Is Hebrew the Jewish Language?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

We are accustomed to thinking of Hebrew — Ivris (or Ivrit) — as the Jewish language, the holy tongue of the Bible. Apparently, the Talmud disagrees.

Generally, Jewish ritual readings must be done in Hebrew. However, reading the megillah on Purim is an exception and may be done in any language, although the sages differ whether this permission is granted to people who also understand the text’s original language. However, a Talmudic example is surprising in its list of foreign languages (Megillah 18a, Soncino tr.):

If one reads it in Coptic to the Coptics, in Hebrew to the Hebrews, in Elamean to the Elameans, in Greek to the Greeks, he has performed his obligation.

What is this Hebrew that is considered a translation of the megillah rather than the primary Biblical text? Rashi (ad loc., sv. ivris) explains that this term comes from the language of “across the river.” This is not particularly helpful in identifying the language, especially since Midrash applies that description to Avraham (Bereishis Rabbah 42:13). Apparently, later readers equated this with Aramaic. Soncino, in its footnotes, suggests that Ivri is “a kind of Aramaic spoken by the Bene Eber.” Similarly, Jastrow (sv. ivri) translates it as “a trans-Euphratean (Aramaic)” language. These are presumably based on Rashi’s comment. I am not aware of any explanation other than some sort of trans-Euphrates language and people. Artscroll translates “Hebrew to the Hebrews” as “Ivris to the Ivrites,” indicating that this is not the Jewish language for the Jewish nation but a different language for a different people.

Tosefos Ha-Rosh (ad loc., sv. ivris la-ivrim) express puzzlement over the usage here of the term Hebrew to refer to a different language. In the current context, Ashuris refers to Hebrew and Ivris to a different language. However elsewhere the Talmud equates the two.

A different Talmudic passage (Sanhedrin 21b-22a) is relevant:

Originally the Torah was given to Israel in kesav Ivri (paleo-Hebrew characters) and in the holy lanugage. It was given again to them in Ezra’s time in kesav Ashuris (Assyrian characters) and in Aramaic. Israel selected for themselves kesav Ashuris and the Hebrew language… It was taught: Rebbe said: Torah was originally given to Israel in kesav Ashuris. When they sinned it was changed to Roetz (kesav Ivri). When they repented, kesav Ashuris was reintroduced… R. Shimon ben Elazar said in the name of R. Eliezer ben Parta, who said in the name of R. Elazar Hamodai: This writing was never changed…

I discuss the historical implications elsewhere (link). However, it appears that Ivris in this context means the Hebrew language, in contrast to Aramaic.

Tosefos Ha-Rosh quote the Ri who does not cite the above passage but cites the Tosefta (Megillah 2:2), in which R. Meir was unable to find a megillah written in Ivris, which clearly means Hebrew. Ri also cites the Talmud Yerushalmi (Megillah 1:9) that equates Ivris with the holy language.

Ritva (Megillah 8b sv. ein bein) points out that the Talmud and Midrash, on various occasions, calls the Biblical language Ashuris, Ivri and Lashon Ha-Kodesh. However, Ritva continues, Ivri does not primarily refer to Heberew. He cites our passage (“Hebrew to the Hebrews”) as proof. The Rashba (Megillah 8b sv. u-tefillin) adds “וכן נהגו הכל לקרא ללשון הקדש עברי, everyone calls the holy language Ivri.” However, neither Tosefos Ha-Rosh, Ritva nor Rashba explain what else Ivri can mean. All we know is that in Talmudic times the term Ivris referred primarily to a different language and by the thirteenth century, in Rashba’s Spain, the modern usage of equating it with Hebrew was already in practice.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

35 comments

  1. Meir Weingarten

    Gil,
    sorry but it’s a pet peeve of mine:
    especially in an article devoted to our language, the correct form is L’shon Hakodesh not lashon hakodesh, as it is “smichut” i.e. a sh’va under the lamed not a kamatz

  2. I don’t have time to check this evening, but Even Shoshan also points to B. Megila 18a: כנוי ללשון הארמית שהיתה מדברת בתקופת התנאים והאמודאים

  3. I’m a little confused on the relevance of the passage from Sanhedrin regarding ksav Ivri, as that is – obviously – discussing the script, whereas the passage in Megillah, “ivris la-ivrim” is talking about a spoken language.

    A source that may have some bearing on this puzzle is the passage in Philo (Life of Moses II, VII) where he describes the translation of the Torah into Greek from the original “Chaldaic”(!).

  4. It’s worth pointing out that according to many, certain books of Tanach were originally written in Aramaic and translated. I believe they include Iyov, Kohelet, Divrei HaYamim, and the Hebrew parts of Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah. I don’t think Esther is on the list, though, but it *does* contain a lot of loan words from Persian.

