Hebrew — the Ancient Language of Judaism and Jews

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20120504-445px-Talmud yerushalmi-front page.GIF
Talmud, written in Hebrew
Hebrew is the national language of Israel, the sacred language of Judaism and the language in which the nearly all the Old Testament was originally written. Believed to have evolved around 4,000 years ago, it is a Semitic language along with Arabic and ancient tongues such as Aramaic and Assyrian and is so similar to ancient Phoenician it was regarded as a Phoenician dialect.

Hebrew is a sacred language to Jews the same way Arabic is a sacred language to Muslims. It it also the liturgical language of Judaism the same way Latin is the liturgical language of Catholicism.

“Hashmal” is a Hebrew word that has only been used once in Jewish scripture: in the Book of Ezekiel when the sky open ups to reveal a stunning vision of God. Above the angels, astride the throne, like a fire encased in a frame, the prophet sees a kind of “hashmal.” A definition was never provided. Scholars defined it as an aura surrounding the heavenly throne woven from the breath of angles, so sacred it is barely audible. Today it is the modern Hebrew word for “electricity.”

English words from Hebrew include Amen, hallelujah, kosher, sabbath. Among the words and phrases from Hebrew and Judaism that have woven themselves in modern culture are Shabbat shalom ("good Shabbat," used as a greeting on Shabbat, or day of worship), mazel tov (meaning "good luck," but referring to past rather than future luck and used as a form of congratulations), shalom (peace), and l'chayim ("to life," usually used as a toast).

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; BBC - Religion: Judaism bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica, britannica.com/topic/Judaism; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research yivoinstitute.org

Characteristics of Hebrew

Ancient Hebrew had no vowels. That is why God's name was written as YHWH. Vowels were introduced around the time the Hebrew alphabet, based on the Phoenician alphabet, was introduced.

In a discussion on difference between the Torah and the Christian Old Testament Aaron Breceda wrote in Quora.com: The difference isn’t really in the text, but how the text is approached and understood. English is a very exact language, it’s rarely ambiguous. Hebrew on the other hand, is a word poor language, which means that most words can have 3 or 4 different meanings depending on the surrounding context. Therefore, English speaking Christians want to know THE meaning of the text. Whereas Judaism embraces the Hebrew and wants to know what possible MEANINGS can we interpret from the text.

Hebrew has its own unique script and is written from left to right. Until the 20th century Jews used Hebrew letters whether writing Hebrew, Yiddish, Judea-Spanish. Arabic, Aramaic or Persian. Written Hebrew is derived from Phoenician and Greek. Vowels are indicated by diactric marks such as small strokes, dots and circles, placed either above or below or to the side of the consonants signs.

History of Hebrew

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Hebrew, Ancient Hebrew
Sinaitic, an ancient language believed to be a precursor of Hebrew, is among the written languages that have not been deciphered. Others include the earliest Egyptian hieroglyphics; the Minoan language of Crete; the pre-Roman writing from the Iberian tribes of Spain; the Futhark Runes from Scandinavia; Elamite from Iran; the language of Mohenjo-Dam, the ancient Indus River culture; and Archaic Sumerian, the earliest written language in the world."

Hebrew is the language of the Old Testament and the ancient Israelites. It had largely fallen into disuse by the time Jesus Christ. Jews began switching from Hebrew to Aramaic as their primary language around the 2nd century B.C. Upper class Jews at that time spoke Greek.

Hebrew has the unique distinction of being the only language that has essentially been brought back from the dead. It was not widely used in everyday use for 2,000 years and then became the nation language of Israel. Some regard this as one of the great achievement of Zionism. Today it used millions of Israelis and is published in more than 5,000 book titles a year.

Hebrew was made the national language of Israel after Israel became independent in 1948. At that time most adults in Israel spoke Yiddish, the vernacular language of Eastern European Jews, and Lading, the vernacular language of Sephardic Jews, as their first language. Hebrew was taught in schools and children taught it to their parents.

For over 2,000 years Hebrew was not widely spoken. Rather it developed into the language of Jewish letters and prayers. Educated Jews read the weekly Torah portion in Hebrew, while sages and scholars of the diaspora corresponded and communicated in the Hebrew as their only common tongue. The language was also used for legal opinions, philosophy, mysticism, travel writing, poetry, natural science and other things in which a lingua franca among scattered Jewish communities was useful.

