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The Roots of Modern Hebrew - the Bible

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For close to 2,000 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Rome and the subsequent exile of the Jewish inhabitants from the land of Israel, Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language. Nonetheless, Hebrew never became a ‘dead’ language. Rather, it continued to be the language of religious scholarship. Thousands, perhaps millions, of volumes of Jewish law, custom, and thought continued to be written in Hebrew, utilizing not only the Hebrew of the Bible but also that of the Mishneh, a composition created during the last period of the nation’s life in the land of Israel. In other words, there are multiple layers of the language.

And, Eliezer ben Yehuda, who made aliyah to Israel in the late nineteenth century, immersed himself in all of them in his visionary effort to revive Hebrew as a spoken language. Although we take it for granted today that the language of Israel is Hebrew, that was far from clear until ben Yehuda’s monumental work, not merely to revive the language, but to reinvent it. Ben Yehuda took the rich and massive Biblical and rabbinic literature to create the modern language that is spoken today.

What did he do about all the creations of the modern world that emerged during the nearly two millennia that Hebrew was not spoken? A motorized vehicle, for instance. Modern Hebrew looks to the Bible and finds the word for chariot that appears in the Book of Exodus when Pharaoh pursues the Israelites. They find the Hebrew word ‘rehev,’ and that becomes the word for ‘a vehicle.’

And, it wasn’t only words associated with technological innovation. Concepts like a kitchen sink are absent from the Biblical narrative because Israelites living and traveling through a desert had no such accoutrements. But, what Modern Hebrew does find is that the Book of Exodus describes the construction of the Tabernacle, and that there is a basin placed between the Altar and the Sanctuary, and not merely a basin, but one with faucets – ‘kiyor,’ the same word Modern Hebrew uses for a ‘sink.’

Modern Hebrew mines the Talmud, as well - the rabbinic compendium of law that was created in Babylonia, in the Aramaic language, over a period of centuries, after the Biblical period. Discussions of civil law are a major portion of the Talmud. As a result, terms related to finance appear throughout the Talmud. Modern Hebrew finds a ready-made treasure trove of financial terms including ones for contracts, mortgage, real estate, abandoned property, and different categories of tax. ‘Mashkanta,’ in the Talmud, is a means of borrowing against real estate collateral. Hence, the modern term for mortgage. The very term for real estate in the Talmud – ‘nadlan’ is an acronym which means assets that are immovable.

Other terms, such as that for loan interest, because it is already prohibited by the Torah (Bible), are known. Similarly, the concept of lending appears in the Torah. But, the Talmud expands the applications of these words, as well. From the Biblical word for lending – ‘lava,’ the Talmud derives the words for borrower and lender. The word for a security deposit is based on a common Biblical verb – ‘pakad.’ But, the Torah had never assigned such a meaning to the word. Rather, it is associated with remembering, punishing, calling to account, counting, a whole cluster of meanings, but never anything associated with deposits or security objects until the Talmud appropriates such a meaning. The word for abandoned property – ‘hefker,’ is a Talmudic term that appears in numerous discussions, often regarding ritual matters such as the need to render one’s leavened food ownerless during Passover. As elsewhere, a term that is originally associated with ritual law, attains a secular application and association.

The Modern Hebrew word for broadcast is the Talmudic word for ‘sending’ – ‘shadar.’ The Modern term for viewing something retrospectively is the word found in the Talmud, ‘b’di’eved.’ In the world of the Talmud, it refers to an action which might not at the outset fulfill one’s religious obligation but may nonetheless be acceptable after the fact, that is, retrospectively.

Discover the revival and reinvention of Modern Hebrew by Eliezer ben Yehuda, blending Biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic sources for today's Israel.
The Roots of Modern Hebrew - the Bible

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