Commentary Magazine

Hebrew As She Is Spoke

The story was told me by an American who was traveling in Israel several years ago when his rented car began to stall. Suspecting (rightly, as it turned out) that the carburetor needed tuning, he pulled in at a gas station to look for a mechanic. He knew hardly any Hebrew, but having in his possession one of those foreign-language phrase books that specialize in emergencies of all kinds, he opened to the section on “going by car,” found the appropriate phrase, and painstakingly read aloud to the attendant on duty: “A-NEE ho-SHEV sheh-YESH letah-KEHN et [I think an adjustment is needed in] hah-meh-ah-YEHD.” The response was a blank stare. He tried again; again the same reaction. At which point, despairing of his obviously garbled diction, he lifted the hood of the car and pointed directly at the part in question. The mechanic was instantly enlightened. “Ah,” he beamed, “ha-kahr-bu-RAH-tor!”—and the trouble was soon taken care of.

Usage can change quickly in Israel, and by now the word me'ayed (literally “vaporizer,” from the Biblical ed, “vapor,” which occurs in the plural form in the second chapter of Genesis) may circulate more widely, yet the incident does point to a reality of which not only the occasional tourist but any new resident of Israel who has had to struggle with the problem of communication is well aware, namely, that there are in fact two Hebrew languages in existence today, one that is supposedly spoken and one that generally is. The first, which is limited in its pure form to a small band of philological zealots, is among other things practically free of foreign loan-words, for which it substitutes a large assortment of native Hebraisms, some of ancient vintage, many recently coined. The second, on the other hand, is flooded with borrowings from abroad.

Hebrew has in effect led this double life ever since Jewish settlers in Palestine first began speaking it to each other for both ideological and practical reasons (among many of them, particularly Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim and non-Yiddish speaking Sefardim, there was simply no other lingua franca) toward the end of the last century. Picking up the thread of a language that had last been natively spoken about fifteen-hundred years before their time1 and that lacked hundreds of ordinary words and expressions without which everyday speech was all but impossible, they improvised where they were able to, and where they weren't, they borrowed heavily, each wave of immigrants adding from the languages it knew, French, Yiddish, Russian, German, Polish, etc., while increasingly from the period of the British Mandate on, they borrowed from English, which today accounts for the lion's share of the loanwords in modern Hebrew. When the founding father of the spoken Hebrew revival, Eliezer Ben-Yehudah (1857-1922), established his Hebrew Language Committee in Jerusalem in 1890, its purpose was largely to modernize the holy tongue through the introduction of new vocabulary and to weed out the alien accretions that were already corrupting its native purity. Ben-Yehudah, a member of the Russian Social-Revolutionary party in his youth, who declared in later life that his love for Hebrew alone had saved him from complete assimilation, threw himself into the task of its restoration with a religious devotion that made him a semi-legendary figure in his lifetime—it is said that during the forty years he lived in Jerusalem he never once broke his vow to speak nothing but Hebrew to whoever understood even a few words of the language, regardless of whether his interlocutor chose to answer him in it or not. In less extreme form such zeal was not uncommon among settlers in Palestine, nor could Hebrew's rebirth—perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the entire Zionist venture—possibly be imagined without it. But to romantic nationalists like Ben-Yehudah, Zionism itself was unimaginable without Hebrew, that sleeping beauty which once awakened would again become a princess among tongues. From the very beginning kibbush ha-lashon, “the conquest of the language,” ranked in Palestinian Zionist ideology alongside kibbush ha-avodah, “the conquest of labor,” and kibbush ha-adamah, “the conquest of the soil.” Every new word forged from an ancient root, every foreignism banished and replaced, was the equivalent of another house built by Jewish hands, another dunam of land reclaimed by Jewish toil.

Three-quarters of a century after Ben-Yehudah's language committee first met, however (in 1954 it was officially adopted by the government of Israel and renamed the Academy of Hebrew), and several decades since the conquest of Hebrew has been a clearly accomplished fact, the factors that determine whether a given coinage “takes” or fails to “take” in popular speech are still largely an enigma. Some of Ben-Yehudah's very first inventions caught on immediately and have been standard spoken Hebrew ever since, such as his word for newspaper, iton (from et, “time,” modeled on the German Zeitung). Other neologisms fell on deaf ears for possibly predictable reasons. When the cumbersome compound sachrachok2 (“distance-speaker”), for example, was unsuccessfully proposed for telefon, early in the century, it suffered from being more difficult to inflect than the word it was meant to replace, which in addition had the advantage of enjoying international currency. On the other hand, take the unwieldy buldózer: not many years ago the handy acronym dachpor (from the verbs dachof, “to push,” and chafor, “to dig”) was offered in its stead, yet after a period of competition in the daily press, the arena where such contests are often first decided, dachpor has been all but bulldozed from sight. In yet other instances two rivals have battled to a standstill, as is the case with auto and mechonit, which are today more or less interchangeable. But whatever the explanation, the fact remains that a large number of the thousands of new words coined by both the Academy of Hebrew and other sources (some of the best of these have been the work of private authors) have failed to gain acceptance with the linguistic popular will and today survive only in the dictionaries, whose bulk they have visibly swelled.


