Hebrew (Hebrew: Ivrit ) is a Semitic language whose ancestry goes back at least to 1700 BCE. There are principally two variants of Hebrew: Classical Hebrew, the language in which the Torah (the five books of Moses) was written, and Modern Hebrew, a somewhat artificial reconstruction and "modernization" of Classical Hebrew for use by Jews in Palestine after 1900 e.v.
|The Hebrew Alphabet|
|א||Aleph||Ox||A or E||1|
|ו||Vau||Nail||U, V, W or O||6|
|י||Yod||Hand||I, E or Y||10|
|ק||Qoph||Back of Head||Q (soft)||100|
|Table of contents|
Roots of Hebrew
As a Semitic language, Hebrew shares roots with Aramaic and Arabic. Indeed, many similarities between the languages still exist. E.g., Class Heb. achad, Mod. Heb. echat, Arabic wahad, "one;" Mod. Heb. shalom, Arabic salaam, "peace." It is also linguistically related to Caananite and Phoenician, two of the languages in use in Caanan at the time of the Exodus from Egypt to Palestine, having evolved from the same root language.
Classical ("Biblical") Hebrew and the rise of Aramaic over Hebrew
The first evidence of a distinct Hebrew language is the Gezer calendar, which dates to the 10th century BCE, believed to be about the time of King David and Solomon. This calendar was written in a Phoenician script (the ancestor of our modern Roman/English alphabet) but without vowels or indication of use of vowels, as Hebrew was written for centuries. There is no clear record of when the written Torah or the Tanakh (the complete "Old Testament") was first written; the eariest written texts come from the Dead Sea Scrolls and date to about 100 BCE.
In 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylon captured Jerusalem and took the two tribes of Judah into captivity in Babylon as slaves. At that time, Aramaic was the language of Babylon; the Jews taken as captives quickly learned it as their lingua franca with their captors. (The "ten lost tribes of Israel" presumably were scattered and co-mingled with their Phoenician and other neighbors, unless one accepts the Mormon concept that they emigrated from Palestine to what is now modern-day New York State.)
Several decades after the capture of Jerusalem, Babylon was captured in turn by Darius of Persia. Darius had adopted Aramaic as his empire's language as well. Although Darius allowed the Jews to return to Palestine, by this time their everyday language had become Aramaic. Hebrew became a language of religion and scholarship, but even major religious works were written in Aramaic. Indeed, the Talmud, the second most important work in Judaism after the TNKH (Tanakh), is largely written in Aramaic.
Hebrew as an academic and religious language
After the Diaspora, when Jews were driven from Palestine after the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 e.v., Jews adopted the language of whatever country they lived in. But throughout that time, Hebrew remained the one language of scholarship and of the Torah (many of the books of the Prophets were written in Aramaic). Pronunciation of Hebrew differed widely among scholars, especially along the division between Asheknazy (Central European), Sephardic (Iberian and north African) rabbis, and rabbis from the Mesopotamian area. That division is still in evidence in modern Hebrew: speakers of Hebrew in Israel have been known to make fun of immigrants from central Europe for their "Ashkenazy"—meaning "hick" —accent.
Nevertheless, despite all differences in the pronunciation of the texts, the texts themselves remained a common bond for Jews. As noted above, Hebrew was originally written without vowels and little indication as to the vowels which might connect consonants. (This, of course, contributed to the confusion on pronunciation). About the eighth centure e.v., and thanks to the work of rabbis called masoretes, a system of indicating vowels and stress on syllables arose. The modern written Hebrew language comes directly from the Masorete script.
The birth of modern Hebrew
Hebrew as a spoken, living language was dormant from the time of the Babylonian Exile until the end of the 19th century e.v. As Zionism arose, so did interest in reviving Hebrew as a distinct language unique to Jews. Rabbi Eliezer ben Yehuda (1858-1922 e.v.) led the movement to modernize Hebrew and to use it among Jews moving into Palestine after 1900 e.v. Modern Hebrew is a living language whose foundations are in the Torah, on which have been grafted transplants from every nation in which Jews have lived. Ironically enough, as Hebrew was being brought into the 20th century, its scholars often chose Arabic root stock for new words over European language bases.
Modern Hebrew is now one of the two official languages of the State of Israel, along with Arabic. New immigrants to Israel spend several months in a special school (the Ulpan ) where they learn fundamental modern Hebrew as well as the laws and customs of Israel.
Hebrew for the Thelemite
A knowledge of written Hebrew, or at least the pre-Masorete letters, is indispensable for understanding the Qabalah. While familiarity with grammar and long sentence construction is not absolutely necessary, one must be able to recognize the letters and put them together for words in order to apply Gematria properly. The more familiar one is with Hebrew and its vocabulary, the more connections one will recognize between words, and the more efficiently one can apply Gematria.
The Thelemite studying Hebrew in-depth will almost certainly want to study classical ("biblical") Hebrew rather than modern Hebrew. The Hebrew words and concepts that have worked their way into Thelema, Qabalah, and hermetic magick in general come from classical Hebrew; their modern spelling and pronunciation may be confusing.
- Hebrew Memorization Keypad (http://www.scarletwoman.org/scarletletter/v7n2/v7n2_hebrew.html)