53. My encounter with Hebrew

This post is also available in: Catalan

Joan Ferrer
Universitat de Girona


In 1977, at the age of 17, and feeling more worried and scared than joyous, I began my university studies at the Faculty of Theology in Barcelona and at the University of Barcelona. There I found myself enrolled in a Hebrew course—it was a compulsory course in the first semester for theology programmes. It was one of those courses that everyone passed and that (like most university courses) was forgotten with incredible speed. But I found it fascinating, and it changed my life.

Historically, Hebrew was taught as a dead language that gave access to the original text of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians often call the Old Testament. Normally, you had to memorize paradigms—in the case of verbs, these can be rather complex—and lists of words. Historically, the results of this teaching had been catastrophic: (almost) never did anyone manage to reach the end of a verse without becoming entangled in Hebrew roots, which in some cases were virtually impossible to identify. But I was fortunate to have a young teacher, Dr Enric Cortès, who had spent time in Israel, where he had learned modern Hebrew. He had been in a kibbutz in 1968, that legendary year and returned speaking the language of the Bible! A language that had been “dead” for millennia was once again being spoken in one corner of the world: Israel. For me, a young man who was moved when he heard Raimon sing Espriu’s line «Però hem viscut per salvar-vos els mots» (“But we lived to save your words”), this was a kind of revelation: a human community had managed to save words! With Enric Cortès’ help—I will never be able to thank him enough for it—, I immersed myself in studying the world he had introduced me to.

Hebrew is part of the group of so-called “Semitic languages.” This was the name that the linguist A.L. Schloezer gave in 1781 to the set of languages spoken by the peoples whom Genesis 10:20-31 classifies as the sons of Shem. The term really caught on.

According to E. Lipiński, Semitic languages can be classified as follows:

  1. North Semitic

1.1. Paleoassyrian  1.2. Amorite  1.3. Ugaritic

  1. East Semitic

2.1. Old Akkadian  2.2. Assyro-Babylonian  2.3.Late Babylonian

  1. West Semitic

3.1. Canaanite

3.1.1. Old Canaanite

3.1.2. Hebrew

3.1.3. Phoenician

3.1.4. Ammonite

3.1.5. Moabite

3.1.6. Edomite

3.2. Aramaic

3.3. Arabic

  1. South Semitic

4.1. South Arabian  4.2. Ethiopic


Hebrew is the language of the people who inhabited the geographical area that the Bible calls “the Land of Canaan” (Gen 11:31) from 1000 BC onwards. During the first millennium BC it consisted of two main dialects—Israelite in the north and Judean in the south—, but the text of the Bible retained almost no dialectal features. The oldest Hebrew-language artefacts that have survived to the present day are epigraphic (the “Gezer calendar,” tenth century BC, several ostraca, the Siloam inscription from about 700 BC, stamps, coins, funerary inscriptions, and so on).

We can distinguish two major periods in the history of the Hebrew language of the Bible: pre-exilic Hebrew (until the fall of Jerusalem to the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 587 BC) and post-exilic Hebrew. In the post-exile era, Hebrew changed markedly due to the influence of Aramaic, which became the language of Jews’ daily life. The most advanced stage of biblical Hebrew is found in the Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the two books of Chronicles.

The text of the Bible, along with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Mishnah (c. 200 AD), and Tosefta belong to a time when Hebrew was still a spoken language, at least in some parts of Judea.

The original text of the Hebrew Bible was only consonantal. Vocalization was added to it later and represents the pronunciation of the rabbinical schools of the city of Tiberias in around 900 AD. The Hebrew Bible uses a lexicon of 8,253 words (F.I. Andersen – A.D. Forbes). At the time of writing, and as a result of more than ten years of work, my student and collaborator Daniel Ferrer and I have completed a version of a large Biblical Hebrew-Catalan and Biblical Aramaic-Catalan dictionary that extends to over a thousand pages, which we are currently revising.

From the first century AD onwards, a Hebrew different from that of the Bible emerged in written texts: Mishnaic Hebrew. Some scholars thought it was an artificial language created by Aramaic-speaking Jews. Today, we know it is a language based on the spoken Hebrew of that time. It contains a large number of words that come from the language of the Bible and a set of about 14,000 words, most of which we can be sure come from the biblical era but are not found in the text of the Bible.

At the time when the era changed, the Jews of the Diaspora spoke the languages of the various countries where they lived. In Palestine, Jews mostly spoke Aramaic or Greek.

In the fourth century AD, Mishnaic Hebrew ceased to be spoken but continued to be used in texts written in prose, in the same way that Biblical Hebrew was used in poetic texts. Hebrew was the language of prayer and the language educated people used for written expression in the Jewish communities of the Diaspora countries. Jews’ mother tongue, however, was the same as the one used by the community among which they lived.

The scientific and religious prose used by Jewish sages during the Middle Ages took Mishnaic Hebrew as a model and developed it. It should be noted, however, that the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula who lived on regions under Muslim rule generally wrote their prose works in Arabic. Liturgical prayers, poetry and literary narratives were written in a biblical style that, as knowledge of the language of the Bible deepened, became a perfect imitation of Biblical Hebrew.

