[b-hebrew] hebrew is dead?

Nir cohen - Prof. Mat. nir at ccet.ufrn.br
Tue Dec 28 11:28:12 EST 2010

dear colleagues,

i avoided anexing the extensive debate over the burial of the 
hebrew language during the last few days, due to its length. 

one has to make a clear distinction between biblical hebrew and 
the more recent strata. it is difficult to pinpoint an exact time 
frame which separates those, as the latter ones have not emerged from 
the former in a single, well determined step. 

clearly, hebrew in general never stopped to be used in SOME restricted
circles, and knew several revivals, such as the golden era in spain (roughly 
the time frame of the aleppo script). as far as i know, it has always been 
in use among the yemenite jews, till their recent immigration to israel. 
i do not know whether their hebrew can be classified as biblical.

mishnaic and medieval hebrew, besides aramaic, was used for 
correspondences and biblical studies throughout this time.

clearly MOST jews lost daily contact with the hebrew language
during this period, except (at most) for the prayers. 
there is, however, a small minority which continued to study 
BIBLICAL hebrew extensively. i 
am speaking of yeshiva/midrash students. the picture of the rabbi (or,
more precisely, baal tfila/chazan etc) READING the bible in front of the
illiterate congregation certainly does not apply here. their way 
of study has ALWAYS been a careful vertical analysis of the text (tora,
mishna, gmara, mefarshim), starting always with the biblical text. 
this type of study was initiated by the first mishnaic rabbis and 
sanhedrin in the roman era.

while biblical hebrew passed away as a spoken language more or less in
parallel to the destruction of the two temples, it has always remained an
object of careful in-depth study by this group of people. i tend to think that
most of the masoretic texts, including the edition of the Tanakh, were written
with these "consumers" in mind. 

this, and more: the hebrew alfabet and some biblical texts
were included in the jewish "primary school" (cheder) curriculum, 
at least  for many centuries now. 
i have no data as to what percentage of the population sent their
boys and young adults to the cheder, and then to the yeshiva, at 
any given time. but clearly the numbers are substantial and 
cannot be ignored in this debate.

nir cohen

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list