If Hebraizing Hebrew were simply a matter of replacing a finite number of foreign terms that had crept into the language when its resistance was low, as it were, eliminating most of them would be merely a question of time. But linguistic borrowing is a culturally-determined phenomenon, and inasmuch as 20th-century mass culture is essentially a product manufactured and packaged in the West, and especially in the United States, the language of a “culture-importing” country like Israel is constantly forced to absorb new loan-words at a far faster rate than it can expel or digest the old ones. Here again the influence of English, the second language of all of Israel's schools and most of its younger intelligentsia, has been predominant, so that for every English word that has shown some sign of phasing itself out over the past decade, dozens of new ones from the American cornucopia have entered the speech of the average Israeli. Add to this sum occasional borrowings from other European languages plus an annual increment of scores of international scientific and technical terms that are not ordinarily the province of the layman in any language, and the result is that the percentage of foreign words in Hebrew today is probably several times higher than it was in Ben-Yehudah's day. In fact, it is by now possible to construct lengthy if improbable “Hebrew” sentences which sound and look like nothing so much as a kind of Semiticized Esperanto.

To the pragmatic-minded average citizen of Israel, for whom a spade by any other name is no less useful an implement, none of this is likely to seem cause for alarm. Many of his more intellectual countrymen would agree with him. Borrowing, they can point out, is after all a natural process by which all languages grow, particularly in times of heightened cultural cross-contact. In an age in which American civilization and technology have cast their shadow over the globe, in which the Japanese drink koka-kora and the Académie Française wrings its hands over the depredations of Franglais, why should the guardians of Hebrew think that they alone can stem the tide? Besides, Hebrew has already undergone intensive periods of borrowing in the past, as for example in Hellenistic times, when it absorbed hundreds of Greek words that today form an indispensable part of its vocabulary. Surely the purist does not propose to strike these from the language too! But such, alas, is the illogic of purisms everywhere, which are constantly defending standards of correctness against whose acceptance they would have fought just as hard in the past.

The “purist,” however, can object with some justice to being cast in so obscurantist a light. The real issue, it is arguable, is not borrowing as such, whose positive aspects no one would care to deny, but rather the indiscriminate resort to it that fails to take into account the specific needs and nature of the borrowing language. Precisely this in fact is what distinguishes the borrowed Hellenistic vocabulary that one finds in the Mishnah and Midrash from that of today: for whereas the former passed into Hebrew slowly over a period of hundreds of years through a natural process, filling a definite need and emerging for the most part outwardly indistinguishable from the rest of the Hebrew lexicon and no less functional, the abrupt and unregulated absorption of today's loan-words has more often than not led to the opposite result. The curious case-history of a word that has been twice “lent” to Hebrew illustrates the difference. When the Greek spongos, “sponge,” was adopted by Mishnaic Hebrew (the Jews of biblical times, not a sea-dwelling people, apparently never possessed such a term), it was first metamorphosed into the phonetically-Hebraic s'fog, which in time productively yielded the verb safag, “to absorb,” the adjective s'fogi, “spongelike, absorbent,” and the noun maspeg, “a blotter,” all in accordance with the regular laws of Hebrew grammar and morphology. When the same root, on the other hand, redundantly reentered Hebrew via English in the present century to signify the common household sponge—the sea-animal continues to be called s'fog—it did so rudely untransmuted as sponja, a phonetic barbarism (the soft “j”-sound is not even represented in the traditional Hebrew alphabet), so unmanipulable that one has to do violence to the idiomatic integrity of the language simply to use it in a sentence. (That is, because sponja yields no verb or any other derivable form, one cannot “sponge the floor” as one would ordinarily; one must “make a sponja.”) Since this lack of a selective mechanism to reject or adapt what is not conveniently assimilable in itself has characterized the borrowing process in modern Hebrew as a whole, perhaps because its speakers have not yet had the time to develop the necessary linguistic “antibodies,” it is clearly senseless to regard each borrowed word as though it were an automatic blessing. True, Anglicisms like le weekend and le snack-bar can hardly be considered enhancements in French either, but any comparison between the two languages is simply misleading. The one would be a normal, healthy organism even if it were not the bearer of a great modern culture in addition; the other is a historical aberration, a body risen from the dead, still more bone than flesh, spoken even today by barely two million people living in a provincial corner of Asia—and what is even more to the point, to judge by any meaningful standard, spoken well by few of them indeed.

