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A language reborn

13 April 2017

Anthony Phillips on an impressive comeback

The Story of Hebrew

Lewis Glinert

Princeton University Press £22.95


Church Times Bookshop £20.65


GLINERT tells the story of how Hebrew has been used in Jewish life from earliest times to the birth of the modern State of Israel. His is a riveting account, both scholarly and accessible, whose detailed analysis a reviewer can only touch on. That Hebrew has become a nation’s spoken language when for so much of Jewish history it was lost is nothing short of miraculous.

In early chapters, Glinert discusses the nature of biblical Hebrew, noting its flexibility and considerable use of word-play. He points to the importance of the exile and return, which resulted in a new Hebrew script. But, while in the diaspora, Hebrew was largely forgotten, its colloquial use was preserved in Judaea until Bar Kokhba’s revolt. Then it was the rabbis’ use of Hebrew for both Midrash and Mishnah which preserved the Hebrew language, together with further enrichment from the Talmud.

But, ironically, it was in what European historians call the Dark Ages that the Bible and Hebrew language was saved by the Masoretes, who, over three centuries, established an authorised Hebrew text. Although pronunciation in biblical times had been lost, the Masoretic text preserves how the Hebrew Bible was read in the early centuries of the Common Era.

The arrival of the printed book led to a further standardisation of the Hebrew liturgy. But the golden age of Andalusian poetry could never have flourished without the serious study of biblical grammar and semantics, involving questions that did not concern the Masoretes. Indeed, in medieval societies, male and female literacy among Jews well exceeded that of non-Jews.

With the exception of Origen and Jerome, rarely during Christianity’s first millennium were churchmen interested in knowing the Hebrew Bible in its original. But, with the rise of interest in ancient languages, Renaissance Christians began to interest themselves in Kabbalistic texts, transforming Jewish texts into Christian ones, though renewed interest in the Hebrew language did not necessarily result in a positive attitude to Jews, as both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation witness, even though Hebrew scholarship was central to Protestant theology.

While in England, study of Hebrew waned, in Puritan New England it took centre stage. But Glinert concludes that for Christians, Hebrew remained an accessory for converting Jews or discrediting their interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.

But it is the final two chapters, describing the rebirth of Hebrew, which will excite the reader most. The part played by the Hasidim, the contrast between Jews in the West and Eastern Europe, the rise of anti-Semitism and the Jewish response of Zionism, the rivalry of Yiddish as a living language, the place of newspapers and education, the importance of individuals such as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the possibility of discarding Hebrew script for Roman — all and much more are discussed in the tortuous journey of “the first and perhaps only known case of the total revival of a spoken language”.

Yet, even with the proclamation of the State of Israel, huge challenges remained; for, within a decade, the indigenous population was swamped by the arrival of a million destitute Jews few of whom were Hebrew speakers. But the government was determined that Hebrew language and culture were to be central to the newborn state. As Glinert puts it: “no country had ever attempted such a grand linguistic transformation, let alone an impoverished country fighting a protracted war of survival against a ring of foes.”

The author goes on to describe the suppression of Yiddish, the Hebraising of proper names, the effects of radio, the tension between the development of simplicity in speech and writing with the formality of literary Hebrew, the shortcomings of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, acceptance of internationalisms, the effect of large-scale Russian immigration, English as the language of global commerce, the growth of Americanisms, problems of typology and pronunciation, the place of the Haredim, and the loss of Hebrew in the diaspora.

After such a survey, he wisely concludes: “The Hebrew state is in many ways a triumphant stage in the story of Hebrew. But it is not the final word on the state of Hebrew.” In this magisterial survey, Glinert has put both Jew and non-Jew very much in his debt.


Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

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