The Language of Judaism: Three Things To Understand

December 1, 2015 |

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

HebrewHebrew is well-known as the language of a popular monotheistic religion, Judaism. It is also the official language of Israel, though not everyone in Israel practices Judaism. Besides that, it seems to be one of those languages that only certain groups of people know and speak, leaving the rest of us to wonder about things like its origins, literature, and much more.

In the U.S., there is a considerable population of Jewish people, who, if they practice Judaism, must have some knowledge of Hebrew in order to complete their rite of passage into adulthood. The Jewish holy book, the Torah, is also in Hebrew, so anyone who studies it must have basic knowledge of the language. For those who are unfamiliar with it, here are three things to understand about Hebrew:

  1. The origin of the name is not clear-cut

The origins of the name “Hebrew” are rather interesting, and there are various theories. Some believe it originally comes from the word “Ibri”, which was a common name for Israelite people. The traditional theory states that it was probably an adjective that was based off of the name “Eber”, who was an ancestor of Abraham. Yet another school of thought on the origins of the term “Hebrew” posit that it comes from the word “ʕ-b-r”, which is the root of the verb that means “to cross over”. This could be a reference to the group of people who successfully crossed the Euphrates River in biblical times.

  1. There are different types of pronunciation

Within liturgical Hebrew, there are a few different types, each with their own pronunciation. The first one, Ashkenazi Hebrew, is the liturgical language of the Ashkenazi Jewish community. It has many aspects that are the result of Yiddish influence. Sephardi Hebrew is the Hebrew of the Portuguese and Spanish Jews as well as Sephardi Jews in countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire. The Sephardi pronunciation system has been widely adopted by synagogues after the Jewish diaspora, and it should be noted that this is also the basis for the Israeli Hebrew pronunciation. Mizrahi Hebrew is a collection of the dialects spoken in parts of Arabic countries, with pronunciation systems that may have been influenced by Arabic and Aramaic.

  1. Revival of the language

Hebrew has actually been revived more than a few times, but the most notable revival began in the last days of the 19th century and continued into the 20th century. The main idea behind the revival movement was to transition from using Hebrew in only a religious context to using it as an everyday language. The whole process has its roots in the Jewish people who migrated to Palestine and used Hebrew to communicate with the locals in the middle of the 19th century. At the same time, there was a movement in Europe pushing to bring back Hebrew as a literary language, which led to programs for teaching Hebrew.

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Category: Foreign Language