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In the Beginning

A Short History of the Hebrew Language

Joel Hoffman

Publication Year: 2004

Hebrew as a language is just over 3,000 years old, and the story of its alphabet is unique among the languages of the world. Hebrew set the stage for almost every modern alphabet, and was arguably the first written language simple enough for everyone, not just scribes, to learn, making it possible to make a written record available to the masses for the first time.

Written language has existed for so many years—since around 3500 BCE—that most of us take it for granted. But as Hoffman reveals in this entertaining and informative work, even the idea that speech can be divided into units called “words” and that these words can be represented with marks on a page, had to be discovered. As Hoffman points out, almost every modern system of writing descends from Hebrew; by studying the history of this language, we can learn a good deal about how we express ourselves today.

Hoffman follows and decodes the adventure that is the history of Hebrew, illuminating how the written record has survived, the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient translations, and attempts to determine how the language actually sounded. He places these developments into a historical context, and shows their continuing impact on the modern world.

This sweeping history traces Hebrew's development as one of the first languages to make use of vowels. Hoffman also covers the dramatic story of the rebirth of Hebrew as a modern, spoken language.

Packed with lively information about language and linguistics and history, In the Beginning is essential reading for both newcomers and scholars interested in learning more about Hebrew and languages in general.

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. v-ix

List of Tables

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pp. xi

List of Figures

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pp. xiii

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pp. xv-xvi

It is a great joy for me to acknowledge the many people who have helped, directly and indirectly, in the preparation of this book. This book owes its existence to Rabbi Ruth Gais, director of HUC-JIR’s New York Kollel, who invited me to give a lecture about the history of Hebrew, and to Jennifer Hammer of NYU Press, who heard...

Part I: Getting Started

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1. Introduction

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pp. 3-5

Roughly 3,000 years ago, in and around the area we now call Israel, a group of people who may have called themselves ivri, and whom we call variously “Hebrews,” “Israelites,” or more colloquially but less accurately “Jews,” began an experiment in writing that would change the world. The Hebrews inherited a writing system from the Phoenicians — another group of people living in the same...

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2. Rules of the Game

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pp. 7-11

We have a few preliminary matters to attend to before embarking on our journey through history and becoming acquainted with the first stages of Hebrew. There are at least three ways one might look at history, and at least two ways one might look at language. Because we are concerned here in no small part with looking at...

Part II: Antiquity

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3. Writing

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pp. 15-37

Approximately 3,000 years ago, the ancient Hebrews discovered what would be the precursors to almost every modern system of writing. For those who can read and write, writing is an obvious extension of speech. But for those who had to develop the first writing systems, it was anything but obvious; its discovery should astound...

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4. Magic Letters and the Name of God

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pp. 39-47

We saw in the last chapter that the Hebrews took the letters yud, heh, and vav, which had already been used to represent consonantal sounds, and used them to represent vowel sounds as well. In so doing, they paved the way not only for the preservation of their own writings, but also for the widespread use of alphabets throughout...

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5. The Masoretes

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pp. 49-80

In the last chapter, we saw a quote from Deuteronomy, and assumed that it was representative of what the Hebrews were writing around the time they started using vowel letters, probably in the 8th or 7th century B.C.E. But, surprisingly, the oldest copy of the Hebrew Bible as we have it now is but 1,000 years old, leaving nearly a 2,000...

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6. Pronunciation

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pp. 81-117

We saw in Chapter 5 that several versions of Hebrew—collectively called “Masoretic” Hebrew — were floating around in the 10th century C.E. As part of the more general question of what Biblical Hebrew sounded like, we turn now to the question of which of those Masoretic versions, if any, reflect the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew...

Part III: Moving On

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7. The Dead Sea Scrolls

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pp. 121-148

When we looked at the Leningrad Codex (page 76) we noted that it dates from the end of 1st millennium C.E., that it is the oldest surviving complete copy of the Bible as we know it, and that modern printed Bibles are usually based on its text. But during the past century, documents twice that old were discovered in the Judean Desert...

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8. Dialects in the Bible

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pp. 149-164

So far we have been talking about “Biblical Hebrew” as though all of the Hebrew in the Bible were the same. But it is not. It turns out that more than one stage of Hebrew is evidenced in the Masoretic version of the Bible as we know it today. Of course, it should come as no surprise that a compilation of material that...

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9. Post-Biblical Hebrew

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pp. 165-183

In the last chapter we saw suggestions that Hebrew changed during the Persian period (following the first exile in 586 B.C.E.) and the Hellenistic period (in the 4th century B.C.E. following the Greek empire’s expansion under Alexander the Great to include all of...

Part IV: Now

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10. Modern Hebrew

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pp. 187-210

We now jump ahead in time to January 7, 1858, when a man was born in Lithuania in whom “the fire of love for the Hebrew language burned,” as he would later write. The man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman in a Lithuanian village called Luzhky under circumstances not much different than most of his peers. Most Jewish...

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11. Keep Your Voice from Weeping

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pp. 211-213

In 2001, a new, modern, central bus station was opened in Jerusalem, bearing on its walls a quotation from Psalm 122: sha’alu shlom Yerushalayim — “Ask for peace in Jerusalem.” In a tribute to the history of the place, “Jerusalem” there is written in keeping with the idiosyncratic...

Part V: Appendices

Appendix A: More about the Rules of the Game

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pp. 217-228

Appendix B: Further Reading

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pp. 229-244


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pp. 245-249


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pp. 251-262

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About the Author

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pp. 263

JOEL M. HOFFMAN is an independent scholar and lecturer who teaches advanced classes on Hebrew, the history of Hebrew, and translation theory at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (the seminary for the Reform movement of Judaism) as well as for Kollel (their adult education branch). He has also...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814737064
E-ISBN-10: 0814737064
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814736548
Print-ISBN-10: 0814736548

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2004