Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) was a pioneer in the revival of spoken Hebrew. His monumental article, "She'elah Lohatah" ("A Burning Question")" שְׁאֵלָה לוֹהֲטָה known also as שְׁאֵלָה נִכְבָּדה״ ", that was published in 1879, marked a new era for the Jewish people. In this article, Ben-Yehuda introduced for the first time an idea that was familiar and central to and in other modern national movements in Europe, the idea of the connection between land and language.
He passionately believed in and advocated this idea to active members of the Zionist movement, many of whom did not share his views. They believed that the Jewish people, in their future land, would speak several languages whichever would prevail, should be recognized as the national language. Many of them believed it would be German.
While Ben-Yehuda was a prime force in the revival of Modern Hebrew, he was not the only one. As early as 1881, together with other scholars such as Y.M. *Pines, D. *Yellin, Y. *Meyuḥas, and A. Masie, they founded the society Teḥiyyat Israel based on five principles: work on the land and expand the country's productive population; revival of spoken Hebrew; creation of a modern Hebrew literature and science in the national spirit; education of the youth in a national and, at the same time, universal humanistic spirit; and active opposition to the *Halachah (Jewish Law).
While Hebrew was not a spoken language for more than 1800 years and was never anybody's mother tongue, it never died.
Throughout the millennia of the Jewish dispersion following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Hebrew remained alive in liturgy and religious ceremonies and as a sort of lingua franca across the Diaspora. Written Hebrew continued to evolve; it was the language of poetry and correspondence between scholars, who wrote books on law and philosophy in Hebrew. Each generation was encouraged to be literate in Hebrew so as to be familiar with Judaism’s foundational texts and life-cycle traditions and rituals. But, during these years, the language ceased to be a living, breathing part of ordinary, secular personal or national life.
Today, more than 9 million people speak Hebrew and, for the majority of them, it’s their native tongue.
The history of the Hebrew language is usually divided into four major periods:
The first is Biblical or Classical Hebrew, ((known in Hebrew as (העברית של המקרא in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written, from 1200 B.C.E. to approximately 300 B.C.E. This language itself has a few layers such as the Poetic language. Mishnaic or Rabbinic (known in Hebrew as לשון חכמים or לשון חז״ל -The Language of the Jewish Sages) dating from about 200 C.E., was the language of the Mishna - the corpus of Jewish law that was written in Hebrew. It was solely a written language but was more adaptable to practical use than Biblical Hebrew. Medieval Hebrew (known as לשון הפיוט - The Language of the Piyyut) flourished from about the 6th to the 13th century AD, during the Golden age of Jewish Culture in Spain, when important work was done by grammarians in explaining the grammar and vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew. During this period many words were borrowed from Greek, Spanish, Arabic, and other languages. Finally, Modern Hebrew (עברית מודרנית)is the language spoken in Israel today.
Modern Hebrew draws on all the previous historical layers of the Hebrew language. New meanings are ascribed to ancient words and new words are created in line with patterns and paradigms native to the ancient tongue. As is the case for all languages, Hebrew has also absorbed some modern terms from other languages.
I only took Hebrew for one year at U Chicago but learning the foundation of the language inspired my love and curiosity surrounding all things Israel. The Hebrew department was so supportive and kind, and the classes are fun! They genuinely give you a great understanding of the language and culture of Israel. Israeli movie nights are also a great addition! After taking Hebrew here, I continued learning with a FLAG grant at Hebrew U, where I was able to travel around Israel, learn more about the history and culture, politics, and just speak Hebrew on a daily basis. Working at the Israel Museum the following summer, I had a chance to practice my Hebrew in a professional setting, and now I hope to live in Israel at some point in the near future. None of my adventures or future plans would have been at all possible without the care and support of the Hebrew department at U Chicago!