Semitic Languages

David Testen wrote in the Encyclopædia Britannica: “Semitic languages, languages that form a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language phylum. Members of the Semitic group are spread throughout North Africa and Southwest Asia and have played preeminent roles in the linguistic and cultural landscape of the Middle East for more than 4,000 years. [Source: David Testen, Encyclopædia Britannica]

In the early 21st century the most important Semitic language, in terms of the number of speakers, was Arabic. Standard Arabic is spoken as a first language by more than 200 million people living in a broad area stretching from the Atlantic coast of northern Africa to western Iran; an additional 250 million people in the region speak Standard Arabic as a secondary language. Most of the written and broadcast communication in the Arab world is conducted in this uniform literary language, alongside which numerous local Arabic dialects, often differing profoundly from one another, are used for purposes of day-to-day communication. Maltese, which originated as one such dialect, is the national language of Malta and has some 370,000 speakers. As a result of the revival of Hebrew in the 19th century and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, some 6 to 7 million individuals now speak Modern Hebrew. Many of the numerous languages of Ethiopia are Semitic, including Amharic (with some 17 million speakers) and, in the north, Tigrinya (some 5.8 million speakers) and Tigré (more than 1 million speakers). A Western Aramaic dialect is still spoken in the vicinity of Maʿlūlā, Syria, and Eastern Aramaic survives in the form of uroyo (native to an area in eastern Turkey), Modern Mandaic (in western Iran), and the Neo-Syriac or Assyrian dialects (in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran). The Modern South Arabian languages Mehri, arsusi, Hobyot, Jibbali (also known as Ś eri), and Socotri exist alongside Arabic on the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula and adjacent islands.

Members of the Semitic language family are employed as official administrative languages in a number of states throughout the Middle East and the adjacent areas. Arabic is the official language of Algeria (with Tamazight), Bahrain, Chad (with French), Djibouti (with French), Egypt, Iraq (with Kurdish), Israel (with Hebrew), Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania (where Arabic, Fula [Fulani], Soninke, and Wolof have the status of national languages), Morocco, Oman, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia (with Somali), Sudan (with English), Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Other Semitic languages designated as official are Hebrew (with Arabic) in Israel and Maltese in Malta (with English). In Ethiopia, which recognizes all locally spoken languages equally, Amharic is the “working language” of the government.

Despite the fact that they are no longer regularly spoken, several Semitic languages retain great significance because of the roles that they play in the expression of religious culture—Biblical Hebrew in Judaism, Geʿez in Ethiopian Christianity, and Syriac in Chaldean and Nestorian Christianity. In addition to the important position that it occupies in Arabic-speaking societies, literary Arabic exerts a major influence throughout the world as the medium of Islamic religion and civilization.

Semitic Languages of the Past

David Testen wrote in the Encyclopædia Britannica: “Written records documenting languages belonging to the Semitic family reach back to the middle of the 3rd millennium bce. Evidence of Old Akkadian is found in the Sumerian literary tradition. By the early 2nd millennium bce, Akkadian dialects in Babylonia and Assyria had acquired the cuneiform writing system used by the Sumerians, causing Akkadian to become the chief language of Mesopotamia. The discovery of the ancient city of Ebla (modern Tall Mardīkh, Syria) led to the unearthing of archives written in Eblaite that date from the middle of the 3rd millennium bce. [Source: David Testen, Encyclopædia Britannica]

Personal names from this early period, preserved in cuneiform records, provide an indirect picture of the western Semitic language Amorite. Although the Proto-Byblian and Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions still await a satisfactory decipherment, they too suggest the presence of Semitic languages in early 2nd-millennium Syro-Palestine. During its heyday from the 15th through the 13th century bce, the important coastal city of Ugarit (modern Raʾs Shamra, Syria) left numerous records in Ugaritic. The Egyptian diplomatic archives found at Tell el-Amarna have also proved to be an important source of information on the linguistic development of the area in the late 2nd millennium bce. Though written in Akkadian, those tablets contain aberrant forms that reflect the languages native to the areas in which they were composed.

