Alexander, Philip S, “How did the Rabbis learn Hebrew?” Pages 71-89 in Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda. Edited by W. Horbury. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999.

Mishnaic Hebrew seems to have been finally supplanted as a spoken language by Aramaic in the 2nd century CE., after which it was maintained as a literary and liturgical language. Thus the mother tongue of a Rabbinic scholar living after this time period would be Aramaic, yet he would be expected to have command of two large and linguistically diverse Hebrew corpora – the biblical text and the collections of Mishnayot. As modern learners we have recourse to dictionaries and grammars as well as theories of second language acquisition, but in this essay Alexander asks, “How did the Rabbis learn Hebrew?”

Rote learning by reading large amounts of text over and over may have played a part, but such students seem to reach a ceiling quite quickly. They may recognize forms easily, but they are unable to move towards active comprehension and use of the second language. The Rabbis most likely did not attain competency through everyday use since their were no ‘native’ speakers left. Further, the level of the literature they were studying is much different than street language. Quite often people who live in foreign countries can master the vernacular through everyday use, but never move into the higher registers of the language. 

There is no evidence that the Rabbis ever undertook a systematic study of the grammar of the language. Thus we know of no aids for learning such as grammars, dictionaries, etc. By the 2nd century CE grammatical analysis of Greek was well established, but the Rabbis did not seem interested in such an approach. Rather, their interests seem to have been a somewhat quirky aggadic approach to words, etymologies, and some syntactic structures. They did not classify the parts of speech or attempt to analyze the triliteral root, etc. 

The scientific study of Hebrew only begins in the Middle Ages with the Karaites, who applied the sophisticated contemporary theories of Arabic grammar to Hebrew. The medieval Rabbinate scholars on the other hand did not immediately accept such an approach to the ‘holy tongue’, which they felt was unique and incomparable. Even a scholar such as Menahem ben Jacog ibn Saruq, who accepted the principle of linguistic analysis, avoided the comparisons between Hebrew and Arabic other grammarians made.

However, a ubiquitous feature of scholarship in the ancient world was the creation of lists, and we do find linguistic items regularly itemized in early Rabbinic literature such as concordances, statistics of the frequency of words used in the Bible, etc. It should also be noted that the lack of grammatical understanding of the workings of Hebrew in no way hinders the Rabbis competency in the language.

Hebrew was acquired in the Jewish school system, and schools were widespread in Jewish communities of Palestine from late Second Temple times into the Talmudic period. The elementary level was the Bet Sefer (ages 6 – 9) followed by the Bet Talmud (9-13). After this a student could continue to the Bet Midrash if his family could afford it. The sole purpose of the Bet Sefer was to teach the children to read Hebrew, with no ‘practical’ training at all. This includes learning to read the text, learning how to pronounce it properly, and probably learning the targum along with it to aid in understanding. In fact, Alexander suggests that the Bet Sefer may have been the original setting for the targum, and only later was it incorporated into the synagogue. This also fits the nature of the targum as a word for word translation. The student could line up the Aramaic word with its Hebrew counterpart as a learning aid.

This method of using a translation to learn a foreign language seems to have been standard in the Graeco-Roman world during the time of the Rabbis. Their are a number of Latin-Greek papyri from Egypt, for instance of Virgil’s Aeneid, which seem to have been used in teaching Latin. The Greek translation of Aquila may serve the same purpose. The peculiarity of the translation is its hyper-literalness, despite the fact that Aquila seems to have a firm command of the language. This characteristic begins to make sense if it is viewed as a crib for students to learn Hebrew rather than a free-standing translation. Extrapolating from the Rabbinic tradition, Aquila was most likely prepared under Rabbinic guidance in Palestine in the early 2nd century CE. 

The Mishna was possibly taught in the Bet Talmud, and definitely in the Bet Midrash. Here Alexander also suspects that some translation in Aramaic must have been used to aid with the massive vocabulary. Of course, in the later Amoraic schools Aramaic was most certainly the language of instruction.

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6 Comments on “Alexander, Philip S, “How did the Rabbis learn Hebrew?” Pages 71-89 in Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda. Edited by W. Horbury. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999.”


  1. [...] summarizes Philip S. Alexander’s article “How did the Rabbis learn Hebrew?” Hebrew was acquired in [...]

