From the Bible to Sir Isaac Newton: How Hebrew Survived and Thrived

Eschewing the familiar, triumphalist narrative of ancient glory and modern rebirth in Zion, 'The Story of Hebrew' follows the twists and turns of the Hebrew language from its beginnings to contemporary Israeli usage.

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Detail from the cover of "The Story of Hebrew," by Lewis Glinert.
Detail from the cover of "The Story of Hebrew," by Lewis Glinert.Credit: Princeton University Press

“The Story of Hebrew,” by Lewis Glinert, Princeton University Press, 296 pp., $27.95

Sir Isaac Newton was fascinated by the Hebrew language. The pioneering English physicist, famous today as one of the founders of modern science, wrote voluminously on prophecy, the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple, Maimonides’ philosophy, and the end of days, all based on his own translation and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and its rabbinic commentaries. In one of these unpublished manuscripts, entitled “Miscellaneous Notes and Extracts on the Jewish Temple,” written around the year 1680 and now kept in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, Newton analyzed the description of a prophetic vision of the Temple in the book of Ezekiel, quoting from the original Hebrew in a steady, clear hand.

Newton was not the only non-Jewish scholar studying Hebrew and Jewish works at the time. Known as the Christian Kabbalists, this group of late Renaissance thinkers, which included Francis Bacon and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, sought the esoteric and mystical powers hidden in the Hebrew language and alphabet. Irrational though these linguistic investigations may seem today, as Lewis Glinert writes in “The Story of Hebrew,” “Christian kabbalism could be said to have supplied much of the intellectual confidence that underwrote early modern science.”

For all its importance, Christian Kabbalah is usually deemed a curiosity of intellectual history, and is certainly seen as a side branch in the development of the Hebrew language. The fact that Glinert devotes two fascinating chapters to Christian Hebraicists like Newton is representative of his overall approach. Eschewing the familiar, triumphalist narrative of ancient glory and modern rebirth in Zion (with nothing worth mentioning in between), “The Story of Hebrew” follows the twists and turns, false starts and blind alleys of the Hebrew language from its biblical beginnings to contemporary Israeli usage. Glinert describes how, throughout the ages, Hebrew has fended off linguistic competitors — Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, German and, now, English — and, under the right circumstances of social stability and intellectual opportunity, has risen to the highest levels of scientific and poetic expression. “The Story of Hebrew” recasts Jewish history as a whole as a struggle to preserve not Judaism or Jewish culture, but the Holy Tongue itself.

Linguistic innovation and social change

Glinert, a professor of Hebrew Studies and Linguistics at Dartmouth College, is an ordained Orthodox rabbi as well as a language expert, and “The Story of Hebrew” draws on both these aspects of his professional life. His familiarity with and respect for rabbinic literature allows him to highlight these texts’ genius and linguistic creativity, which other, less religiously minded scholars might avoid. With wit and a light tone, Glinert covers an impressive range of sources in this compact volume, and accompanies his discussions with a wealth of quotations from the sources in his own clear translations. In examining the tension between vernacular and literary Hebrew in the Second Temple period, the significance of the rabbis’ decision to preserve the Mishnah in Hebrew rather than Aramaic or the grammatical insights of medieval Sephardi scholars, his focus is on how such linguistic innovations reflect underlying social changes (an academic discipline known as socio-linguistics). The result is a history that conveys the richness and evolution of the Hebrew language without getting bogged down in technical details.

“The Story of Hebrew” begins, as it should, with the Bible. Glinert discusses the  Bible's few explicit reflections on language and language use, for example in the Tower of Babel story, as well as the subtleties of biblical style, which, in contrast to the epic poetry of neighboring Babylonian, Sumerian and Greek cultures, was mainly expressed in prose. Glinert also touches on the limited evidence for ancient Hebrew found outside the Bible on seals, inscriptions and pot sherds . However, as he writes, “our main witness for ancient Hebrew is the Bible itself.”

This natural focus on the Bible as the Hebrew linguistic canon, just as it is the canon of Judaism, is one of the book’s central themes. Glinert devotes a long section of “The Story of Hebrew” to the Masoretes, the Jewish scholars in Tiberias, Jerusalem and Babylonia, living between 600 and 900 CE, who established the authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible. They determined the authoritative spelling, pronunciation and phrasing of the biblical text; invented a notation system for vowels and cantelation; and compiled statistics of words, verses and peculiar phenomena, all intended to preserve the text against copyists’ inevitable errors.

