Revistes Catalanes amb Accés Obert (RACO)

L'Aprenentatge de l'hebreu vers la fi del segle II dC

Philip S. Alexander


Nobody would dream of disputing that the ancient Rabbis spoke Hebrew,
nor that they did so very well. They had a comprehensive knowledge of the
Hebrew Bible and were perfectly capable of quoting it word for word at will.
They used Hebrew to write extensive biblical essays, which, while seemingly
extravagant by modern philological standards, show tremendous linguistic sensitivity.
It was they who passed on many of the traditions of Halakhah in Hebrew,
a tongue that they also used for prayer. Hebrew was so essential to their
religious identity, and they were so comfortable with its use, that it is easy to
forget that it was not their mother tongue but a second language that they acquired
through a great deal of hard work, a sacred language that was not part of
everyday life. So, how did they learn Hebrew?

Given that Aramaic was their mother tongue, it is highly unlikely that the
Rabbis were educated in Hebrew in the period in question. Simply stating that
they learned a great many Hebrew texts by heart and thus somehow came to
absorb the language is not a completely satisfactory explanation either. Likewise,
suggestions that they achieved such a high level of active knowledge of
Hebrew as a second language by using it in day-to-day life can be ruled out, as
they probably did not use it amongst themselves for everyday matters. Even
if they had done so, the Hebrew in which they wrote their literary works is
clearly not a colloquial, everyday form of the language.

The Rabbis proved to be actively proficient in the highest literary registers
of Hebrew. They could not have achieved that proficiency via osmosis as a result
of the repetition of texts, nor through the use of the colloquial variant of
the language spoken in marketplaces. Some kind of constant, systematic language
study was necessary. As so many of them attained such proficiency, the
path that they followed to that end must have been well trodden. Is it possible
to trace their steps along that path?

Despite their vast knowledge of Hebrew, there is no clear evidence of the
Rabbis ever having studied the languages grammar in any depth. We do not
even know if there were resources that would have enabled them to learn Hebrew,
such as the grammar guides, dictionaries and other similar works we take
for granted when studying a foreign language today.

Hebrew was learned through the Jewish education system, the raison dêtre
of which was to teach the language. Everything suggests that there were a great
many schools in Palestines Jewish towns in the latter days of the Second Temple
period and the subsequent Talmudic era.

The Bet Sefer syllabus was exclusively geared to teaching children to read the
Hebrew Bible. Schools were thus entirely religious and did not teach practical
skills that could be used for trade purposes. Those looking to learn a trade or a
craft were generally taught it by their father, another relative or a friend of the
family. When they began studying, pupils were encouraged to copy Hebrew
letters onto tablets to aid the development of their reading skills, although there
is nothing to suggest that calligraphy was part of the curriculum in its own
right. The art of the scribe was a trade, which, like any other, was learned outside
the primary school system. In Jewish society in rabbinic times, literacy basically
involved knowing how to read, not knowing how to write.

How did teachers go about their work? The first stage must have consisted
of memorising fragments of the Scripture. The second stage, part of which may
have taken place at the same time as the first, consisted of memorising the translation of the Hebrew Bible into the tongue spoken by the pupils (Aramaic,
in the case of Palestinian schools).

The translation in question was crucial in terms of learning Hebrew. It had
to be performed very carefully, so as to correlate each word with its original
counterpart to the greatest extent possible. Rabbinic sources appear to reflect
differences of opinion with regard to how the biblical text ought to be read.
There was a school of thought that a verse should not be split up but read in
full, as a whole. That meant that the Aramaic translation of each verse also had
to be recited as a whole. The Targum was certainly read in that manner in synagogues,
with each full verse of the Bible corresponding to a full verse in Aramaic.
Some people advocated following that practice at Bet Sefer establishments too.

It is important to know how the Rabbis studied Hebrew. The best answer to
the question posed above seems to be that they learned Hebrew in much the same
way as their non-Jewish contemporaries learned other foreign literary languages,
namely through memorisation and literal translation. In this respect, as in so many
others, the Rabbis practice dovetailed perfectly with those of Late Antiquity.

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