Q&A: Why do Judean coins minted during the Hasmonean dynasty or the first Jewish-Roman war contain text in paleo-Hebrew script?

It was a kind of nationalist affectation, to proclaim the ancestral, pre-Babylonian-exile, Israelite origins of the newly-independent Hasmonean state—a bit like the motto of the British Royal Family (Dieu et mon droit – ‘God and my right’) is in French, harking back to its Norman origins.

Read more: Q&A: Why do Judean coins minted during the Hasmonean dynasty or the first Jewish-Roman war contain text in paleo-Hebrew script?

Modern Israel, by the way, does much the same: the Old Hebrew script is used on the modern sheqel coin (bottom left):

The difference is, in Hasmonean times, people knew what the Old Hebrew text said, whereas 99.9% of modern Israelis haven’t a clue: most people assume it says ‘sheqel’, but in fact, it spells Yehud, which ironically is not Hebrew, but the Persian name for its Judean province, dating back to the sixth century BCE, when Persia had just conquered the Babylonian empire, and allowed all exiled nations (the Judeans included) to return to their ancestral homes.

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Q&A: What is the mystery in Genesis 1:1?Why does the modern Hebrew script look so square?

Before the invention of printing, the ‘look’ of a script was determined by those in charge of producing large amounts of text—the professional scribes.

When Judeans first adopted the Assyrian version of the Canaanite script as their new script, some time in the 6th centuring BCE, the characters looked like this (pardon the letter order, which is left-to-right order, instead of right-to-left):

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Q&A: Is the Phoenician alphabet suitable for writing modern Hebrew?

You could—the letters are substantially the same (functionally speaking) as the modern Hebrew alphabet—but it is graphically less sophisticated than its derivatives, namely the Greek & Roman alphabets, and the Assyrian script which gave rise to the revised form of Hebrew from the Second Temple period onwards, known today as “Square Script”:

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Q&A: What does it mean in modern Hebrew when someone wraps up what they are saying by adding “v’shalom al Yisrael” (literally “and Peace upon Israel/upon the entire Jewish people”)?

It means “Done and dusted”, i.e. “there’s nothing more to do—move on.”

It’s taken from the last two verses of Psalms 128, which describes the cherished vision of a future where the people of Israel are blessed, and all is good in the world—a kind of utopia, where we needn’t strive any more:

ה יברכך יהוה מציון: וראה בטוב ירושלים–כל ימי חייך.

ו וראה-בנים לבניך: שלום על-ישראל.

5 The Lord shall bless thee out of Zion: and thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life.

6 Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel.

Q&A: Could a contemporary Hebrew speaker talk to a biblical Hebrew speaker?

Short answer: Yes.

Pronunciation is undoubtedly very different today—but then the same is true for English of Chaucer’s or even Shakespeare’s time and today. (Heck, these days I’m reading Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit, and I’m having a hard time understanding the characters’ 1920s slang…). 

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Q&A: Is it true that today’s Hebrew Torah is actually the Hebrew translation of the Greek Torah?

Page from the Leningrad Codex
Page from the Leningrad Codex of the Hebrew Bible

I was about to dismiss this seemingly silly question with a flippant answer along the lines of “Yes, and Shakespeare’s writings were much better in the original German,” when it struck me that OP might be confusing “the Hebrew Torah” with the New Testament.

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How did the Hebrew “R” change from a rolled “R” to a French-like “R”?

The short answer is because most senior Israeli politicians in the 1950s through early ’70s (such as David Ben-Gurion, Menahem Begin, Shimon Peres, etc.) were foreign-born and couldn’t do the guttural rolling Rs, so used trilling Rs instead, as in their native Russian or Polish—whereas modern-day leaders are almost invariably native Israelis. (The exceptions were Golda Meir and Abba Eban, whose mother tongue was English, so they spoke with painfully Anglo-Saxon Rs.)

But as we say in Hebrew, בואו נעשה סדר בדברים—let’s clear up some things, as there’s a common confusion here, even among Israelis themselves.

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Q&A: In Hebrew, if shamartem is “you guarded” (2nd person masc. plural) and shamroom is “they guarded them,” then what is “you guarded them” (2nd.masc.pl)?

This is a good question, as it highlights how Hebrew, in its love of concision by cramming prepositions and possessive indicators into the prefixes and suffixes of verbs and nouns, can sometimes overload itself.

As you partly point out in your question:

  • “you guarded” (m.sing.): shamárta
  • “you guarded” (m.plural): shamártem
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Q&A: Has modern Hebrew changed grammatically or phonologically from when it was first revived?

Yes—quite a lot. The best illustration of this is the Hebrew of the first native speaker of modern Hebrew, Itamar Ben-Avi, son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the ‘father’ of modern Hebrew and compiler of its first dictionary.

Itamar Ben-Avi

I recently read his autobiography (החצוף הארצישראלי ‘The Cheeky Hebrew Boy’), and although much of his Hebrew is not much different from high-register academic Hebrew today, some of it seems almost comically affected (although it wasn’t—that’s just the Hebrew he was brought up with). Typical example (not from his autobio, but from another project of his):

זה לי ארבעים שנה פחות ארבע, שאני הוגה בכתב העברי יומם ולילה ממש. מעודי לא יכולתי להבין מדוע לעברים אל״ף-בית כה קשה ומסובך, ולנוכרים – כה קל ונעים לשימוש? יום אחד – ואני אז בן-עשר – פניתי לאבי ואשאלנו: …״

Rough English equivalent:

’Tis four years shy of forty now that I have been contemplating the Hebrew script—yea, verily, day and night. Never have I been able to fathom why the Hebrews have such a difficult and convoluted alphabet, while the foreigners – [one] so easy and simple to use? One day – and I was but a lad of ten – I turned to my father and enquired of him:…

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