For ultimately the character of a language is determined not by its atomistic words but by the way these are put together to form sentences and thoughts, and it is precisely at this level that colloquial Hebrew today confronts its greatest problems; indeed, it has been hyperbolically suggested by some observers that any resemblance between it and the classical language of the same name is purely coincidental. This is plainly an exaggeration, yet it would be difficult to deny that Hebrew has probably changed as much from the time of Ben-Yehudah to the present as in its entire previous recorded history of three thousand years—and not in vocabulary alone. One needn't look far for the reason. Hebrew is a member of the Semitic family, while the Palestinian settlers who revived it were nearly all native speakers of European languages of a vastly different order (by and large, the great waves of Arabic-speaking immigrants arrived in Israel too late to have had much effect on modern Hebrew in its most formative stage); and just as the individual in learning a second language retains an unconscious and often lifelong tendency to translate from his mother-tongue long after he has mastered the new vocabulary as such, so on a collective scale, in the very course of being brought back to life, Hebrew was overrun by countless foreign modes of expression that have drastically transformed its idiomatic, grammatic, and morphological structures—and with them, it can be argued, its unique quality as well. A few examples may help to bring home the point.


A glance at the profound impact of Yiddish on the development of Israeli Hebrew is particularly revealing in this respect, all the more so because that impact has been for the most part surreptitious: practically nil on the level of individual loan-words (a reflection of the conscious rejection of Yiddish and Yiddish culture by the East-European chalutzim), enormous in the largely unconscious domain of idiom and syntax. Again a single case-history is paradigmatic. In the Bible, in Lamentations 5:17, there occurs the elegiacal verse, “For this our heart has become sick, our eyes have grown dim.” In the original text the second half of this distich consists of but two words, the verb chashchu (“grew dark”) followed by the noun-plus-possessive-suffix eyneynu (“our eyes”)—a combination typical of classical Hebrew's vigorous preference for verbal statement, which is often made to do the work of the European adjective and adverb. At some point in Yiddish's relatively short lifespan, this idiom, like many others from the Hebrew sources, was freely translated and adopted, becoming in the first-person the common exclamation of shock, surprise, disbelief, etc., es iz mir gevorn finster in di oygen, “it went dark before my eyes.” So far, so good; but when originally Yiddish-speaking settlers in Palestine felt the need for such a phrase in modern Hebrew, they did not return to the biblical text as might have seemed logical, but rather re-translated their Yiddish translation of it verbatim as na'aseh li choshech ba'eynayim—an expression of which, though the constituent parts may be pure Hebrew, the sum is anything but. And yet today the Israeli who might exclaim chashchu eynai! in a moment of biblical pathos would strike those of his listeners who understood him at all as being rather oddly affected. Moreover, though the ironic feedback in this particular instance may be nearly unique, the rule it embodies—i.e., that wherever a Yiddish loan-idiom takes root in colloquial speech the corresponding indigenous Hebraism is sooner or later driven out—has all but the status of an ironclad law.

Or to take another example, this one grammatical. As any student who has ever gotten through a few chapters of a Hebrew grammar knows, Hebrew in common with other Semitic languages has no verb for “to have.” The sense of possession can be conveyed in a variety of ways, the most common of which is the particle yesh, “there is, there are,” followed by the dative form of the pronoun; thus, for example, “I have the letter” would be yesh li (“there is to me”) hamichtav (“the letter”). The same beginner also knows that Hebrew has another particle, et, whose sole function is to interpose between a transitive verb and its object as an indicator of the accusative case, e.g., k'tov et ha-michtav, “write the letter.” How then does one say “I have the letter” in modern colloquial Hebrew? How else but yesh li et ha-michtav, treating yesh li on the European model as though it were a subject and verb! Logically this is a complete absurdity, having somewhat the same effect on the traditionalist ear as the double negative in English—the difference being, however, that in Israel today one is as likely to hear the yesh-li-et form from university students and poets as from truck drivers.

