Biblical Hebrew, Then and Now

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Guest post by Prof. Shlomo Karni

Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).

As slaves in Egypt, did the children of Israel enjoy watermelons? Did young David go into a decisive battle carrying a school bag? Was there electricity in ancient Babylonia, during the exile and the time of the prophet Ezekiel? Curious? Read on.

Scholars of the Hebrew language discovered that some 80% of Modern Hebrew is based on biblical Hebrew. Imagine, for a moment, that a time- machine could transport King David to today’s Jerusalem — a time span of some 3,000 years. He would manage quite well, thank you, with his Hebrew.

On the other hand, Shakespeare, with a time span of merely 400 years, will be totally lost: nobody will understand him today in Jerusalem! But, seriously: even in today’s London, Shakespeare would be lost with his English. By comparison with other languages, Hebrew has preserved its origins quite well, even as it evolved through the ages.

“OK,” you say, “it is obvious that such words as

אִיש , גוֹרָל , נְדָבָה , שְמוּעָה , תּוֹשָב

are biblical.” Right? Well, here is a question for you: Which of the following words is NOT biblical in origin?

אֲבַטִּיחַ, גִּזְבָּר, הֲפוּגָה, חַשְמַל, יַלְקוּט, לַהֲקָה, סִירָה, עֲזָאזֵל, פְּלָדָה, פִּרְחַח, צִנְצֶנֶת, קִבּוּץ, רְאִי, שְבִיל, שוֹטֵר, תַּהֲלוּכָה, תּוֹתָח

The surprising answer is that they all appear in the Bible, either in the same meaning as today, or a different one.

What about the remaining 20% of Modern Hebrew? Obviously, words like

טֶלֶפוֹן, מַחְשֵׁב , מָטוֹס

are not biblical. The amazing fact, though, is that a word like אֲבַטִּיחַ rare as it is in the Bible, is very common today and we don’t give much thought to its origin.

The rarest word of all is one which appears only once in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars and linguists call such a word ‘hapax legomenon’ (“something said only once”, in Greek).

A ‘hapax legomenon’ can be both the great passion and a nightmare for the lover of Hebrew. After all, there is nothing to compare it with in the Bible– so what is its meaning? Only suppositions, guesses, or comparisons with other sources and languages are available to try and unearth its meaning.

Perhaps the best example of such a ‘hapax legomenon’ is חַשְׁמַל, found in the book of Ezekiel. Today, it means ‘electricity’, quite simply. Or, how about a mysterious ‘hapax legomenon’ like חַשְׁמַן in Psalms? What does it mean there? Only the author of Psalms knew for sure. Today, חַשְׁמַן is ‘cardinal’ in the Catholic church. Period.

And what, exactly, is עֶצֶר in the expression יוֹרֵשׁ עָצָר? Today, this expression means ‘heir to the throne’, and while יוֹרֵשׁ is ‘heir’, to be sure, the ‘hapax legomenon’ עֶצֶר remains elusive, mysterious, and haunting.

There is a total of some 1,500 ‘hapax legomena’ in the Hebrew Bible [1], [2]. Their greatest concentration is in the books of Isaiah, Job, and Psalms.

In the next notes, we shall meet several of those, offer their
possible original meanings, along with their current usage and comments.


[1] A listing of these can be found, e.g., here: link

[2] אליהו ציפר, “המלים החד-פעמיות בתנ”ך”. הוצאת חצב, תשס”ב
Contains, in tabular form, the word (in Hebrew), its probable
meaning in the text (Hebrew), book, chapter and verse (in
English, KJV).

About Shlomo Karni


  1. -The vast majority of hapaxes can be determined by their root. Only a few hundred are total mysteries, and even for many of them we have cognates in other Semitic languages to help.

    -“Chashmal” is not, strictly speaking, a hapax, as it occurs more than once in that context. Many think it means “amber,” by the way.

    -Shakespeare spoke Modern English, just like we do. He wrote in it as well, but he wrote in poetry, for stage, with many classical and historical references most of us don’t get. But he’d probably get on OK in London today, although they might think he has an American accent.

    -I’m not one of the Modern Hebrew bashers out there, but parts of this piece seem a bit glib. Just because a word appears in Tanach doesn’t mean someone from that era would understand it in another meaning. That’s called “false friends” in linguistics. Shakespeare is full of them, as is French (both vis a vis today’s English). Yechezkel knew full well what “chashmal” was, but he’d have no idea what electricity is.

  2. I am not quite sure of the point of this piece.
    The author should have noted that there is a lot of hebrew between Biblical and Modern. Many modern Hebrew words come from the Hebrew of Hazal and the Middle Ages.

  3. Great topic for a series, but I think it might be a little disingenuous to say that “[s]cholars of the Hebrew language discovered that some 80% of Modern Hebrew is based on biblical Hebrew” After all, modern Hebrew didn’t evolve from its ancient form in the same way as other languages have — it built up its vocabulary in a deliberate and pretty well-documented way, part of which involved harvesting and re-purposing little-used Biblical vocabulary.