From the end of the 2nd millennium bce, languages of the Canaanite group began to leave records in Syro-Palestine. Inscriptions using the Phoenician alphabet (from which the modern European alphabets were ultimately to descend) appeared throughout the Mediterranean area as Phoenician commerce flourished; Punic, the form of the Phoenician language used in the important North African colony of Carthage, remained in use until the 3rd century ce. The best known of the ancient Canaanite languages, Classical Hebrew, is familiar chiefly through the scriptures and religious writings of ancient Judaism. Although as a spoken language Hebrew gave way to Aramaic, it remained an important vehicle for Jewish religious traditions and scholarship. A modern form of Hebrew developed as a spoken language during the Jewish national revival of the 19th and 20th centuries.

2,700-Year-Old Papyrus with Hebrew Inscription

In September 2022, Israel acquired a previously unknown ancient papyrus bearing a Hebrew inscription dated to around 2,700 years ago that had long been in possession of a Montana resident, the country's antiquities authority said Associated Press reported: The scrap of papyrus — scarcely larger than a postage stamp with four lines of angular script — is one of just a few from the region in the Late Iron Age, archaeologists said. The Israel Antiquities Authority said it authenticated its age using radiocarbon dating, which corresponded with the age of the text's writing style. Joe Uziel, director of the Judean desert scrolls unit, said the matching radiocarbon date and paleographic style makes him “very certain” that it is not a modern forgery.[Source: Ilan Ben Zion, Associated Press, September 8, 2022]

The papyrus, which bears the Biblical name Ishmael, was likely looted sometime in the last century from a cave in the Judean Desert, he said. Its provenance and journey from the desert to Montana six decades ago and now to Jerusalem remain nebulous. The antiquities authority declined to name the Montana resident but said the man’s mother obtained the artifact during a visit to what was then Jordanian-occupied east Jerusalem in 1965 and brought it to the United States. Jordanian law that was in force at the time severely restricted the sale of antiquities and prohibited the export of artifacts without a permit from the minister of antiquities. It wasn’t clear whether the woman possessed such authorization.

Numerous scroll fragments from the arid region near the Dead Sea that have emerged on the antiquities market in recent years, including several at Washington’s Museum of the Bible, have proven to be forgeries. The antiquities authority showed the papyrus to the press at its labs in Jerusalem alongside two other ancient Hebrew fragments it holds — one found in a cave near the Dead Sea in the 1950s and a second that was seized from the antiquities black market in 2016 and believed to have been looted from a cave.

Eitan Klein, head of the Israeli antiquities' theft prevention unit, said the Montana man's mother may have either purchased the object from Khalil Iskander Shahin — a Bethlehem-based antiquities dealer better known as “Kando,” who traded in many of the originally discovered Dead Sea Scrolls — or may have been given the papyrus by the curator of the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.

How Shahin or the curator, both of whom have since died, obtained the papyrus remains uncertain. The unidentified Montana man inherited the papyrus after his mother's death. An Israeli academic noticed a photo of this previously undocumented text in a colleague's unpublished papers and notified Klein, who tracked down the owner, the antiquities authority said. Klein said the man was invited to Jerusalem in 2019 and the sides came to an unspecified “arrangement” whereby the papyrus was given to the Israeli authorities.

Creation of Modern Hebrew

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Eliezer Ben-Yehuda at his desk in Jerusalem in 1912
The revival of Hebrew is mainly the work of one man, Eliezer BenYehuda (1858-1922), who was born in a Lithuanian village and migrated to Palestine in 1881, 15 years before Theodore Herzl published “The Jewish State”, the founding manifesto of Zionism.Ben Yehuda established several newspapers in Jerusalem and created — with his wife, child and their servants — the first Hebrew-speaking household in centuries. A committed secularist and cultural nationalist, Ben Yehuda he saw Hebrew as a key element to Zionism. Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst College and author of “Resurrecting Hebrew”, wrote, “You might almost say he wanted Jews to create their own country so they could speak Hebrew in it.”

