Hapax Legomenon – a Riddle


From Biblical to Modern Hebrew

Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda (7 January 1858 – 16 December 1922) is considered to be the father of modern Hebrew.

Ben Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman in Luzhki, Lithuania. He attended cheder where he studied Hebrew from the age of three. By the age of twelve, he had read large portions of the Torah, Mishna, and Talmud. His parents hoped he would become a rabbi and therefore sent him to a yeshiva. There, he continued to study ancient Hebrew and was also exposed to the Haskalah movement, including secular writings. Later, he learned French, German, and Russian.

Witnessing national movements towards independence in various European countries, and envisioning the Jews as a nation like the Bulgarians, Greeks and Italians, Ben-Yehuda became determined to help create a nation where the Jews could adopt Hebrew as their national language.

He moved Jerusalem in 1881 and immediately put his plan of Hebrew revival into action. He left behind his birth name and with his wife, Deborah Jonas, created the first Modern Hebrew-speaking household and raised the first modern Hebrew-speaking child, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda.

The Committee of the Hebrew Language (later the Academy of the Hebrew Language) was created by Ben-Yehuda as a means of furthering the development of Hebrew. Ben Yehuda recorded older Hebrew usage in Biblical writings and the Talmud as well as in more recent printed works.

A linguistic purist, Ben-Yehuda insisted that Modern Hebrew should coin new words (neologisms) based on ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and, where necessary, Arabic. In other words, he suggested that Hebrew should retain a strictly Semitic structure. This resulted in his sixteen-volume dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, Thesaurus Totius Hebraitatis, some of which were published posthumously.

Of him, the historian Cecil Roth wrote: ‘Before Ben-Yehuda… Jews could speak Hebrew; after him they did.’

Today’s modern Hebrew vocabulary reflects Ben-Yehuda’s work:

– Numerous words are similar to the Biblical words, both in meaning and spelling. For instance the word אוֹר (or) still means light. About 80% of Modern Hebrew is based on biblical Hebrew.
– Some words still exist but their meaning has evolved. For example בא (ba), used to be translated as both ‘to come’ and ‘to enter’, now it only means ‘to come’.
– New words were coined using existing roots. Thus the verb ייצא (yitze) – to export – was derived from יצא (yatza) – to go out.
– Finally sometimes Hebrew resorts to hapax legomena to create a word for a new object or concept.

What is a hapax legomenon? Can you provide an example of such a Hebrew word?

Hebrew Quiz II


The Maters Lectionis or in Hebrew imot kri’ah, in other words the letters mentioned in yesterday’s quiz – א ה ו י – were added before the Masoretes produced the Masoretic text – the authoritative Hebrew text of the Torah including its vocalization and accentuation.

When they added the diacritical notes – the little dots and signs which indicate the vowel sounds – why didn’t the Masoretes do away with א ה ו י? In other words they could have deleted the Mater Lectionis as they now had the vowel sounds expressed twice in a single syllable.

For instance, if you take a simple and well-known word: תּוֹרָה (Torah). The sound o is expressed both by the holam (the dot) and the vav while the ha sound is expressed twice thanks to the kamatz (the little sign) and the he.

Question 2:
Why did the Masoretes keep the Maters Lectionis?

Hebrew Quiz I


In an attempt to encourage myself with my Biblical Hebrew lessons, I have decided to start a Hebrew quiz.

Note that the course I am using is targeted at linguists and therefore combines easy notions with more complex ones.

Question 1:
What do the following letters have in common?
א ה ו י

Do not hesitate to elaborate.

Books, Books


Tempted by a review by Jew Wishes, I am currently reading The Last of the Just. It is a truly good book and I advise those who haven’t done so to read it.

I have also just bought L’hébreu biblique en 15 leçons (no need to translate I guess) and am thoroughly enjoying it. The title is a little misleading in that the lessons are so rich and informative that they need to be read in smaller portions. The approach, however, is fascinating and reminds me of a university lecturer who would urge us to read English grammars which she found to be as exciting as thrillers.

Before that I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. A colleague had read it lent it to me and I have found it to be fine if you want to read something with a quaint flavor and that is well-written. The tone is amusing and refreshing even though the story is set during WWII. When I had finished this epistolary novel, I realized Jew Wishes had reviewed it too.

Recently I have also read a book by a French neurologist and psychiatrist – Boris Cyrulnik – about his childhood as a survivor of the Holocaust in occupied France. Understandably enough, this period has had a profound impact on his whole life and he has thus specialized in psychological resilience. His latest book has not been translated into English yet but the others have.

Any good book you have read lately and would like to recommend?




I moaned last week about being tired of teaching and of unenthusiastic students. I browsed the web and think I have found something I might like. Obviously I’ll need to improve my Hebrew before starting the course but the university offers this too.

It is the 3rd year of a university BA and is open to anyone who already has a BA in Hebrew, history or a foreign language. Here are the subjects taught as part of the curriculum.

– classical Hebrew
– linguistics
– grammar
– modern Hebrew

– classical Hebrew literature
– medieval Hebrew literature
– contemporary Hebrew literature

Modern Jewish Philosophy

Introduction to Mishna.

