Categorized | Jewish Religion, Reiss_Fred

Book Review: ‘A Social History of Hebrew’

A Social History of Hebrew: Its Origins Through the Rabbinic Period by William M. Schniedewind; Yale University Press, New HavenISBN 978-0-300-167668-1 ©2013, $45.00, p. 261, including notes, bibliography, and index

By Fred Reiss, Ed.D.

Fred Reiss, Ed.D

Fred Reiss, Ed.D

WINCHESTER, California–William Schniedewind, UCLA professor of Mediterranean studies, Near Eastern languages, and the Bible, and author of A Social History of Hebrew explains that his motivation for writing this book is based on a statement he heard at a lecture many years ago: “I am only interested in the languages, not the people who spoke them.” For Schniedewind the purpose of studying languages is “to understand people, their societies, and their culture.”

A spoken language is not the same as its written language, since spoken words precede its written form. Likewise, writing is not the spoken language since alphabetic characters often do double, and sometimes triple duty reproducing all possible sounds of a given tongue. Additionally, many languages use the same alphabet.  For example, there are over one hundred languages using the Latin script, everything from Afrikaans to English to Zazaki. Yet, despite these shortcomings, the written word is all that remains to investigate the spoken vernacular of ancient languages.

Traditionally, whenever God is recorded as speaking in the Bible, it is understood that God is communicating in Hebrew. It is also implicitly understood that Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, indeed, all the biblical characters spoke in Hebrew and that Hebrew ceased being the only language after the Tower of Babel incident. This belief is folklore for Schniedewind, who draws on scholarly research, recent discoveries in archeology, and portions of the Hebrew Bible to analyze the written record of ancient languages, especially Hebrew.

In A Social History of Hebrew, he examines ancient western Semitic languages in the context of the social and political forces fostering their birth, maturity, and ultimate demise as a living language. For Schniedewind, languages are part and parcel of a people’s social and cultural systems, and this is particularly true of the Jews and their language. I am a Californian who lives in America and speaks English. There is no connection between land, language, and people. In ancient times, on the other hand, a Yehudi, a Judean, lived in Yehuda, Judea, and spoke Yehudîte, Judaite. (The word Hebrew referring to a language is not biblical. It first appears in the Mishnah during the second century CE.)

Schniedewind starts in the second millennium BCE, when the Levant, biblical Canaan, was under Egyptian hegemony. During this time period, as a means of communicating with various nations speaking different languages, an alphabet, a pictorial representation of sounds, emerged. Studying the use and abandonment of written languages, such as Akkadian and Ugaritic, and the rise and fall of empires, like the Egyptians and Assyrians, Schniedewind pieces together the history of Hebrew, which built a foundation during the Davidic dynasty, but grew and blossomed from the eighth to the sixth centuries BCE.

Schniedewind asserts that Israel’s and Judah’s wars and exiles by the Assyrians and Babylonians respectively should have condemned the Hebrew language to a speedy end.  The archeological record after the sixth century BCE, taken together with certain passages from the books of Esther, Daniel, and Nehemiah show that Aramaic almost did completely replace Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews.

Beginning in the sixth century BCE, the Jews so thoroughly adopted and incorporated Aramaic into their society that Hebrew writing to this day uses Aramaic block letters, yet collectively the letters are known as the Hebrew alphabet. To prove his point, Schniedewind cites the Book of Nehemiah (8:8) where it says that the priests read from the Torah in Hebrew, and then translated it into Aramaic so that the listeners would get a sense of what is being said.

Schniedewind successfully argues that Hebrew survived in spite of the varying political environments under the Babylonians and Persians because Hebrew was the Jewish people’s symbol of “ethnicity, political legitimacy, and national autonomy.”  A similar theme is carried over into the Hellenistic period, where unlike the Persians, who used Aramaic as their lingua franca; the Greeks encouraged the use of multiple languages, reserving the Greek language as an essential and distinguishing characteristic of an elite Hellenistic culture. Under this relaxed atmosphere Hebrew scribal schools flourished. By the time of the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty, Hebrew became the official language of Judea.

Before closing out the social history of Hebrew, Schniedewind makes a wonderful digression, spending about half a chapter discussing the differences between Samaritan Hebrew, which emerged from the remnant of Jews left behind during the Babylonian Captivity; Qumran Hebrew, the Hebrew employed by the Essenes who wrote portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls; and Standard Biblical Hebrew. These versions of Hebrew tell how history and belief influence linguistic structure.

For Schniedewind, the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century BCE, which led to the destruction of the First Temple, should have turned out disastrously for the Hebrew language, but it survived owing to the Jewish cohesive national character. The telling event was the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Roman Empire in 135 CE. As a result of this insurrection, the Hebrew speaking communities of Judea were either destroyed or displaced and Hebrew ceased to be a living language. In its place arose a religious and literary language known as Rabbinic Hebrew, and its continuous use paved the way for the revival of Hebrew as a living language two thousand years later in the modern State of Israel.

Language revival is an astonishing feat, as the resurrection of a totally dead language turned into a modern national language has occurred only twice in all of recorded history, the Hebrew language in both cases.

A Social History of Hebrew is an intellectual study of how social ideas and external forces collide, resulting in the ebb and flow of language dominance. Occasionally, Schniedewind presents linguistic jargon that will send the interested reader to a dictionary, but which can be resolved in a future edition with a glossary of such terms. A reference table of sound abbreviations used in the book together with a sample word or two would also have been be most helpful. But these are minor criticisms. A Social History of Hebrew is an outstanding book for those inclined to reap the social and historical insights about the rise, fall, and rebirth of the Hebrew language.


Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil CalendarsAncient Secrets of Creation: Sepher Yetzira, the Book that Started Kabbalah, Revealed; and a fiction book, Reclaiming the Messiah. The author may be reached via  [email protected].



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3 Responses to “Book Review: ‘A Social History of Hebrew’”

  1. Edward Mills says:

    Am currently 3/4 trough this wonderful book.

  2. David Zohar says:

    Few people realize that modern Hebrew is spoken by two peoples:

    The Israelis

    The Palestinians


  3. Jay Shore says:


    Enjoyed review on Hebrew language.



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