Q&A: 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]

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


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&A: 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 (from right to left):

(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