Medieval translators’ needs in terms of expressing scientific concepts and philosophical arguments—these were initially expressed in an Arabic heavily influenced by Greek—compelled the creation of many new words and linguistic expressions.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the Jewish Enlightenment in France and Germany promoted the use of the biblical language in texts such as newspapers and scientific works. In the nineteenth century, novels began to be written in biblical Hebrew. These dealt with aspects of everyday life, and characters who needed to be “real” had to express themselves in a solemn style, like the great patriarchs of Israel’s history did. This caused very talented writers such as Sholem Yankev Abramovich to abandon Hebrew as the language of literary expression and to begin writing in Yiddish. Sholem Yankev Abramovich did so under the pseudonym Mendele Mocher Sforim.

In 1879, an article published by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda unleashed the idea of creating a Jewish cultural centre in Palestine where Hebrew would become the language spoken in everyday life. The notion emerged into a world where ideas of national and linguistic independence among the peoples of Central and Southern Europe were boiling up. The Jewish world was not indifferent to these ideas, and Jewish societies began to appear throughout Eastern Europe. In Palestine, Ben-Yehuda started speaking Hebrew within his family and began elementary education in Hebrew.

The spirit of Jewish nationalism led Mendele Mocher Sforim to rewrite his novels in Hebrew in 1885, although he did so in Rabbinic (Mishnaic) Hebrew, a language that was more familiar to moderately cultivated Jews than purely biblical language was. In 1890, H.N. Bialik used Rabbinic Hebrew in a poem for the first time. In 1908, Ben-Yehuda began to write his great historical dictionary of the Hebrew language, the Thesaurus Totius Hebraitatis. This work brought together for the first time the words and structures of the rabbinic and medieval languages, which became the basis for the modern written and spoken language.

Modern Hebrew in Israel is, in fact, a natural continuation of medieval Hebrew, energized by the spoken language’s strength. The canonical opinion in Israel about the origin of Israeli Hebrew is that Mendele made a synthesis of two dead languages: the Biblical and the Mishnaic, the latter as it was written between 100 AD and 600 AD. According to this view, the morphological and syntactic rules of these two stages of the language are those applied in contemporary Hebrew. Until very recently, school grammars contained rules borrowed from the Hebrew of the Bible.

The language of Hebrew literature until the 1950s was Rabbinical Hebrew, which constantly recalled the language of the Bible and of Mishnaic-Talmudic Literature. S.Y. Agnon, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is the writer who wrote in this type of language most charismatically.

It seems that from the moment when Hebrew began to be spoken among the Jewish communities established in a Palestine dominated by the Ottoman Empire, grammar, syntax and vocabulary that were independent and distinguishable from the language of earlier periods began to develop. This informal language has been a constant source of enrichment for modern Hebrew. The path to a written version of this new Israeli form of Hebrew was not easy. Some writers began to experiment by introducing the language of Sabras—Israelis born in the Land of Israel—into dialogues within novels and plays. During the War of Independence (1948), some young Israeli-born soldiers and writers such as Moshe Shamir began writing stories in a more informal register. But consolidation did not come until the mid-1960s, and when it did, it was based at first on translations of foreign literature, with informal elements. Out of this experimentation, the spoken language began to appear as written word.

Written standard Hebrew exhibited a rather notable difference relative to informal speech. Schools strove to inculcate the rules of the written language, but the spoken language followed a parallel path, and so informal language was what was used in daily life, while “correct” language was what was used in formal situations. The distinctive features of the spoken language have been gaining ground in the world of written expression, first through journalistic language and then in works of literary creation.

Modern Israeli Hebrew is one of the most unique linguistic phenomena of all time. It has inherited more than 3,000 years of history but is a present reality, one full of life.

The first translator of modern Hebrew into Catalan was Eduard Feliu (Sant Feliu de Llobregat, 1938-Barcelona, 2009). The first translated novel was El meu Mikhael (My Michaelמיכאל שלי) by Amos Oz, first published in 1973 by Barcelona’s Edicions Proa (volume 166 of the “Biblioteca a tot vent” series). At that time, Edicions Proa was run by Joan Oliver, who wrote poetry under the name Pere Quart. The work was something totally new in Spain’s literary milieu, so much so that Joan Oliver commissioned Ramon Planas to produce a Spanish-language translation of Eduard Feliu’s Catalan version and subsequently published it.

With this novel, Eduard Feliu triggered the creation of Catalan-language literary translations of prose written in modern Hebrew. He was also the author of the first translations of poetry and children’s stories.

Eduard Feliu, Pere Casanellas, M. Antònia Nogueras and I have drafted the Diccionari Girona (hebreu modern-català), a modern Hebrew-Catalan dictionary. The work has been completed, and following a long process of revision, we hope to be able to publish it in 2021. It is our attempt to strengthen ties between two languages that strive to “save words.”

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