BenYehuda was able to use the classical Scriptures for concepts like justice, mercy, love and hate but could not use them for more mundane words like “office” or “socks.” To deal with this problem he simply invented new words, mostly drawn from ancient biblical patterns and roots. His decades-long project was summed up with a massive Hebrew dictionary with detailed entomologies on both existing words and word she invented.

Ben Yehuda’s critics claimed his secularism defiled the holy tongue and his language was soulless and mechanical. Among those that gave Hebrew more soul and power were the poet Hayyin Bialess, essayist Ahad Ha-Am, Nobel laureate S.Y. Aganon, the poet Yehuda Amichai and writers Chain Bialik and Uri Tzvi Greenberg and other Hebrew revivalists from eastern Europe, who also drew the ancient sources to create texts rich in biblical allusions yet conceptually avant-garde.

The Hebrew project took off rapidly in pre-state Palestine, and was adopted zealously by the Zionist pioneers. By 1914, a decision a was made to teach only Hebrew in Jewish schools. By the time the state of Israel was founded in 1948 there was already a generation of Israelis for whom Hebrew was the native tongue .

Some scholars, namely Gershom Scholem in the 1920s, have suggested that more significant than the secularization of the ancient Hebrew language was incorporation of the Hebrew language — and with it Old Testament notions — into modern life. This facts is best represented with the politics of religious Zionists

Books:”Resurrecting Hebrew” by Ilan Stavans (Nextbook, 2008)

Modern Hebrew

20120504-Hebrew Humorous_ketchup.jpg Modern Hebrew is only around a century old. Described as concise and awkward, it has relatively simple grammar and sentence structure and has only a fraction of the words that English has thus each word is rich in multiple meanings. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told the Washington Post, “It’s a very effective language for poetry, since it can give you freedom of your imagination.”

Modern Hebrew is increasingly coming under threat from the influence of foreign words and modernizations and short cuts. Israelis pepper their speech with English word like “please,” “sorry,” and “whatever” and as well some Arabic words and words from other languages to such an extent that the fine points and idiosyncracies of the language are being lost. Ruvik Rosenthal, a popular Israelis language guru, told the New York Times, “We speak with mistakes. Everyone does and everyone corrects everyone.”

The Academy of the Hebrew Language is Israel’s supreme guardian of the Hebrew language. Ront Gadish, the academic secretary of the organization, told the New York Times, “We used to understand the biblical language better, and our language was closer to it.”

Linguists constantly invent new words so that foreign words don't become too pervasive. Often the words are created as quickly as possible in a race to make sure they catch on before foreign loan word do. Among these are “misron” (“text message”), derived from “meser” , the Hebrew word for message, “tguvit” (“talk back”), from the Hebrew word of “tguva”, meaning response.

Hebrew Swear Words and Expressions

Al ta'atzben otti!: Don't piss me off
Ani yiv-at lecha ba beitsim: i will kick your balls
Arab: Dirty Pig
Aravi: dirty pig
Batul: Virgin
Beitsim: Balls
Ben Kelev: Son of a dog
Ben Sharlila: Son of a slut
Ben Zona: Son of a Whore
Ben Zonah: Son of a bitch/whore
Ben kalbah: son of a bitch
Ben zona: Son of a whore
Bulbul: Penis
[Source: youswear.com]

Antisemitic picture of a Jewish broker

Dafuk barosh: fucked up in the head
Efes: Loser, zero
Ein Lecha Zyn: You don't have a dick
Fal-tzan: fart fartist
Harah: shit.
Hatichat Hara!: Piece of shit!
Hatichat harah: Piece of shit
Ima Shelcha Matzetza Li Etmol: Your mom sucked my dick yesterday
Ima shelcha meta: your mother died
Imascha: Your mom!
Kalba: Bitch when addressing a woman
Koksinel: Fagget
Koos Emek: Your mom's pussy
Koos Megoolach: Shaven Pussy
Koos Sair: Hairy Pussy
Koos akhotkha hatsola'at: your limping sister's pussy
Ku-se-mak: Your Mother's Vagina
Kuss ima shel'cha: Your mothers vegina
Kussit: Sexy Girl

