but no one has been able to pinpoint its exact origin.


Modern Hebrew has its roots in Classical Hebrew, which Jewish communities around the world have used for prayer and study for centuries. As a spoken language, Classical Hebrew was most widely used in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah during the tenth to seventh centuries BCE. Spoken Hebrew declined in ancient times following the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people, and it became practically extinct as a spoken language by late antiquity (the second to the eighth century CE). It was replaced by Aramaic, which was the regional language used for trade, and temporarily by Greek as well, which was the language of the ruling class at the time.


After the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in 132 to 136 AD, most of the Jewish population was exiled, and they adapted to the societies they were in, speaking the local language and adapting that language into a dialect of their own. Yiddish and Ladino are good examples of this. Jewish people continued to use Classical Hebrew in the written form for many things, such as letters, documentation, poetry, and the written laws.


Around 200 CE, the Jewish people realized that vowels needed to be added to the Hebrew alphabet to make it more accessible and to keep it consistent for further generations. Several different groups of Jews came up with systems for this, but the one that remained came from the Masoretes. Not wanting to hinder the sacred texts, they decided to develop vowels consisting of marks in and around the letters.


Near the end of the nineteenth century, the Zionist movement began, and this led to dispersed Jews returning to the ancient land of Israel, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. A few things contributed to the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. First of all, there were several groups of Jewish people who were attempting to revive the language in different ways, some using Hebrew language newspapers as a vehicle and others publishing non-religious texts in Hebrew. Most notably and famously known was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who worked very hard to revive Hebrew as a spoken language. Ben-Yehuda had seen other nationalities, such as Bulgarians, receive a state of their own, so he began working toward a state and a unified language for the Jewish people. Ben-Yehuda began to speak Hebrew in his home and with all the Jewish people he came in contact with. He filled in the need for modern words, such as ice cream, by coining them himself. The next step was to bring Hebrew to the schools, where young people from different language backgrounds would be able to speak together with the common language of Hebrew. These two experiments were successful, but Hebrew was still not spoken on a large scale.


To get people familiar with Hebrew in an everyday context, Ben-Yehuda needed a vehicle, so he looked to publishing articles in Hebrew in a local paper. This had been a vehicle for other attempts to revive Hebrew throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, and it was successful. By the end of the 1800s, almost every male Jew living in Palestine could read and understand the Hebrew in the newspaper without too much difficulty. To aid those learning Hebrew, he began to compile a dictionary and published new words in the newspaper, so people would be able to fill in the gaps of what Modern Hebrew was still lacking.


The last contributing factor and the key to the success of Ben-Yehuda's mission was that at the time, Jews from all over the world were returning to Israel, and they spoke many different languages. Many of those that returned were Zionists, like Ben-Yehuda himself, and they were eager to use Hebrew as a common language. They needed one common language in which to converse, so Hebrew became that language. In spite of these successes, there were some who were opposed to this idea. The extremely religious Jews did not think that Hebrew should be used to discuss everyday things because it is a holy language. To this day, there are ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel who speak Yiddish instead of Hebrew for everyday matters.


Hebrew became an official language of British-ruled Palestine in 1922, along with English and Arabic. In 1948, it became the official language of the newly declared State of Israel. It is the most widely spoken language in Israel today. Modern Hebrew is constructed from the Semitic vocabulary of Classical Hebrew and has the same written appearance, but it is often European in phonology and borrows many words from English and other languages.


Today there are two different dialects of Hebrew: Sephardic and Ashkenazi Hebrew. Sephardic Hebrew originated with the Jews who were dispersed to Spain. It is now spoken by Jews who were most recently located in the Middle East and Africa. Ashkenazi Hebrew is spoken by Jews in most of Europe and North America. Pronunciation of Modern Hebrew in Israel is based on Sephardic Hebrew.

About the Country of Origin

Although Hebrew originated in the Middle East, in the area that is now Israel, there were several times throughout history that Hebrew was not spoken there. The Jews spent many years in exile and later in the Diaspora before returning to their homeland and declaring the State of Israel. For that reason, Hebrew went through many changes.

Where Is It Spoken?

Culturally, Hebrew is considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Modern Hebrew is one of the official languages of Israel; therefore, it is spoken by the seven million people living in Israel, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and by the approximately 750,000 Israelis living abroad.

Why It Is Important

The top five reasons to learn this language are...


  • Hebrew is one of the oldest languages in the world.
  • Modern Hebrew comes from Classical Hebrew, which is the language that the Tanach and Old Testament are written in.
  • By learning Hebrew, you can get new insight into Jewish history and culture.
  • Knowing Hebrew will help you travel more easily in Israel and interact with Israelis abroad.
  • Learn Hebrew and you will gain an understanding and an appreciation for Israeli history and its culture-a modern nation built on historical roots that has gone through so much to survive until today.
  • Hebrew is fun!