But the structural transformations that have taken place in spoken Hebrew go far beyond such individual cases to affect the basic typology of the language itself. Classical Hebrew belongs to the category of languages that linguists loosely refer to as “synthetic,” meaning that it tends to fuse auxiliary parts of speech into single words, unlike most modern European tongues, which prefer to “analyze” such segments into discrete, individual units. Under European influence, however, this natural inclination toward compression, which seems so admirably suited to the terse simplicity that is one of the hallmarks of both biblical and Mishnaic prose, has all but disappeared from Hebrew conversation today. In the Hebrew of the Mishnah, for example, the sentence “I wrote it to my father” would be k'tavtiv l'avi, in which the first-person nominative pronoun, the past tense of the verb “to write,” and the direct object “it” are all incorporated into the first word, and the preposition “to,” the noun “father,” and the first-person possessive suffix into the second. Present-day Israeli speakers, on the other hand, will generally say ani (I) katavti (wrote) et (accusative particle) zeh (it) el (to) ha-abba (the father) sheli (of mine), very much as one would in Yiddish, Russian, or English, thereby avoiding both the conciseness and the sometimes complicated phonetic shifts of the classical inflections. To be sure, even today, colloquial Hebrew remains a more synthetic form of speech than most European languages, nor can its loss of synthetic features be blamed entirely on them, inasmuch as incipient signs of such a process appear as far back as Mishnaic times. Yet one need only turn in comparison to Arabic, Hebrew's closest living relative, where one still says in the colloquial katabt'hu l'aboi, “I wrote it to my father,” to see how far Hebrew has already gone toward becoming a Semitic language with a fundamentally European type of construction. So accelerated has this process of breakdown become, in fact, and so great are the current flux and confusion of usage that have resulted from it, that simply to write a conversational Hebrew grammar that will be both descriptively accurate and pedagogically acceptable is at the moment perhaps an impossible task.


Thus, spoken Israeli Hebrew can now perhaps best be described as a substandard immigrant speech that developed in the absence of any native population to serve as a corrective guide (imagine, for instance, the evolution of the English of the Lower East Side had it suddenly been cut off about 1900 from all further contact with the rest of New York City)—or, rather, in which the role of “native population” has been played entirely by the written word, which alone has continued to provide an organic linguistic link with the past. Here, too, of course, there has been a considerable divergence of practice in modern Hebrew between serious poetry, prose, and belles-lettres, which have on the whole striven consciously to retain the classical forms, and popular literature and journalism, which have been far laxer about observing them, yet even the most mass-circulation Israeli tabloid is far more conservative in this respect than ordinary speech. (One reason for such “good usage” is that it literally pays: since classical syntax is characterized by its brevity, it makes for a valuable saving of newsprint.) The further removed the speaker is from the influence and example of written Hebrew, on the other hand, the more “first-generation” his speech tends to be, regardless of whether he himself is an immigrant to Israel or not. One must distinguish, moreover, between this kind of “street Hebrew” and the countless unlettered vernaculars spoken all over the world that have the homespun self-sufficiency of genuine folk-creations. When one listens to the speech of an ordinary workingman in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, one is struck above all by its poverty of expressive means; not that the individual in question cannot say perfectly well what he wants to, but rather that the form this takes has none of that rich coloration that can come only from a long symbiosis between a particular language and a specific way of life with its landscape, manners, rhythms, humor, beliefs. Even slang, that most ephemeral of linguistic phenomena, is in Hebrew today still largely an exercise, if often covert, in translation.

Time will of course do much to change all this: give Hebrew enough of it (even Ben-Yehudah's great-great-grandchildren, after all, are today only fifth-generation speakers of the language) and it will undoubtedly develop a “style” of its own as fraught with the spirit of place as local speech anywhere. What is not strictly speaking a function of time, however, is the form that this “style” will take and the relationship it will bear to the “style” of classical Hebrew. In other words, is the current Europeanization of Hebrew speech with its attendant consequences for traditional Hebrew grammar, morphology, and idiomatic structure a somehow reversible trend, or is it a one-way street that will eventually make the Hebrew of the Bible and later classical texts as remote and even unintelligible to the average Israeli as the English of Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales is to Americans today? Certainly most linguists would incline to the latter possibility as by far the more likely—a prognosis the implications of which, it need hardly be said, are by no means purely linguistic. Implicit in the Hebrew revival from the beginning was the assumption, which is still widely shared today not only by official Zionist ideologues but by most Israeli educators and intellectuals, that by virtue of the mere act of thinking and speaking in Hebrew the simplest and most secularized citizen of a Jewish state is brought into a relationship with Jewish history that few Jews elsewhere can hope to attain. In view of Hebrew's profound role in this history, the assertion seems almost self-evident; yet how long can the language continue to evolve in its present direction before it ceases to be so?

