Biblical Hebrew

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Biblical Hebrew, also called Classical Hebrew, is an archaic form of the Hebrew language in which the Hebrew Bible and various Israelite inscriptions were written.

It is not spoken in its pure form today, although it is often studied by Jews, Christian theologians, linguists, and Israeli archaeologists to help them gain a deeper understanding of the Hebrew Bible and Semitic philology. Classical Hebrew is also generally taught in public schools in Israel.

Biblical Hebrew and modern Hebrew differ with respect to grammar, vocabulary, and phonology. Although Modern and Biblical Hebrew's grammatical laws often differ, Biblical Hebrew is sometimes used in Modern Hebrew literature, much as archaic and Biblical constructions are used in Modern English literature.



This article describes the Biblical dialects of Hebrew. These flourished between the 12th and 6th centuries BCE and comprise all of the Hebrew Bible but for several Aramaic sections and isolated loanwords.

The precise meaning of the term Biblical Hebrew varies with context and may refer to any of the following:

  • all Hebrew dialects found in the Hebrew Bible, including the Archaic Biblical, Biblical, and Late Biblical Hebrew dialects
  • the Hebrew of only the corpus of the Hebrew Bible itself, not including other texts - such as inscriptions - that use related Hebrew dialects
  • Tiberian Hebrew, also called Masoretic Hebrew, which is an early-medieval vocalization of the Hebrew Bible's ancient consonantal text

From a linguistic point of view, the Classical Hebrew language is usually divided into two periods: Biblical Hebrew, and Roman Era Hebrew, having very distinct grammatical patterns.

Biblical Hebrew is further divided into the so called 'Golden Age' Hebrew (before 500 BCE) and 'Silver Age' Hebrew (500 BCE to 60 BCE). Silver Age Hebrew has many borrowings from Aramaic, for example the use of the conditional particle ˈilluː (אִלּוּ) replacing luː (לוּ). Another shibboleth between the two is the use of the relative pronoun ʔaˈʃer (אֲשֶר) (introducing a Restrictive clause, 'that') in the earlier period, being replaced with the clitic ʃe- (-שֶ) in the later, both being used in Mishnaic and Modern Hebrew.

Roman Era Hebrew, or Mishnaic Hebrew, was further influenced by Greek and Persian, mainly through the dialect of Aramaic which was the Lingua franca of the area at the time.

Modern adaptions of Classical Hebrew are in active use today, mostly in the form of various modern Jewish dialects of Hebrew, as well as Samaritan Hebrew language, which is used primarily by the Samaritans.

As Biblical-Hebrew vocalization is derived from the Masoretic system applied to ancient texts, Biblical Hebrew is somewhat a mixture of these elements. It is the mixed language that is discussed in this article.

Most words in Biblical Hebrew are derived from a three letter root usually given in the Qal perfect 3rd masculine singular form. There are exceptions to this rule though most of these are loan words from non-Semitic roots. For most English speaking readers who use the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon it is this three letter root word that must be looked up to find a definition.

Descendant languages


Template:IPA notice The phonology as reconstructed for Biblical Hebrew is as follows:


Name Letter Phoneme and Allophone (IPA)
’āleph א /ʔ/
bēṯ ב /b/ - v allophonically1
gîmel ג /ɡ/ - ɣ allophonically1
dāleṯ ד /d/ - ð allophonically1
ה /h/, null at the end of words.2
wāw ו /w/, null after /o/ or /u/ 2
zayin ז /z/
ḥēṯ ח /ħ/, (/χ/3)
ṭēṯ ט //
yōḏ י /j/, null after /ɛ/, /e/, or /i/2
kaph כ, ך /k/ - x allophonically1
lāmeḏh ל /l/
mēm מ, ם /m/
nûn נ, ן /n/
sāmeḵh ס /s/
ayin ע /ʕ/, (/ɣ/3)
pēh' פ, ף /p/ - f allophonically1
tṣāḏēk צ, ץ //
qōph ק // (or /q/)
rēšh ר /ɾ/ (trilled like in Arabic)
śhîn/šîn/ ש /ɬ/, s, /ʃ/
tāph ת /t/ - θ allophonically1
  1. Begedkefet spirantization developed sometime during the lifetime of Biblical Hebrew under the influence of Aramaic<ref>Or perhaps Hurrian, but this is unlikely, c.f. Dolgoposky 1999, pp. 72-73.</ref>. Its terminus post quem can be found by noting that the Old Aramaic phonemes /θ, ð/ disappeared in the 7th century BC.<ref>Dolsopolsky 1999, p. 72.</ref> Its terminus ante quem in Hebrew is the 2nd century CE.<ref>Dolgopolsky 1999, p. 73.</ref> It is unclear whether they should be considered allophones or separate phonemes, since after a certain development of schwa minimal pairs became theoretically possible (if almost unattested).<ref>Dolgopolsky 1999, p. 74.</ref>
  2. mater lectionis
  3. These merged with /ħ, ʕ/ respectively at some stage, but from Greek transcriptions it is clear that they were distinguished at some point in the life of Classical Hebrew (e.g. Gaza vs. Ezra). It is unlikely that this merger occurred after begedkefet spirantization, or else /x, χ/ and /ɣ, ʁ/ would have to be contrastive, which is cross-linguistically rare.


The original Hebrew alphabet consisted only of consonants (see Semitic languages). The vowel signs and pronunciation currently accepted for Biblical Hebrew were created by scholars known as Masoretes after the 5th century AD. These scholars are thought also to have standardized various dialectal differences.<ref>Template:Cite encyclopedia</ref>

However, it is clear that Classical Hebrew's vowel inventory was not identical to that notated by the Masoretes. For instance, /e/ and /ē/ were both indicated with a tzeire in the Masoretic text, but in Greek transcription (LXX, Origen, etc.) are written with epsilon and eta respectively. This is also backed up by etymological and internal data.<ref>Dolgopolsky 1999, p. 14.</ref>


  • Bonnie Pedrotti Kittel, Vicki Hoffer, and Rebecca Abts Wright, Biblical Hebrew: A Text and Workbook Yale Language Series; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989.
  • book|last = Dolgopolsky|first = Aron| title = From Proto-Semitic to Hebrew| year = 1999 | publisher = Centro Studi Camito-Semitici di Milano | location = Milan
  • Kautzsch, E. (ed.) Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar. Eng. ed. A. E. Cowley. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910.
  • Lambdin, Thomas O. Introduction to Biblical Hebrew. London: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971.
  • Würthwein, Ernst. The Text of the Old Testament (trans. Erroll F. Rhodes) Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eardmans Publishing. 1995. ISBN 0-8028-0788-7.


  1. ISBN 1-56563-206-0 Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon by Francis Brown, S. Driver, C. Briggs

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