-Hannah Karpin, Class of 2021, Art History and Economics
My time spent in the Hebrew department at the University of Chicago was one of the best language learning experiences I have had as a student. Having access to an accelerated Hebrew program was a phenomenal benefit during the relatively short span of pursuing a master's degree; there is simply no other way I could have learned Hebrew as well as I did in as short (and busy!) a time as I did. The faculty and instructors are passionate not only about the language but specifically about teaching it, which makes for the best possible experience as a student. I know I will continue to make use of the skills and knowledge I gained from them throughout my time as a PhD student as well and am very grateful for that.
-Coleman Ray Durkin, NELC PhD Student
Starting my master's at the University of Chicago Divinity School was particularly daunting due to the language barrier which initially presented itself between myself and the Jewish texts which I hoped to study. However, through the tireless effort of our professor, who made herself available outside of the classroom to ensure that each of her students mastered the material, I have gained the skills to be able to continue to independently refine my grasp of the language and have since begun to take advantage of the oceanic body of literature into which I am now finally able to dip my toes. Hebrew study at the University of Chicago was every bit as rigorous as the school’s reputation would suggest, but our professor masterfully built rapport with and between her students in order to create an environment where we felt comfortable enough to navigate through the difficult first stages of language acquisition.
- Josh Daniels, MA Divinity School Class of 2020
The Modern Hebrew Language Program
The Modern Hebrew Program at the University of Chicago has existed for more than thirty years.
It has been offered through Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and has always enjoyed the support encouragement & support of a variety of programs, such as the CMES, to turn it into a program that would be able to meet the academic needs of students on campus, both undergraduate and graduate students.
Traditionally, this is a three-year program, whose aim is to enable students to read, write and speak Modern Hebrew. The emphasis is upon contemporary usage, and the cultural context within which the language is spoken. Advanced students who wish to continue past the third year set up a reading course geared to accommodate their special field of research. The program primarily uses the textbooks developed by faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem along with other textbooks, who encourage teaching Hebrew in Hebrew and advocate focus on reading, speaking and writing. In addition to the formal curriculum, there is also a Hebrew Circle‚ that meets every other week to watch Israeli films, listen to lectures in Hebrew, and practice spoken Hebrew.
Introductory Level Modern Hebrew
The beginner course aims to introduce students to the basic skills of reading, writing and pronunciation of Modern Hebrew. Students learn to read both vocalized and un-vocalized texts, to write simple sentences, and engage in simple conversation. In the field of grammar, students learn the Hebrew root pattern system as well as the basic present tense. At the end of the year, students can conduct short conversations in Hebrew, read materials designed to student’ level of comprehension, and write short compositions.
Intermediate Level Modern Hebrew
This course is designed for students who possess a basic knowledge of modern and/or Biblical Hebrew (either the first-year course or the placement exam are prerequisites). The main objective is to provide students with the skills necessary to approach Modern Hebrew prose, both fiction and non-fiction. The students acquire numerous syntactic structures, the complete verb system and extensive vocabulary. Throughout the year, students read, write, and speak extensively and are required to analyze the grammatical structures of assigned materials.
Advanced Level Modern Hebrew
Although titled “advanced”, this course is in actuality, a third-year level course.
This course assumes that students have full mastery of the grammatical and lexical content of the intermediate level (second year Hebrew or the placement exam are prerequisites). The main objective is literary fluency. The texts used in this course include both academic prose, as well as literature. Students are exposed to semantics and morphology in addition to advanced grammar. Requirements include a weekly class presentation, regular essay writing, two take-home exams, and several quizzes per quarter.
Reading Hebrew for Research Purposes: a 2-quarter course
The course concentrates on the written language and aims at enabling students to use Modern Hebrew for research purposes. The course is designed to enable students to read Hebrew freely. Major grammatical & syntactical aspects will be covered, and students will acquire substantial vocabulary with attention paid to lexical collocations and semantic fields. By the end of the course, students are expected not only to be able to successfully satisfy their departmental language requirements but also to have a great set of skills that would allow them to read any given text, written in Modern Hebrew. (The tern “Modern Hebrew” covers primarily literature from the mid 20th century to current time).