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It's been variously suggested on this site that the difference between Biblical Hebrew and modern Hebrew is like either the difference between:

  1. Old English and modern English
  2. Shakespeare's English (Early modern English) and modern English.

Which of these is the better analogy, and if it is the second, is it also fair to suggest that Old English versus modern English is like Aramaic versus modern Hebrew? Does knowledge (and fluency) in modern Hebrew translate to knowledge of Biblical Hebrew?


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I almost posted this exact question today. And where do we count Mishnaic Hebrew in here (that of the Talmudic era)? It is between the two in time and different from Biblical Hebrew in several ways. –  Frank Luke Oct 26 '12 at 20:54
The mention of Aramaic is misplaced: as Eli Rosencruft indicates, Aramaic is not the same as Hebrew at any date: it is a separate language (or group of languages) quite closely related to Hebrew, but distinct from it - perhaps a suitable analogy would be Dutch to English, except that English has had a lot of its vocabulary replaced from French. Two prominent differences are that definite forms are made in Aramaic by suffixing -ah rather than by prefixing ha-; and the relative marker di corresponds to she-, asher and sometimes ke- in Hebrew –  Colin Fine Oct 27 '13 at 1:23
@FrankLuke: The variety of English between Old English and Early Modern English is Middle English. It's the language Chaucer wrote in. So it's even harder for a native English speaker to understand than Shakespeare, but it doesn't look like a dialect of German the way Old English does. Beowulf is written in Old English. –  hippietrail Jan 12 '14 at 14:38

3 Answers 3

As a hebrew speaker, I can tell you that most people are not capable of understanding biblical hebrew. It sounds different, and the words are different. Yet, a lot of people study bible (the old testament) during school. I also need to say that the modern hebrew letters are quite different than the ancient (there are many types of ancient hebrew). I will use fore and example Paleo-Hebrew which was the hebrew spoken and written at around the 10th century BCE (king david's era) in this Wikipedia link you can see the difference.


I wish to differ from the opinions given above. Although the answers present a more scholarly perspective and more references than what I have to offer - I think it is important to remember the cultural context. The Hebrew Bible is being taught in Israel throughout all years of schooling, which means that most MIH speakers are well acquainted with BH in a more intuitive way. I assume that Shakespeare, if to use the comparison, is read only in more advanced classes, and thus its language is foreign to ME speakers, more than BH to MIH speakers. To prove my point, looking at the two examples given in the first answer - there is no way a MIH speaker will understand galash as skiing (which is by the way used as descend in MIH as well) or gamal as camel. The meaning would be perfectly clear to most MIH speakers, simply because they have learned the other meaning early in their lives. Also, as a mostly Jewish society, the Hebrew Bible is very present in daily life use - it is often quoted, alluded, and part of the common mythical associations. So as much as it is a different language - it is available for someone who grew up in the MH-Israeli education system. Yet I agree there is room for errors, basing one's reading only on MIH.

this is very interesting food for thought, thanks! –  Jack Douglas Oct 25 '13 at 13:01
Ella, "ME" means "Middle English", not "Modern English". Middle English is the language of Chaucer, quite a bit older than Shakespeare's Early Modern English. I actually don't know if there's an acronym or abbreviation for "Modern English". –  hippietrail Jan 12 '14 at 14:47

From this Hebrew article from the Haaretz newspaper dated September 5, 2008, titled "The Bible in translation to Modern Hebrew", with subtitle "87 year-old teacher publishes 14 pamphlets with a translation of the Bible [OT] to modern Hebrew raises controversy in the education system", you can see that Biblical Hebrew is not easy for Israeli kids to read. However, the fact that the article is from 2008 shows that until now no one thought that the difficulty was so great that our kids needed a translation. In any event, the article is talking about the secular schools. In the religious school system there is no question, the Masoretic text is used and kids do fine with it.

The IDF still gives out Masoretic text OT's to each new inductee, and commanders still quote from it, as do politicians.

I would say that the metric between modern and OT Hebrew, in its various dialects, is like modern English to Shakespeare's English, not modern English to Chaucer's English. The metric of Hebrew to Aramaic is like French to Italian.

There are several languages that we call Aramaic - Daniel, Jonathan, Onkelos, Talmudic, Syriac and modern. The Aramaic of Daniel and the Jonathan targum is apparently the vernacular of the first century and earlier. The Aramaic of the Onkelos targum and the Talmud are a similar, maybe later dialect. I can read Onkelos and even speak a little Talmudic Aramaic, as can most Israeli men trained in the religious education system. We sometimes use a silly pidgin of this language to speak privately in the presence of children, wives or secular Israelis. I have difficulty with Daniel and with targum Jonathan and need a dictionary. In the Old City of Jerusalem there is an Armenian community that speaks a modern Aramaic. We do not understand it either in writing or spoken. The Syriac Peshita is another form of Aramaic that we can read with the help of a dictionary though it is more challenging than targum Jonathan.

Apart from the problems of vocabulary and grammar, there is a stylistic problem and a cultural problem. Some of the OT (e.g. Job, Psalms) is written in a literary style that would make it a difficult read even if it were in modern Hebrew. Other parts such as Songs and proverbs have cultural references that are foreign to the modern mind.

The Mishnah is "easy Hebrew" for the speaker of modern Hebrew, apart from the subject matter, which requires a commentary to follow. The style of the Mishnah is simple, mnemonic prose, not at all "literary". It does have an ample sprinkling of Greek and Latin terms that require footnotes.

Thanks this is a very useful answer. –  Jack Douglas Nov 11 '12 at 17:13

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