Like Molière's bourgeois gentilhomme who was astonished to learn that he had been speaking prose all his life, most Israelis are happily unconscious of the fact that they suffer from a “language problem”: speculation on the intricate bonds among language, culture, and national identity, after all, is hardly a commonplace concern, while on the level of everyday communication Hebrew “as she is spoke” is a perfectly satisfactory medium. It is generally only upon intensive contact with a second language, often while studying abroad, that the native-born Israeli tends to become aware of some of the deficiencies of his own speech—and frequently he then reacts by blaming Hebrew itself rather than his own imperfect command of it. I myself have more than once had the experience of being assured by well-educated Israeli acquaintances that Hebrew had no word for some ordinary English term only to discover later that it in fact had several of which they were simply unaware. In a similar vein, in an essay published in these pages a few years ago,3 Robert Alter related the story of a young Israeli academician, a native of Czechoslovakia, who was told by his Czech university friends when he returned to Prague on a visit that thinking in Hebrew had “made him stupid.” At the very least, obviously, it failed to improve his Czech, yet Alter's accompanying conclusion that “Hebrew lacks some of the very linguistic tools that make precise analytic thinking possible” strikes me as being unjust. It would be truer, I think, to say that many of the tools that Hebrew does possess go unused and even unrecognized by its own speakers, who have not begun to exploit the wealth of possibilities that it offers them. And as a rule, the harder Hebrew is forced into the procrustean mold of one or another European language, the more stubbornly it balks at tasks it could otherwise perform without effort.


If anyone in Israel today takes Hebrew's contemporary condition to heart it is the serious Hebrew writer, not only because he is committed to the language as an artist or because he is in a way its recognized social custodian, but also because he more than anyone is the victim of the gap between its written and spoken forms. In poetry, a medium which in all cultures permits and in some even demands a degree of archaic diction, this breach is felt less acutely, which is certainly one reason why the modern Hebrew poet has on the whole been able to sustain a higher level of accomplishment than the writer of prose fiction: here at least it has been possible to draw freely on Hebrew's many linguistic strata, classical as well as contemporary, without raising the problem of compatibility. The Hebrew novelist, on the other hand, particularly if he works in a naturalistic vein, has his loyalties painfully divided: either he writes in a more or less classical manner and in a sense is unfaithful to the verbal world of the characters he portrays, or else he veers toward the colloquial and in yet another sense betrays the language in which he is writing. Even if he wished to strike out on his own in the vernacular and break with the classical model entirely, a step for which there is certainly no lack of successful precedents in other languages and in other times, he would soon find in practice that spoken Hebrew at its present stage is simply incapable of bearing such a burden. Quite the opposite reaction to this dilemma is typified in its extreme form by the fiction of S. Y. Agnon, whose aristocratically pure prose has “dealt” with the problem of Israeli Hebrew by simply ignoring its existence, just as his stories themselves stand transcendentally aloof from the earthly Jerusalem in which they take place. Yet because of this, master of language though he is, Agnon has become a stylistic dead-end whose work a younger writer can study and admire, no doubt, but from which there is little for him to learn.