Lesson Transcript

Shira: All About Hebrew Lesson Number 1 – An Introduction To The Hebrew Language. [שלום] (Sha'lom) I'm Shira, your friendly non-Israeli guide to everything Hebrew.
Amir: I'm Amir and in this lesson I get to share a part of my Israeli soul with you.
Shira: That's right. This lesson is all about your homeland, Amir.
Amir: And yours too, Shira.
Shira: Yeah, I guess Israel has become my home now. I'm kind of like Ruth in the Bible.
Amir: Or like [moabitess] who married [בועז] (Bo'az) and became an Israelite.
Shira: Yeah, that's the one. It's one of my favorite Bible stories. She then went on to be the grandmother of King David.
Amir: That's cool. Maybe you'll get to be the mother or grandmother of one of our future prime ministers in Israel.
Shira: Yeah, we'll see.
Amir: Well, Shira, you can speak Hebrew pretty well so you can easily fit in in Israel.
Shira: I try my best. Hebrew is an interesting language with an ancient history and intriguing culture to match.
Amir: Intriguing, yes. Bible stories are just the beginning of that history. Stick with us and we'll introduce you to a side of Israel that only an insider gets to see.
Shira: Speaking of history, Hebrew has really survived through the ages and approximately 7 million people speak it today.
Amir: If you listen for it, you can hear Hebrew everywhere.
Shira: Tell me, Amir, where have you spoken Hebrew in your life besides Israel?
Amir: Everywhere I've traveled. I've even spoken Hebrew in Montana.
Shira: In Montana? Really? I love to listen for Hebrew outside of Israel. I get to eavesdrop on conversations all the time.
Amir: Shira, shame on you. But you're right. Israeli immigrants are all over the world. It's a language you can hear in every country.
Shira: Yeah. So why are there so many Israelis outside of Israel?
Amir: Well, first of all, Israelis love to travel. Most young adults plan a big trip after the army. They go to many different places, South-East Asia or South America are really popular.
Shira: Yeah, that post-army trip is really important. I love to see the pictures of all the adventures they've been on.
Amir: The other reason is that there are about 750,000 Israelis outside of Israel, so your chances of hearing Hebrew are pretty good.
Shira: Wow, that many?
Amir: Yes. Israel's had a rough history. Many Israelis feel they can make a better living outside of Israel. Others just don't want to live in a place with so much tension.
Shira: Yeah, I guess it's a bit tense sometimes. But I find it so exciting to live in Israel. So let's get back to the topic of the Hebrew language. I know that Hebrew is ancient, but where exactly did it come from?
Amir: Well, it's difficult to pinpoint, but experts believed it developed from a dialect of the Kinana language.
Shira: That's another name I remember hearing in the Bible.
Amir: You can actually see a lot of Hebrew's history in the Bible. If you know the stories of the Israelites, you'll be able to follow the history of the Hebrew language pretty easily.
Shira: I know though that Hebrew in the Bible is much more difficult than Hebrew spoken today.
Amir: It is. Hebrew used in the [תנ״ך] (Tanakh), meaning the Old Testament, is called Classical Hebrew. And Hebrew spoken today is called Modern Hebrew.
Shira: Why are they so different?
Amir: If you remember, in the Bible, the Israelites were exiled to Babylon, and while they were there spoken Hebrew really declined.
Shira: But the Jews came back from Babylon in the end, didn't they?
Amir: Eventually, they returned. But while they were there, they began to use more and more Aramaic, which was the regional language for trade in the Middle East. Hebrew was still used in religious texts and ceremonies, but it was spoken less and less.
Shira: I heard that Hebrew was at one point a dead language. Is that true?
Amir: Not exactly. After the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in the year 132 A.D., Hebrew was basically not spoken anymore. But when the Romans suppressed the revolt, they scattered the Jews all over the world.
Shira: That's what they call the diaspora.
Amir: Correct. Despite not being spoken anymore, written Hebrew survived in poetry, religious literature and documentation within the scattered Jewish communities.
Shira: If the Jewish people didn't speak Hebrew anymore, what did they speak?
Amir: They usually spoke the language of the area where they were living. Sometimes to separate themselves, they would develop a local dialect of the local language.
Shira: Is that what Yiddish is?
Amir: Exactly. Yiddish is one of those languages that came out of the diaspora. It's a fusion of German, Hebrew, Aramaic, and even some Slavic languages. And it came from a Jewish community in the Rhine region, in Germany. It really caught on throughout the Jewish society and it spread all over the world.
Shira: There is so much history in what you just told us. So when did Hebrew become a spoken language again?
Amir: Well, at the end of the 19th century, there were a couple of social movements that tried to revive Hebrew as a day to day language. It was successful on a small scale, but it wasn't until some things happened that it really caught on.
Shira: Ok, now you have me on the edge of my seat. What happened?
Amir: Around the same time, the concept of nationalism became a major thing. Many groups of people were fighting for their homeland and they were getting it.
Shira: Do you mean countries like Bulgaria? But what does that have to do with Hebrew?
Amir: Well, many Jewish people in Europe thought they too deserved a homeland. These people were called Zionists and one of their leaders was [אליעזר בן יהודה] (E'li'ezer ben ye'hu'da).
Shira: I've heard that name before. He has a street named after him in just about every city in Israel. They say he singlehandedly revived Hebrew as a spoken language.
