Q: Why is the original Hebrew called “the Holy Tongue”?

Prior to the First Exile of the Judean aristocracy to Babylon in 586 BCE, Israelites referred to themselves as ‘Hebrews’ (ivrim – עברים)—e.g.:

  • And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew [Gen. 14:13]
  • And there was there with us a young man, an Hebrew [Gen. 41:23]

    when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew [Exodus 2:7]

  • And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee [Deut. 15:12]
  • That every man should let his manservant, and every man his maidservant, being an Hebrew or an Hebrewess, go free [Jer. 34:9]
  • And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land [Jonah 1:9]

It stands to reason, therefore, that their language was known as ivrit (Hebrew)—although, in the century and a half after the fall of the Israel (northern) kingdom, since Judea was the sole remaining sovereign Israelite entity, the notion of a ‘Hebrew’ nationality lost its meaning, and its inhabitants began to refer to themselves as yehudim (Judeans), and their language as yehudit (Judean):

  • Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in Assyrian—for we understand it— and talk not with us in Judean in the ears of the people that are on the wall [II Kings 18:26]

After two or three generations in Babylon, the exiled Judeans naturally acquired Aramaic as their native language, and Hebrew might have been forgotten entirely, were it not so critical to preserving their cherished history and traditions.

It was clear that Hebrew would the language in which the written record of the oral traditions—which we now know as the Hebrew Bible—would be recorded. However, the notion of a Hebrew nationality had long been lost, and referring to the language as yehudit suggested that, as good Judeans, they should speak it as their native tongue—which they were loathe to do, because by this time, they felt more at home in Aramaic, which was also a more prestigious language, since it was the lingua franca of the region.

So to reflect Hebrew’s new special status, and to ‘compensate’ it for losing its status as the native everyday language, it was now referred to as leshon haqodesh (‘the holy tongue’). This state of affairs continued until the arrival of the first Zionists in Palestine in the late nineteenth century, who—as avowedly secular Jews intent on resurrecting the notion of a Jewish nationality, rather than religion—revived the concept of Hebrew as a nationality and as a language.

This mindset continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century: the Zionist Jewish community in Palestine referred to itself, its autonomous institutions and enterprises, and even the future independent state, as ‘Hebrew’.

In his declaration of independence of the newborn State of Israel in 1948, however, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion inadvertently referred to the new country as a medinah yehudit (‘Jewish state’). Although he meant it in the nationalist/Zionist sense of a ‘state of the Jews’, religious political parties were quick to seize upon this expression to mean a ‘Jewish state’ in the religious sense—whose agenda, therefore, was therefore implicitly theirs to dictate.

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Is there any difference between the pre-exile Biblical Hebrew and post-Exile Biblical Hebrew?

Hugely, yes.

Post-Exile (First Exile, that is—in Babylon), Hebrew was flooded with Aramaic words and expressions, as the returning Judeans sought to introduce the sophistication of the prestigious and cosmopolitan Babylon, where they had lived for over three generations, into the provincial backwater of their ancestral land, where only poor and barely literate Judeans (“none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land”—II Kings 24:14) had remained after the Babylonian conquest some 75 years before.

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If I time traveled to Israel in the times of King David, how much of my Hebrew would people understand?

davidsamuelsaul-a

Interesting question. The good news is that the Hebrew of King David’s time is actually closer to modern Hebrew than that of the Second Temple period (with its considerable Aramaic influences).  This is partly due to the deliberate efforts of the Zionist leadership to hark back to the nation’s heroic past, and partly because, in the revival of Hebrew in the modern era, the narratives of the Hebrew Bible provided far more source material than the Second Temple period, when the Talmudic Sages (who were virtually the only ones putting things down in writing) tended to slip into Aramaic all the time.

As a result, the glimpses of dialogue that we see in David’s time sound remarkably contemporary.  Two examples, out of many:

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What langauge was spoken by the Judeans during the Hashmonean period? Was it Hebrew or Arameac?

(My answer to this question at Quora.com)

The experts are divided on this question: some think that Judeans carried on speaking Aramaic after their return from Babylon, and used Hebrew only in prayer and Scripture writing and Talmudic debates; others think that they reverted to speaking Hebrew on return from Babylon (or had even maintained it while in Babylonian exile), and spoke Aramaic as a second language, since it was the lingua franca of the entire Middle East.

My sense, based on what I know about the Hebrew script and the dynamics of language and patriotism elsewhere and in other periods of history, is that it was largely a social thing.

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Q: How would paleo-Hebrew spell “Joshua”?

It would be spelled iod-heh-shin-ayin—which, in Paleo Hebrew (or the script of any Canaanite language of that period) would look somewhat like this:

(in those days, the custom was not to use the letter vav as a quasi /o/ or /u/ vowel)

In Square Hebrew (i.e., the script adapted from the Aramaic in the Second Temple period and still in use today), those same letters look quite different, of course:

י ה ש ע