As Glinert writes, the prodigious Masoretes were not inspired by some pedantic fetish. Like other late antique cultures, Jews preserved their sacred texts orally. Even reading the written Bible, which lacked punctuation and diacritics, required recalling a memorized version of the text. However, broader historical changes upset this long-established system. At the time, he writes, “a chain of events was unfolding that threatened this entire system of perpetuating Judaism’s sacred texts. Following the Arab conquests of the Middle East that began around the year 630, Arabic of some sort rapidly eclipsed Aramaic, becoming within a century the prestige language across most of the region and by 900 its main Jewish colloquial.... Soon Arabic was as foreign to an Arabic speaking Jewish schoolboy as German is to English speakers. Even skilled cantors were having problems with the intricate poems they had to recite in the synagogue. No doubt adding to the confusion were the period’s Jewish migrations and social change.”

Of course, the rise of Islam and the dominance of Arabic also led to a flourishing of Jewish creativity in Hebrew that remained unparalleled until the modern age. Infused by the cross-fertilization with Islam’s rich literary, philosophical, mystical and scientific traditions, Jewish writers throughout the Islamic world, many of whom also wrote in Arabic, composed enduring monuments of medieval Hebrew literature: Saadiah Gaon’s grammatical works, Maimonides’ "Mishneh Torah," Yehuda Halevi’s poetry and much more.

Glinert also focuses on a more obscure, but no less important, instance of medieval Hebrew creativity. In southern Italy around the turn of the first millennium, Jewish physicians began composing medical and scientific treatises in Hebrew. Shabbatai Donnolo, who authored “Sefer Hamikrahot” on pharmacology, the medical and scientific compendium “Sefer Hakhmoni,” and “Sefer Hamazalot” on astrology, was the first such writer whose works have come down to us. He, or perhaps earlier, now unknown figures, launched a Hebrew scientific and medical revolution that led to the revival of spoken Hebrew as the language of instruction in early medieval medical schools. In the 12th century, an influx of Jews fleeing religious persecution in Spain strengthened the trend. This movement inspired a massive project of translating Arabic scientific knowledge to Hebrew, and then to Latin.

“In many ways, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries marked a high point of Hebrew technical literacy — spurred not just by scientific curiosity but also by a desire to compete with the literate Latin and Spanish culture emerging in Christian Spain,” Glinert writes. “It would take another six hundred years before Enlightenment Hebrew would compete with German and Russian with equal passion.”

The first line of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible.Credit: © Lucidwaters |

Hebrew's revival

The final two chapters of “The Story of Hebrew” return to more familiar ground. Covering the period from the late 18th century to the present, Glinert discusses the explosion of Hebrew writing by European Jews. Though most accounts of the revival of modern Hebrew focus on the role played by members of the Jewish Enlightenment, Glinert insightfully relates the profusion of Hebrew journalism, poetry and fiction to the nearly contemporary Hebrew folktales authored by Hasidic masters like Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. “The Story of Hebrew” traces the development of modern Hebrew from a small band of East European Jewish intellectuals, through the Zionist movement and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, to its adoption as an official language of Palestine under the British Mandate and the national language of Israel today.

It is possible to appreciate anew the monumental achievement of establishing Hebrew as a living language in Glinert’s awestruck description of the wholesale adoption of Hebrew by early 20th-century immigrants: “How did they find the words? Not by committee, nor by scholarship, but by trial and error. Linguists would give a great deal to know more about how it worked. This was, after all, the only known case of the total revival of a spoken language — but, maddeningly, it never occurred to anyone to observe how it was all happening. We will never know how teachers were teaching it, how children were speaking it, or how the young adult immigrants transformed the literary Hebrew they know from Russia into an everyday tongue.”

In the nearly 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, Hebrew has become the mother tongue of millions of Israelis, and the second language of millions of Palestinians, and of Jews the world over. Rightly, Glinert’s discussion of Israeli Hebrew offers no neat conclusion. “The Story of Hebrew” describes the contentious politics of language in Israel today: how pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary play a role in the cultural struggles between the old Ashkenazi elite and Mizrahim, and how English continues to make inroads into the speech of everyday Israelis. Glinert gives the example, which any casual observer of an Israeli mall or shopping district can confirm, of the dominance of the English language and Roman script in advertising and brand names. Though there are exceptions, the English used in stores like Fox or Home Center evokes luxury, cosmopolitanism and quality.

All in all, Glinert is overly pessimistic about the ability of mainstream Israeli culture to preserve Hebrew. In particular, his dismissal of Hebrew literature as stuffy and conservative, ignores the diversity of contemporary Hebrew letters, not to mention music, television and film. But what remains enduring and true is Glinert’s contention that the story of Hebrew is not over: as it has for centuries, the language will continue to change and develop, and, against all odds, to survive.

An Israeli road sign, with signage in Hebrew, Arabic and English.Credit: Mohammad Karim

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