An optional subject – I am considering Yiddish.

What do you think?

Hebrew Readers Needed



I have mentioned on several occasions that two classes in my High School are working on a Holocaust project.

One class is trying to follow the destinies of the adults and children who made up our local community before WW2 so as to find out what happened to them during the war.
They are working on the local synagogue archives as well as the Yad Vashem Website and more particularly their Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names.

The problem is that the pages of testimony, often filled in by a relative, is in handwritten Hebrew. I have managed to decipher most of one sheet written in handwritten block capitals with an English translation for each item but very little of the other one which is completely handwritten and with no English at all. Therefore I’m looking for a few proficient Hebrew readers who would be ready to help my students.

I understand that people can be quite busy and their time is valuable so I don’t expect anyone to help with more than one page. Besides so far there are only two pages to read.

Another Israeli Film

After Lemon Tree a fortnight ago, Waltz with Bashir is on at our local movie theater.

Twenty-four years after Ari was a soldier in the IDF, he is contacted by a friend who wants to tell him about a recurring dream he has connected with the 1982 Lebanon War. Later that night, Ari himself has a vision about the Sabra and Shatila massacre – a vision he cannot understand. At that point he realizes that he remembers virtually nothing about that event and, following a friend’s advice, sets off on a quest to rebuild his memories.

Thus Ari meets up with former friends and fellow soldiers, but also with a psychologist and the reporter Ron Ben-Yishai so as to understand what happened there and why he can’t remember it.

This film’s format is original in that it is a documentary movie – with real interviews of the people concerned – made by the means of animation. It combines classical music, rock music, realistic graphics and surrealistic scenes together with illustrations similar to graphic novels. From an artistic point of view the film is a tour de force.

What’s more, to quote a famous website, I’d be tempted to say that only in Israel can people try and address their feeling of guilt relatively shortly after the event and in such an honest way.

My Hebrew Needs Brushing up

180px-Eliezer_Ben_Jehuda_bei_der_Arbeit.jpgI started learning Hebrew six years ago. My first teacher was the father of one of my pupils. He taught me how to read the letters and then we started on the parsha straight away. I was learning along with his wife and two of his daughters. It was a fantastic experience and it was good to be confronted with the text so soon.

Then the family moved to Paris and I joined a course for beginners at the local university. I drove there every thursday and had a two hour lesson with a group of other people. There were about eight of us. The aproach was different – more systemeatic – and this time we were learning modern Hebrew from a textbook. Yet the teacher was patient, kind and conscientious which made the course pleasant and worthwhile. I felt that I was learning and improving. We also had exams and I meant to go on like this for a few years.

Unfortunately the next year was far from being as positive. We still had the same teacher (but only for an hour) and we had a new teacher. The problem when you are a language teacher yourself is that you can tell how a course has been devised as well as if there is clear planning behind what you are being taught.

Obviously this new teacher was not as careful as the other one about what she wanted us to learn and how. It is useless to go into the details of what was wrong with this part of the course but the unfortunate result was that I quit.

The other regrettable outcome is that I no longer learn Hebrew on a systematic basis. I pray in Hebrew and sometimes check a word to make sure I get the overall idea of what I am saying but this is far from enough. Sadly my hometown is too small and there is no rabbi in residence so nobody to learn with. I still feel however that I greatly need to improve but am not sure how.

Lemon Tree

The Israeli movie industry has produced so many excellent films in the past few years that I try to go and see them as soon as they are on at our local movie theater.

Yesterday evening we went to see Lemon Tree, a film directed by Eran Riklis. The synopsis can be found on the site of the Israeli Film Fund.

More than the story, after all the plot is rather simple and straightforward, it is the portraits of the two women – the Israeli and the Palestinian- which are remarkable. They both seem to live respectively in an environment where their behavior is dictated by other people. But it is also obvious that, in the end, Mira and Salma are the ones who embody dignity and principles in front of blind bureaucracy and sheer absurdity. A must-see.

Beaufort: the Novel

51oyHauNYjL._SL160_AA115_.jpgBeaufort is a novel. It was written by Ron Leshem and published in 2005 in Israel. Its original Hebrew title was Im Yesh Gan Eden (If There is a Heaven).

Beaufort is also a Crusader fortress in southern Lebanon, about 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) to the south-south-west of the village of Arnoun. Between 1982 and 2000, the Beaufort Castle and surrounding areas were used as a base and observation post by the IDF.

This story is a first person narrative. Erez Liberti, a twenty-two yearl old officer, remembers the time he spent in Beaufort first trying to prevent Hizbullah terrorists from bombing northern Israel then co-leading the IDF official withdrawal from Lebanon.

It is a complex book in that it neither pro nor anti war but displays, through the eyes and words of a young man who is not particularly articulate and subtle, the complexities of war and the mounting fear of these young men who found themselves in perilous situations while feeling that nobody understood what they were living. It shows how ordinary young men are transformed and altered in such a hostile environment, especially as some of their friends get killed and the feeling of death begins to pervade their lives.

The French translation is excellent; apparently the English one is too.