Northern Hebrew in the Mishnah

Credit:, Galilee and the North

In Numbers 13, God commands Moses to send spies to explore the land of Canaan. “When Moses sent them to explore Canaan, he said, “Go up through the Negev and on into the hill country…So they went up and explored the land from the Desert of Zin as far as Rehob, toward Lebo Hamath. They went up through the Negev and came to Hebron, where Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the descendants of Anak, lived. Hebron had been built seven years before Zoan in Egypt. When they reached the Valley of Eshkol, they cut off a branch bearing a single cluster of grapes…At the end of forty days they returned from exploring the land.

This exploration occurred across a terrain that would later be marked by a significant linguistic divide between the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel, a divide that is reflected in biblical books that feature northern terms, such as the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 and the Book of Hosea. The Samaria Ostraca, with their northern dialect of Hebrew, further attest to this regional linguistic diversity. Gary Rendsburg’s research illuminates how elements of this northern Hebrew persisted in the development of Mishnaic Hebrew and, eventually, modern Hebrew.

Based on the available material, the evolution of the ancient Hebrew language can be broadly categorized into three stages: Standard Biblical Hebrew, Late Biblical Hebrew, and Mishnaic Hebrew.

Standard Biblical Hebrew, which predominates in texts from the period of the united monarchy through the early post-exilic period, just after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, is characterized by its relative homogeneity and the formal consistency found in earlier biblical texts. Late Biblical Hebrew, emerging in the texts from the later post-exilic period, exhibits a noticeable shift in vocabulary, grammar, and style, influenced by the Aramaic language and Persian administration of the time.

Mishnaic Hebrew, the Hebrew of the Mishnah, had a more expansive vocabulary, reflecting influences of the Aramaic, Greek, and Latin, languages predominant in the Near East, Hellenistic, and Roman periods, notably words that related to administration, technology and daily life. It also featured grammatical changes, with simplified verb forms and tenses, indicative of Aramaic influence. It also had a notable change in pronunciation patterns, inferred from alterations in spelling practices and transliterations in contemporaneous Greek and Latin texts.

The Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE) stands as a pivotal yet tragic chapter in Jewish history, marking the last of the major Jewish uprisings against the Roman Empire. Led by Simon Bar Kochba, whom many hailed as a messianic figure, the rebellion initially achieved significant successes, including the establishment of an independent state in parts of Judea for over two years. However, the Roman response was brutally efficient and overwhelming. Emperor Hadrian dispatched his best generals to crush the rebellion, leading to a prolonged and bloody campaign. The revolt’s defeat culminated in the catastrophic siege of Betar, Bar Kochba’s last stronghold, which fell in 135 CE. The aftermath was devastating: massive loss of life, widespread destruction, and significant socio-political changes, including the renaming of Judea to Syria Palestina in an attempt to sever the Jews’ connection to their homeland.

The defeat had far-reaching consequences for the Jewish communities in the region. Hadrian implemented harsh measures, including prohibitions on Jewish religious practices and study, which further decimated the already dwindling Jewish population in Judea. This repression forced surviving Jews to flee, with many settling in the Galilee, which became the new center of Jewish life and scholarship in the ensuing centuries. The geographic shift from Judea to the Galilee transformed Jewish communal and religious life. In this new setting, away from the devastated landscapes of their rebellions against Rome, Jewish sages and scholars laid the groundwork for the future of Judaism. The Galilee, with its relatively more tolerant Roman oversight, provided a fertile ground for the development of Jewish learning and the compilation of the Mishnah towards the end of the 2nd century CE. According to Gary Rendsburg, the Mishnah was compiled and written within a northern linguistic sphere, and thus absorbed elements of the northern dialect into the Hebrew that was carried forward and which became the basis for Modern Hebrew.

The image above is of Jotapata, Yodfat in Hebrew, in the Galilee.