  5. I don’t recall Dr Steiner being convinced by this, but I wrote it years back and it seems like an interesting tangent to the post above:

    http://mevaseretzion.blogspot.com/2007/03/which-achashverosh-that-achashverosh.html

  6. By the way, maybe “Ivrim” means “people who speak Hebrew.” Most Jews spoke another language (Greek or Aramaic mostly) back then, so those who spoke Hebrew (the lower classes in Israel, right?) would have been just another category.

  7. It’s worth pointing out that according to many, certain books of Tanach were originally written in Aramaic

    Nachum,
    like who?

  8. People who know language. 🙂 Seriously, it’s under the “Bible” entry in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, which was written by Nahum Sarna; it’s also mentioned (with sources), about Kohelet specifically, in the introduction to the JPS Commentary volume on Ecclesiastes, although the author there is not so sure of the theory.

    It goes to questions of “vorlage,” that is, original languages underlying translations. For example, there’s a field of determining what Hebrew underlay the various Greek and Aramaic translations, and how similar and/or different it was to our Hebrew text.

    Of course, lots of Tanach is “translated”- there are many conversations that we know must have taken place in other languages and appear in Tanach in Hebrew. This would include (almost?) every spoken line in Bereishit, much of the rest of the Torah, and any conversation with a non-Israelite in the rest of Tanach. Achashverosh didn’t speak Hebrew. 🙂

  9. in the tenach the language spoken by the Jews was called יהודית [yiddish?:-)]. see מלכים ב chapter 18 verse 28.

  10. “Generally, Jewish ritual readings must be done in Hebrew.” – is this an accurate or correct statement? what is generally – besides birkat kohanim and bikurim (maybe arami oved too) is it really generally – “must”…. does torah reading must be done in hebrew? (please see a gemera that reding a torah written in greek as acceptable and kosher torah – forgot the source.) is must be done the exception or the rule?

  11. sam kahan:

    Indeed, also Yeshayahu 36:11,13 or Nechemiah 13.:24.

  12. Note that those references are to Yehuda or Jews from there.

  13. I neglected to include R. Reuven Margoliyos’s suggestion that this is a copyists’ error and it should be Aravis for Aravim, meaning Arabic for those who speak Arabic. Margoliyos Ha-Yam 22a:5

  14. Ruvie: See Mishnah Sotah 7:1-2

  15. GIL:

    “Generally, Jewish ritual readings must be done in Hebrew”

    the most common hebrew ritual i can think of is davening. who says that “must” be done in hebrew (with perhaps exception of part of shema)

  16. Nachum,

    While the tribe of Yehuda gave name to the southern kingdom, in the references above Yehudim is clearly used as synonymous with Israelites (just like today) and their language was Yehudis (unlike today, except for ashkenazi German).

  17. Shimon, the first two references are to the same story, and are about the people who live in Yerushalayim after the Northern Kingdom was exiled. At most, it could refer to the Southern dialect; at least, it may just be an expression. By the time of Ezra, they were all from Yehuda.

  18. Nachum,

    Southern dialect as opposed to what? Early Samaritan Hebrew? Anyway, I’m not sure what difference does it make. The language is called Yehudis, not Ivris. Obviously, it is called Yehudis because it was used by Yehudim (Judeans or Jews).

  19. gil -Generally, Jewish ritual readings must be done in Hebrew.” – is this an accurate or correct statement?
    Ruvie: See Mishnah Sotah 7:1-2

    thank you for the reference: it would seem that your statement needs to be modified based on that misnah (and the halachot that come from it). very few – hardly any – of our rituals that occur regularly need to be said in hebrew including tefilah, kriyat shmah, birchat hamazon, haggadah (sippur yeziat mitzraim, and berachot on most rituals – where there is an act – that we day on a regular basis(shofar, lulav, sukah etc).

    it seems comprehension is more important than the hebrew language except:

    “The following ritual texts must be recited in the Holy Tongue (i.e., Hebrew): the first fruit declaration, chalitzah, the original blessings and curses, the priestly benediction, the blessing of the high priest, the passage chanted by the king, the passage recited during eglah arufah, and the speech made by the War-priest at the time of battle.”

    seems like a small list to state “Generally, jewish ritual readings must be done in hebrew” ?

  20. “Southern dialect as opposed to what? Early Samaritan Hebrew?”

    Well, we know there were different pronunciations based on the shibbolet story. More importantly, we know there was a Northern dialect based on certain kri/ktivs in Melachim- the story of the Shunamit, for example, where we see that the second person feminine was used for multiple situations.

    “Anyway, I’m not sure what difference does it make. The language is called Yehudis, not Ivris. Obviously, it is called Yehudis because it was used by Yehudim (Judeans or Jews).”

    Hebrew, by the way, is a dialect of Canaanite. (Some Neviim mention this.) Semites are called “Bnei Ever” in Noach, so it’s possible that “Ivri” referred to more than just Bnei Yisrael/Jews. Some explain Egyptian references to “Habiru” and the idea of an Eved Ivri with this. Perhaps the use of “Yehudit” is due to that.

