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.

Continue reading

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:…

Continue reading

Q&A: How was modern Hebrew created?

Modern Hebrew wasn’t ‘created’ in the sense that constructed languages such as Esperanto or Lojban are created ex nihilo. Rather, the traditional Hebrew of Scriptures, the Talmud, and nearly two thousand years of rabbinical commentary was taken and updated to make it serviceable for the modern age.

Eliezer Ben-Yehudah is often credited as single-handedly doing this himself, by creating the first modern Hebrew dictionary, and coining hundreds of new terms, but in fact, innumerable people were involved in this enterprise—such as writers such as Mendele Mocher-Sforim, Ehad Ha’am, and Hayim Nahman Bialk, who in the second half of the 19th century spearheaded, aided by a slew of Hebrew-language publications (HaMagidHeHalutzHatzfirah, etc.).

Ben-Yehudah’s other notable contribution is proving—using his infant son as a guinea pig—that a child can acquire Hebrew as a native tongue. But even without Ben-Yehudah, this would have happened, because the real revival of Hebrew as a spoken, everyday language was taking place in the schools of the first Zionist moshavot (settlements), such as Lev Frumkin’s boarding school in 1886, and the Ḥaviv School, founded two years later in Rishon Lezion.

The Ḥaviv School in Rishon Lezion, early 20th century (Credit: rishon.mynet.co.il)

Hebrew was the inevitable chosen language of the burgeoning Zionist community, not only because it was the only language that Jews of all countries had in common, but because it symbolised the return to ancestral land and cultural roots.

Q&A: What is the difference between the Hebrew words dabar and amar?

The verb d-b-r (דבר) is to speak—i.e. it is more formal and intentional. Hence words put in writing are also dbrim* (‘dvarim’); the Ten Commandments in Hebrew are Aseret Hadibrot (The Ten Proclamations); and religious prophets always warned civic leaders to honour at hdbrim awr H’ xivh* etc. (the things that the Lord commanded).

Continue reading

Q&A: What words or phrases tell me you’re from Israel?

Oh boy. Where to start?

The following examples are all drawn from my Hebrew-language guide to my Israeli clients on correct English usage, אל ףדיח (Al-Fadiḥ—stylised Arabic-Hebrew, meaning ‘Don’t Screw-Up’).

Like most non-native English speakers, Israelis will tend to make certain errors based on the use in their native language—such as:

Continue reading

Q&A: What is the meaning of the Hebrew proverb ”שמחת זקנתי בראש חוצות”?

It’s not a proverb so much as an expression of disdain or indifference. In common usage, only the first two words are used—with a suitable expression of boredom or nonchalance, while pointedly not looking away from whatever you’re doing at that moment: שמחת זקנתי… (Simhat zqenti…)

Literally, it means, ‘My old woman’s happiness for all to see’, and is a translation of the Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) expression, La gracia di tu mana (‘Your mother’s happiness’)—i.e., ‘[That might make my mother happy, but] I couldn’t care less’.

Q&A: Why might a translator use a calque?

[A2A] One would use a calque (a.k.a. loan translation) when there is no equivalent word or expression in the target language, but it captures the meaning so well and concisely that one is moved to recreate it by emulating the same word combination using native words in the target language.

In Hebrew, noted examples are:

Continue reading