Lech Tizdayen!: Go Fuck!
Lech timkor kerach: Go sell ice!
Leh Timzoz La'Apiphior: Go suck the pope's dick
Leh lehizdayen: Fuck you to a man
Leh tezayen et ima shelcha: Go fuck your mother
Lehi lehizdayen: Fuck you to a girl
Lekh Tee'Zedayen: Go fuck yourself
Lekh tezdayen: Go Fuck Yourself
Makat Zayin: Cock Slap
Malshin: Snitch
Mamzer: Bastard
Mas-tool: Stoned
Masriach: Smelly, Stinking
Me'anyen li et ha zaiyn: Don't give a fuck about that
Menayek: Police, or a snitch
Mtsots li ta'zain: Suck my cock
Muhhamed: Goat molester
Nim'as li!: I've had enough!
Ohel ba tachat: you are gay

Pot Ratuv: Wet pussy
Red li me'agav: Leave me alone
Red li me'avrid: Leave me alone
S'Emek: Fuck
Sarsour: Pimp
Savta shel-ha mefa-geret: your grandma is retarded
Shak Li Batahat: kiss my ass
Shakli b'tahat!: Kiss my ass!
Sharlila: Whore
Sharmuta: Whore
She Elohim Yikach Otcha Kvar!!: That god will take you already!
Shtok: Shut up
Stom ta'peh: Shut up
Ta'ase li tova: Give me a break
Tamut male / Tamuti female: Die
Tim-tsots Li Et Habeitsim Ha-seyrot: Suck my hairy balls
Timtzotz Li Et Hazyn: Suck my dick
Tisaref B' Azazel: Burn In Hell
Tistom tapeh yanaal: Shut up idiot

Ya Hor Tachat!!: Asshole!
Ya ben shel kah-ba: You son of a whore
Yah pin noteph ziva: You Gonorrhea dripping penis
Yah zayin lo arel: You uncircumcised dick
Zayan: Fuck boy
Zayin: cock
Zayin b'ayin: Dick in your eye!
Zevel Ofot: Poultry Garbadge
Zonah: whore

More Hebrew Swear Words and Expressions

achotcha zona: your sister a whore
ahu sharmoota: -as fuck
ani ekraa ot-haa!: i will tear you to pieces
ani ekraa othaa!: i will tear you to pieces
ani ev'at lecha babeitzim: I'll kick your balls
anni rotze lechaki alecha: I want to throw up on you
ata al hazain sheli: you
ben Sharmoota: son of a slut
ben elef zonot: son of a thousand bitches
ben sharmuta: like son of a bitch
benzona: son of a bitch
[Source: youswear.com]


bosh a krapah: suck your mums dick
charah be'leben: a bad outcome or misfortune
cok-sinel: faggot
hamor: jackass
hatichat hara mizdayen batachat: assfucking piece of shit
ima shelha mozzezzet li: your mom suck me
imasha karpada mesumemet: your mom is a drunk toad
kus: pussy
lakek et hatahat sheli: lick my ass
lech hape's me yena'ana otcha: Go look for someone to fuck you
lech hapes et haverim shelcha basivuv: go and look for friends
lech lehizdayen: fuck off
lech tiezdayen: fuck you

leh tezayen et aba shelha: go and fuck your dad
lekh tiz'da'yen: Go fuck yourself for men
lekh'i tiz'da'yni: Go fuck yourself for women
ma ata mefager: what are you stupid
mitromem mizdayen batahat: gay assfucker
mtsetsi li tazain: suck my cock
nod: fart
noshech kariot: bites pillows takes it up the ass
o'chel batachat: takes it in the ass
ochel batachat: takes it up the ass
ohel hara: shit-eater
or hodeda: porn star
partzuf tahat: ass-face
rosh tahat: ass head
shmenah: fat ass
t'mtzetzi li: suck my dick towards a girl
tahat: ass

tipesh kmo naal: stupid like a shoe
tzi-tzi: boobs
ya ben shel zona: you son of a bitch
ya manyak: you ass
yeled kaka: shity boy
yh tahat: you ass
zai'n ba'ain: a dick in the eye
zayin: penis
zayin katan: Small dick
zevel: trash
zianti et ahotha: i fuck you sister
zona: Whore

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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