Amir: Well, he had a big role in it, of course. But it wasn't all his doing. Because of Zionism, many of the Jews were returning to Palestine, which was then a part of the Ottoman Empire, to make a homeland for themselves.
Shira: Right. They call these the first [עליות] (A'li'yot) or going up.
Amir: This is where [בן יהודה] (Ben ye'hu'da) comes in. he also made his way to Palestine, where he continued working on his big project.
Shira: You mean his project to revive Hebrew?
Amir: Yes. He had a strategy. He wanted to use Hebrew exclusively in his own home, and once that succeeded, he would get Hebrew into the schools, and from there it would naturally spread to the rest of society.
Shira: I'm guessing he was successful because today Modern Hebrew is still spoken.
Amir: He was. His son was considered the first native speaker of Modern Hebrew. He was also successful in getting teachers to teach in Hebrew in the schools. It was tough, but there were many teachers with the same vision as [בן יהודה] (Ben ye'hu'da), and together they fought through those first difficult years.
Shira: What did he do about words that didn't exist in the Bible or in the religious texts? I'm guessing modern language, in general, was different at that time. Then they had already come through the industrial revolution.
Amir: He coined those words himself and he kept track of them. Eventually, he collected them into a dictionary that combined classical and Modern Hebrew.
Shira: So how did he get Hebrew to the rest of Jewish society?
Amir: He knew that most men were familiar with Hebrew because they were able to read it in the [תנ״ך] (Tanakh) or in the commentaries on the [תנ״ך] (Tanakh). So his strategy was to use Hebrew in the local newspapers. He also used newspapers to share his new words with the rest of the Hebrew speakers.
Shira: I guess newspapers were pretty popular during that time. But it seems to me that not everyone could learn Hebrew from a newspaper.
Amir: True. Part of the reason that Hebrew caught on so well during that time was because of the immigrants who were coming to Palestine. They were coming from countries all over Europe and they needed a common language.
Shira: Right. They spoke Yiddish and Russian, Ladino and many, many other languages.
Amir: As Hebrew gained speakers, it became that common language. Most of them had some sort of a knowledge of it, so it wasn't so difficult to start speaking it.
Shira: That way they didn't have to learn an entirely new language. That's brilliant.
Amir: Well, if there hadn't been such a need for a common language at the time, Hebrew might not have caught on so quickly.
Shira: Wow. Hebrew has such an amazing history. So now I understand the answer to my question. Because Hebrew had mostly been a written language for so many years, it had to go through a lot of sudden changes to catch up to modern times. That's why there's such a big difference between Classical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew.
Amir: Yeah, Hebrew's a very special language. It's in its own class altogether.
Shira: Yeah. Technically speaking, Hebrew is a Semitic language from the Afro-Asiatic language family. It belongs to the Kinana group of languages and it has two main dialects.
Amir: The two main dialects are [אשכנזי] (Ash'ke'na'zi) Hebrew and [ספרדי] (Sfara'di) Hebrew. These two dialects are related to where different groups of Jews came from in the diaspora.
Shira: We'll get into how these two dialects have affected the Hebrew language in some of our other All About lessons.
Amir: Let's talk about Israel for a bit.
Shira: Ok, it sounds like we're in for another history lesson.
Amir: We'll try to keep it short.
Shira: Ok. How about we start at the part where the Zionists had come to Palestine, which was a part of the Ottoman Empire, but was then taken over by the British.
Amir: Yes. When Hebrew was becoming the main language of Jewish society, the British mandate was in place. And in 1922, Hebrew actually became one of the official languages of Palestine.
Shira: Hey, that's amazing. Hebrew went from not being spoken to an official language of Palestine in 50 years.
Amir: What's even more amazing is that Zionists continued to come to Palestine, where they were later joined by holocaust survivors, and together they declared the state of Israel.
Shira: So two dreams came to be; the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, and a homeland for the Jewish people.
Amir: Today, we don't even think about the fact that 100 years ago, modern Hebrew was still in its infancy. And Jews were still scattered all over the world, longing for a homeland of their own.
Shira: Israeli history gives a lot of insight into the reason for the nationalism of Israelis, as well as their strong cultural identity.
Shira: Ok. It's time for our top five list.
Amir: The top five reasons to learn this amazing language.
Shira: Number five.
Amir: Hebrew is one of the oldest languages in the world. By learning Hebrew, you'll gain access to thousands of years of poetic, historical and philosophical texts.
Shira: Number four.
Amir: Modern Hebrew comes from the classical Hebrew, which is the language that most of the Bible was written in. So now you can find out what those passages are really about.
Shira: Number three.
Amir: By learning Hebrew, you can get new insight into Jewish history, and you can also have a better understanding of Israel's culture and its history. It's practically a two for one deal.
Shira: Number two.
Amir: Knowing Hebrew will help you travel more easily in Israel and interact with Israelis abroad. Soon you'll be speaking Hebrew just as well as Shira. And the number one reason to learn Hebrew is…
Shira: Hebrew is Fun!