    From Anonymous 2:30am’s comment: “Chashmal” is not, strictly speaking, a hapax, as it occurs more than once in that context. Many think it means “amber,” by the way. … Interestingly, the word “electricity” in English also comes from the Greek word for amber — amber being particularly susceptible to developing a static charge. The German word for amber is also a respectable and fairly common Jewish family name.

  4. Anonymous was me. Happening a lot lately.

    Nu, the ancient Greeks wouldn’t get what we mean by the word either.

    Looked up amber in German. The things you learn…

  5. Professor,

    “Karni” – wouldn’t happen to be shortened from Karnovsky, would it? If so, my cousin would like to contact you – he was part of a Karnovsky family reunion some years back.

  6. A little on the “lite” side, my dear Nahum. More details in a follow-up note. True, “chashmal” appears 3 times – only in Yechezkel, and in fairly close proximity. Still, no light (pun and all) is shed thereby.
    No, Panbo, Karni is not derived from Karnovsky.

  7. OK- thanks.

  8. For anyone who is familiar with modern Hebrew as it is spoken today, they can identify that the other 20% is definitely taken from English (or more accurately: a mix of different languages spoken around Europe).

    With all due respect to academics etc., some of these words may indeed be biblical but not lashon kodesh (and def. not Hebrew). There are many examples where the commentaries point out words that are in fact Aramaic and not lashon kodesh. So perhaps these (or some) mentioned here are not either? 

    Another point to ponder; is it so certain that King David would be able to carry a conversation in Jerusalem today? Who said he spoke Hebrew at all? Let’s say King David was an exception because he “picked it up” by writing Tehilim (with Divine assistance), what about the rest of the Jewish nation? The language itself was preserved, but that doesn’t mean the general populance throughout the generations spoke the language. In fact, they most probably didn’t. That being so, no, they wouldn’t be able to join in a conversation just as a Hebrew speaking Israeli wouldn’t be able to join a conversation in Arabic even though the two are sister languages.

  9. MiMedinat HaYam

    chashmal, actually is (some form of) light, in yechezchezkel. how chashmal became electricity is prob from edison, who developed the first practical (marketable; in fact, he went on to start the first electeric distibution company known as con edison) form of electricity.

    and by “amber”, so you mean a color, or a form of jell / preservative, or what?

    hebrew also uses many “borrow words” from aramaic and greek, other common spoken languages in the country known as judea. and contained in the major text of the period (later committed to writing, another story) we know as the talmud (and early medrash, etc). other words come from major population centers such as germany and us ( = english), prob the only countries where speaking the vernacular language was socially (for jews, from a religious social perspective) “permitted”. note the arabic in hebrew is only from the current century of living in israel.

    king david would have no pblm conversing in yerushalyim today. though he would not understand a gemara shiur.

    but the rambam would prob have much difficulty conversing. ben eliezer (and ben gurion influence) was limited to biblical hebrew (and talmudic, to a degree). but not rishonim / acharonim hebrew. dont know about yotzrot we’ll be saying next week.

  10. My favorite “borrow-word” — albeit post-biblical — is סנהדרין. It neatly encapsulates the irony of those who fear interaction with the secular world as damaging to living a halachic life.

  11. To MiMedinat Hayam: What authority can you cite in saying that ‘chashmal is…light in yechezkel’?

  12. I recently wrote a manuscript about Biblical Hebrew. Anyone that is interested in reading it just need to request it by e-mail. Here are the first two pages
    Advanced Comprehension of Biblical Hebrew: The consequence of utilizing linguistic analytical tools.

    Avner Ramu

    The Bible is the most important book in the history of Western civilization, and also the most difficult to interpret. It has been the vehicle of continual conflict, with every interpretation reflecting passionately held views that have affected not merely religion, but politics, art, and even science.

    (From the promo of Robert Carroll’s book: The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. 1998).


    Introduction 3
    The problem of spacing 35
    Choosing vowel letters 56
    The Hebrew letter ע (y’) – an unrecognized vowel letter? 97
    להט – לעט (Set ablaze or Devour?) 113
    Phrase erosion and fusion into fewer words 117
    Script related errors 130
    My name is Avner and not Avnel 151
    Similar sounding letters 157
    Interchange between the bilabials ב – פ (B – P) 172
    Interchange between the velars ג – כ – ק (G – K – Q) 178
    Interchange of Dentals ד – ת – ט (D – Th – T) 190
    Interchange between Sibilants 199
    Sibilants’ alternative letters 222
    Grammar related errors 245
    A tree that was pleasant to make one wise? 250
    Ashamed or dressed (or tardy)? 252
    Order-type errors 254
    מכבר – מרכב (A grating or a chariot like structure?) 286
    פרכת -כפרת (Veil – Ark-cover) 289
    Letter insertion 293
    Letter deletion 305
    Letter substitution 328
    ברכים – ירכים (Knees or thighs?) 375
    גחון – גרון (Belly or a throat?) 378
    זעת – זעם (Sweat or anger?) 379
    The shaft of his spear was like a weavers’ beam? 381
    The N-words 383
    The dove’s sword 396
    Dual meaning 404
    Buoyant or being observed? 406
    Conflicting information 408
    Modern Hebrew 419
    Conclusion 424

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