For the Hebrew novelist who is determined nonetheless to establish himself on some sort of linguistic middle-ground there does of course exist a compromise solution, a division of labor, as it were, between dialogue, which can be effectively written with colloquial verisimilitude, and narrative, for which a classical prose with its far greater expressive power remains clearly more suitable. (English readers of Henry Roth's novel of Jewish immigrant life in New York, Call It Sleep, will recall a somewhat analogous strategy, one that worked with brilliant success.) In one form or another this convention has been adopted by most writers of Hebrew fiction today, yet paradoxical though it may seem, what one misses above all in the work of nearly all of them is a certain interest in experimenting with language as such, in stretching and expanding its plastic potential—an interest which is by contrast abundantly present in Hebrew authors of the pre-Palestinian period, men who were born and raised in Eastern Europe and who learned their Hebrew by rote on a cheder bench under the uninspiring eye, if not the stick, of the village melamed. The “paradox,” however, is easily explainable. It was precisely the traditional education of figures like Mendele, Brenner, Gnessin, etc., with its onerous attention to memorization and detail, that instilled in these writers an intimacy with the text-world of classical Hebrew and its sister-language Aramaic, with the Bible, the Mishnah and Midrash, the limitless “sea of the Talmud,” the later rabbinical commentaries, which enabled them to play on the language with virtuoso control once they embarked on their literary careers. Few Israeli authors today, on the other hand, have received a Jewish training that remotely approximates that of the shtetl in thoroughness and extent, with the consequence that they find themselves in a measure cut off from Hebrew's classical hinterland—a situation that is unfortunate only because the modern language, as we have seen, is still badly in need of nourishment from these very sources. Caught between a vernacular that he cannot fully lean upon and a classical corpus of which he is not wholly the master, the Hebrew author not surprisingly may succumb on occasion to a feeling of occupational malaise. Two or three years ago, for example, the talented and widely-read novelist Aharon Meged, himself a product of Palestinian youth movements and the Palmach, published a nostalgic article in the Hebrew press mourning the passing of that earthiest, that most delightful, that most inexhaustible of languages. . . Yiddish. How bare and insufficient, how lacking in nicety and nuance, Hebrew seemed in comparison! It takes some knowledge of the bitter struggle waged between Hebrew and Yiddish in Palestine up until the eve of the Second World War, of the polemics, the boycotts, and occasionally even the blows, to be able to appreciate the full poignancy of such remarks.


And yet the victor can afford to be generous, even sentimentally so; the mere suggestion that Hebrew might have been a mistake would seem utterly unthinkable to anyone in Israel today, except of course for the inevitable lunatic fringe (one spokesman for which, a diehard Yiddishist and self-proclaimed Ashkenazi-supremacist named Kalman Katzenelson, actually wrote a book on the subject several years ago—in Hebrew). For in the final analysis, history has miraculously confirmed Ben-Yehudah's prophecy that Hebrew, far from being one of Zionism's more quixotic fantasies (Herzl himself, it is well-known, was inclined to this opinion and foresaw German as the future language of his Judenstaat), was in fact its sine qua non, not just because it alone could unite the varied strands of the Jewish people reassembled in Palestine, but also because only it could underwrite their aspirations with the full authority of the Jewish past. Any alternative to Hebrew would have meant the loss of Zionism's historical content, the political consequences of which would have been to degrade the movement into the mere colonizing enterprise that its enemies always viewed it as being and so doom it in advance. If the visionaries of the Hebrew revival miscalculated at all, their miscalculation lay rather in the failure to consider that even miracles have their price and that a conquered language and a cultivated one are two different things. But if it was shortsighted of them to believe otherwise, it would be equally so today to assume that just because spoken Hebrew has taken a certain tack up until now it must necessarily continue to do so. Linguistic change is a constant whose precise nature and rate remain variable, and this is especially so in an age of mass media and mass education, in which for the first time in history the forces working to conserve and standardize language are as great if not greater than those tending to corrode and fragment it. Indeed, it is not out of the question that with the intelligent harnessing of these forces it may yet prove possible to salvage for a living Hebrew much of its classical heritage that already appears irretrievably lost. The prospect may seem unlikely, yet it is hardly as far-fetched as the notion one-hundred years ago that Hebrew would some day be spoken again at all.


1 Exactly when the last native speakers of Hebrew in ancient Palestine lived and died is still a subject of scholarly debate. In the early days of higher criticism it was common to fix the date as far back as the age of Ezra and Nehemiah (ca. 450 BCE), when Hebrew, it was contended, was supplanted by the Aramaic brought back to Judea by the exiles returning from Babylonia. Today, on the other hand, it is widely believed that Hebrew continued to be spoken in at least isolated pockets of Judea until the end of the Mishnaic period (ca. 250 CE)—a judgment that would seem to the lay reader to be confirmed by the prose of the Mishnah itself, whose easy, almost conversational quality hardly suggests a “dead,” purely literary idiom. Even as the latter, of course, Hebrew continued to grow and develop until modern times, but in an inevitably restricted manner. Although biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew differ considerably in many points of vocabulary and construction, and both in turn can be distinguished at a glance from the late 19th-century literary Hebrew from which modern Hebrew has developed, I shall here refer to all of the above as “classical Hebrew” in order to distinguish them jointly from the spoken Israeli Hebrew of today.

2 ch as in Bach.

3 “Poetry in Israel.” December 1965.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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