  2. Yitzhak Sapir Says:

    The idea that Hebrew was supplanted during the second century CE by Aramaic is in my opinion not sufficiently sound. That Hebrew remained a living language until the 2nd century CE is based on a wide variety of evidence — Mishnaic Hebrew and its development as compared with Biblical Hebrew, the Bar Kokhba letters, and various statements in the Talmud. The fact is that those statements in the Talmud are ascribed to the 4th century CE. It may also be asked whether Late Rabbinic Hebrew (the Hebrew spoken by Amoraim) shows the same kind of developments vs. Early Rabbinic Hebrew (Mishnaic Hebrew) that caused Segal to suggest that Mishnaic Hebrew was a living language. The Galilean countryside remained largely undisturbed until the Crusades. Eli ben Yuhudah Hannazir, in Kitab Usul al-Lugha al-Ibraniyya (“Book of the Foundations of the
    Hebrew Language”), approximately from the 9th – 10th centuries CE wrote that he “would sit long hours in the town squares of Tiberias and its villages, listening to the speech of the simple and common folk, and studying the language and its foundations,
    and what they pronounced in the Hebrew language, …” While it is consensus that Hebrew died out in the 2nd century CE, it is really more likely that it survived in the Galilee countryside much longer.

  3. Peter Bekins Says:

    Yitzhak,

    I agree that Hebrew could have continued to spoken in rural communities among the lower class. Is there not a passage in which several Rabbis ask R. Judah the Prince’s maid about the definitions of several Hebrew words? Based on the model of modern Aramaic dialects such villages could maintain their language for some time as well if undisturbed.

    That said, I tend to agree with the consensus that the end of the 2nd century is when Hebrew in fell out of use generally as the vernacular, though I have not studied it in depth if you would like to recommend some bibliography.

    The comparison between the language of the Amoraim and Tannaim would be an interesting project. However, a scholarly language also goes through language change, so I am not sure if that in itself would be strong evidence of Hebrew as a vernacular.

  4. Yitzhak Sapir Says:

    The Talmudic passages don’t talk about Judah the Prince’s maids. They speak of the maid of the house of Judah the Prince. Most of these are unattributed, and a critical analysis shows them to be very late — placed after R’ Ashi, for example. Two attributes comments are in Yerushalmi Megila 2:2 which refers to R’ Haggai saying how he went and a maid translated a Hebrew word, and in Bavli Rosh Hashana 26b which refers to R’ Rabbah bar bar Hannah who translated a Hebrew word based on comments from a bedouin (sometimes translated as Arab, but the Arab is speaking Hebrew!). Both of these are figures that date to the 4th century CE. I don’t really have sources beyond those I quoted, but I’m collecting them along. I am looking at various other data that I think is relevant to the question. If you’d like, I can discuss these ideas in private mail with you.


  5. I fully agree with Yitzhak Sapir to say that hebrew could have been spoken after the 2nd century. One has to be more cautious than Alexander in his article.

    Alexander doesn’t take into account many important aspects:
    1) geographic differences such as Galilee / Juda. ie, it is usually admitted that if Galilee was aramaic speaking, hebrew was still alive in Juda.
    2) differences of periods within the rabbinic litterature : he says “Rabbis”, but he should distinguish between Tannaim and Amoraim, with all nuances of the transition periods. Each rabbinic corpus has one or more traditions from different places and times.
    3) the fact that oral transmission was the principle way of learning. And this, in contrary of the greek approach, but even though in a faithfull manner.

    I am convinced that considerations on wether or not Hebrew was still spoken beyond the 2nd century are to be made on the basis of linguistic studies of Mishnaic Hebrew with critical sources, more than by comparing hebrew study to greek civilisation.

    Alexander falls into commun considerations, with no reference to hebrew sources of that time and even with no reference to previous scholars on the subject. Let me indicate you and article that is more nuanced in its conclusion, but indicates better perspectives of studying the subject : http://bcrfj.revues.org/document642.html

    Nicolas

  6. S. Says:

    >caused Segal to suggest that Mishnaic Hebrew was a living language.

    FWIW, Shadal anticipated Segal by 70 years. See the following passage from his Prologemeni, etc. from 1836:

    link

    He only became more convinced, and adduced more evidence later that MH was a living language as Geiger asserted that it was a fake, literary language of the rabbis.

    Incidentally, the article refferred here is a little fuzzy.

    >The scientific study of Hebrew only begins in the Middle Ages with the Karaites, who applied the sophisticated contemporary theories of Arabic grammar to Hebrew. The medieval Rabbinate scholars on the other hand did not immediately accept such an approach to the ‘holy tongue’, which they felt was unique and incomparable. Even a scholar such as Menahem ben Jacog ibn Saruq, who accepted the principle of linguistic analysis, avoided the comparisons between Hebrew and Arabic other grammarians made.

    What about Dunash, Menachem’s contemporary? What about Saadyah, who lived a century earlier? I think the alleged Rabbanite mistrust of comparative linguistics (and Arabic) is way overstated, while the Karaite innovation in this field is, perhaps, overstated.


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