  21. Since no one has suggested this, I’ll throw out this conjecture. Ivrit here refers to remnants of whatever Canaanite dialects still existed in the region at the time of that Beraita.

  22. Nachum,

    “Hebrew, by the way, is a dialect of Canaanite. (Some Neviim mention this.)”

    Which Neviim?

    “Perhaps the use of “Yehudit” is due to that.”

    Well, yes. But that does not explain the reversal in the Amoraic (Tanaic) period. The list in Meggila 18a is pretty updated. “Arabic” would make much more sense. But I didn’t find any ancient manuscripts supporting that reading.

  23. S.,

    The list has some pretty important languages and I doubt that some “Canaanite dialects” (whatever that means in the 2nd and 3rd century) would make it there.

    My guess would be that just as “Elamean” might mean a group of Persian languages, “Ivris” might describe a group of Semitic languages (such a Idumean, Nabatean or Arabic).

  24. “The list has some pretty important languages and I doubt that some “Canaanite dialects” (whatever that means in the 2nd and 3rd century) would make it there.”

    I mean whatever was still spoken in Phoenicia, Transjordan or whatever. Punic still existed.

    “My guess would be that just as “Elamean” might mean a group of Persian languages, “Ivris” might describe a group of Semitic languages (such a Idumean, Nabatean or Arabic).”

    That’s basically what I meant. By analogy, look at the Nabetean alphabet. It’s nearly as readable as Hebrew.

    As R. R. Margoliyot’s conjecture – maybe. But I don’t think there is another example of the term “Arabic” appearing in Shas. Not that there is another example of Coptic.

  25. אמר רבה בר בר חנה יומא חד הוה אזלינא בהדי ההוא טייעא הוה דרינא טונא ואמר לי שקול יהביך ושדי אגמלאי

  26. S.:

    “I mean whatever was still spoken in Phoenicia.”

    Oh, of course. Punic was well and alive at that time. So might have been other Phoenician communities. Good point.

    Some examples of Arabs in Shas. As for Arabic, I’m not sure.

    Yoma 47 a

    אמרו עליו על רבי ישמעאל בן קמחית פעם אחת סיפר דברים עם ערבי אחד בשוק ונתזה צינורא מפיו על בגדיו ונכנס ישבב אחיו ושמש תחתיו

    Avodah Zara 22 b

    וא”ר ירמיה מדיפתי אני ראיתי ערבי אחד שלקח ירך מן השוק וחקק בה כדי רביעה רבעה צלאה ואכלה

    Gittin 81 a

    א”ר דוסא וכי מה עשה לה ערבי זה מפני שמיעך לה בין דדיה פסלה מן הכהונה

  27. There are a great many examples of Arabs in Shas. Arabic, while I do not know Shas, I know how to search Shas. 😉

    Admittedly I have not searched the Tosefta or Yerushalmi properly, but I don’t think there is such an explicit, comparable term as “ערבית לערבים,” which is what R. Reuven Margoliyos was suggesting. The Arabs should daven ma’ariv? It’s a reshus.

    I can’t decide which is the more difficult reading though.

  28. Fred, I’m not sure if you’re joking, but “Aravi” could mean “Jew who speaks Arabic.” You sometimes see the claim today that Jews can be Arabs (if Christians can).

    Shimon: The only pasuk that comes to mind offhand is Yechezkel 16:3.

  29. Why is Ivri, as referenced from the Babylonian Talmud referring to people on the other side of the Euphrates and not the other side of the Jordan?

  30. Do you mean east or west?

    By that point, “Ivri” ceased having its literal meaning (if it ever had it) and meant what it does today.

    In the Persian Empire, the “Ever HaNahar” province was everything west of the Euphrates.

  31. Why did I even ask…

  32. Nachum

    “Fred, I’m not sure if you’re joking, but “Aravi” could mean “Jew who speaks Arabic.” You sometimes see the claim today that Jews can be Arabs (if Christians can).”

    Sure. ערביות יוצאות רעולות. I’m just saying that you don’t find other references to a language called ערבית (Arabic) in the Talmud. Of course that alone is insufficient, since it could well be that this is the only time that the Talmud “needed” to mention Arabic. The problem is that it says Ivrit, not Aravit.

    For what it’s worth, Rodkinson’s translation reads “old Hebrew,” whatever that is supposed to mean, although it may be similar to what I was suggesting.

  33. MiMedinat HaYam

    you dont distinguishe between ashurit meaning a ktav (alphabet), not a language.

    also ivri meaning a nationality, not a language. ivrit is a language. (by the way, rav meir kahana hy”d used to say, if not for emporer justinian, we would be fighting the judean terrorists, not the palestinian terrorists.)

    also, “ever hanahar” refers to the east bank of the yarden, which is also part of israel (“shtei gadot, hayarden, hu shelanu, hu gam ken”.)

  34. Ereh B'nechama

    Nachum, do you think before you make ridiculous statements and incorrect broad generalizations? I pray, for your children’s sake, you not disagree with what they learn

  35. When did I do that?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: