Hebrew, the historic language that forms a bridge across time

The story of Hebrew By Lewis Glinert Princeton University Press, £22.99


Lewis Glinert takes the reader on a journey through time and geography, science and philosophy, politics and spirituality, in order to open our eyes to the wonderfully complex world that is the Hebrew language. 

What does lashon kodesh really mean? Is it the language that God spoke to create the world? Is it the single most important piece from which Jewish identity emerges? All these and more are explored in a fascinating study that reads easily and wears its scholarship lightly.

We see how the Talmud records the death of the spoken vernacular Hebrew, how the ancient colloquial pronunciations and variations which differ from the Masoretic text can still be found, how a “linguistic layer cake” lies under the surface of what is now accepted grammar. 

Hebrew scientific writing began in Italy; Spain was the home of Hebrew poetry, but Hebrew also underpinned the written words of medicine, philosophy, astronomy and science as well as its more familiar use in religious texts.

Glinert introduces us to Church Fathers, to medieval monks and Christian Kabbalists, all of whom had their own uses for Hebrew. He explains its role in Renaissance and Reformation, how it was adopted by Puritan New England who saw themselves as part of the ten lost tribes. The mysteries so many were certain were wrapped up in its syntax, its alphabet, its very being, meant that Hebrew continued to live not only in Jewish texts and prayers but also in the libraries of assorted scholars and mystics. 

He explores what the language meant to those who possessed it during the two millennia it had slipped out of its role as a mother tongue. Hebrew accompanied the Jewish people in our long diaspora; it formed a bridge between the many communities and kept a link to our sacred beginnings. Now once again a spoken language, Hebrew continues to embody our cultural heritage and distinctiveness, forming the ways we see the world. This book opens the window for us to see how, in its many facets, it does just that.

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