Our Languages

Hebrew at Rutgers

hebrewHebrew, the language of the scriptures venerated by both Jews and Christians, and one of the official languages of the State of Israel, is a Semitic language closely related to Aramaic and Arabic. It was originally the language of the Israelite tribes who, roughly at the beginning of the first millennium BCE, established a united kingdom in the area today occupied by the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories. The first inscriptions in Hebrew belong to the same period. Hebrew was originally written in a form of the Phoenician script, but under Achaemenid rule (576-330 BCE) it came to be written in the Aramaic script, in which the Hebrew Bible was later redacted and which continued to be associated with Hebrew and Jewish languages until the present day, apart from a brief revival of the original Palaeo-Hebrew script under the Maccabees (164 BCE to 63 BCE). The Samaritans, a religious community closely related to the Jews, also preserves their own version of the Hebrew Bible in a form of the original script.

In addition to the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, Biblical Hebrew is also the language of many of the “Dead Sea Scrolls” discovered at Wadi Qumran. The earliest rabbinic literature was also composed in Hebrew during the period before it ceased to be spoken as a first language and was largely relegated to the religious sphere, around the second century of the Common Era. The Hebrew of these texts is known as Mishnaic Hebrew, after the earliest and most authoritative collection of oral law and interpretation surrounding the scriptures. Uniquely among the languages of the world, Hebrew was revived as a common language in the latter half of the 19th century and is today spoken as a first language by over five million people.

The study of Hebrew has a respectable antiquity in America and at Rutgers more specifically. Many of the Puritan Fathers were learned Hebraists, and maintained journals and correspondence in Hebrew. The Hebrew Bible was a fundamental part of the core curriculum in America’s first colleges (alongside the study of the Greek and Latin Classics), and Hebrew continues to be the most commonly studied “Less Commonly Taught Language” (LCTL) in the United States.

If you are interested in taking Hebrew at Rutgers, the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures currently offers Modern Hebrew through the advanced level and a year of Biblical Hebrew in cooperation with the Department of Jewish Studies.