Hebrew literature

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Hebrew literature,

literary works, from ancient to modern, written in the Hebrew language.

Early Literature

The great monuments of the earliest period of Hebrew literature are the Old TestamentOld Testament,
Christian name for the Hebrew Bible, which serves as the first division of the Christian Bible (see New Testament). The designations "Old" and "New" seem to have been adopted after c.A.D.
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 and the ApocryphaApocrypha
[Gr.,=hidden things], term signifying a collection of early Jewish writings excluded from the canon of the Hebrew scriptures. It is not clear why the term was chosen.
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. Parts of the PseudepigraphaPseudepigrapha
[Gr.,=things falsely ascribed], a collection of early Jewish and some Jewish-Christian writings composed between c.200 B.C. and c.A.D. 200, not found in the Bible or rabbinic writings.
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 and of the Dead Sea ScrollsDead Sea Scrolls,
ancient leather and papyrus scrolls first discovered in 1947 in caves on the NW shore of the Dead Sea. Most of the documents were written or copied between the 1st cent. B.C. and the first half of the 1st cent. A.D.
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 were also produced before the conquest of Judaea by Titus. The literature of the Jews developed mainly in the Hebrew language, although there were also works in Greek, Aramaic, and Arabic.

In the 2d cent. A.D. began the Talmudic period, which lasted well into the 6th cent. In these centuries the great anonymous encyclopedic work of religious and civil law, the TalmudTalmud
[Aramaic from Heb.,=learning], in Judaism, vast compilation of the Oral Law with rabbinical elucidations, elaborations, and commentaries, in contradistinction to the Scriptures or Written Laws. The Talmud is the accepted authority for Orthodox Jews everywhere.
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, was compiled, edited, and interpreted. The MidrashMidrash
[Heb.,=to examine, to investigate], verse by verse interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures, consisting of homily and exegesis, by Jewish teachers since about 400 B.C.
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—a collection of halakahhalakah
or halacha
[Heb.,=law], in Judaism, the body of law regulating all aspects of life, including religious ritual, familial and personal status, civil relations, criminal law, and relations with non-Jews.
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 (found also in the Talmud) and haggadic material—likewise forms part of the Hebrew literature of that period. In the 4th cent. the TargumTargum
[Aramaic,=translation], Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible. When Aramaic replaced the Hebrew tongue among the Jews of Palestine and Babylon, interpreters were called to translate and explain the scriptural passages that were read aloud during synagogue services.
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 to the Pentateuch and to the Prophets was finished. The 6th and 7th cent. saw the development of the MasoraMasora
or Massorah
[Heb.,=tradition], collection of critical annotations made by Hebrew scholars, called the Masoretes, to establish the text of the Old Testament. A principal problem was to fix the vowels, as the Hebrew alphabet has only consonants.
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 in Palestine. In Babylonia meanwhile many valuable additions to Hebrew literature were made by the GaonimGaonim
[Heb.,=excellencies], title given to the heads of the Jewish academies at Sura and Pumbedita in Babylonia immediately following the period of the Saboraim until the middle of the 11th cent.
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 after the 6th cent.

Medieval Literature

Commentaries on the Talmud and haggadic material continued to be written until the 11th cent., when the Babylonian academies were suppressed and the center of Jewish literary activity shifted to Spain. France and Germany became the main centers of Talmudic commentary. In Spain, and to some extent in Italy, Hebrew literature flourished for centuries. The finest work was accomplished in the realms of poetry—influenced by Arab and Indian literature—and philosophy. Philology, exegesis, and codification also flourished. By the 14th cent. the largely Aramaic mystical treatise, the Zohar, had appeared—the masterpiece of a flourishing literature of Jewish mysticism (see kabbalahkabbalah
or cabala
[Heb.,=reception], esoteric system of interpretation of the Scriptures based upon a tradition claimed to have been handed down orally from Abraham.
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Famous scholars and authors of Hebrew literature in the Middle Ages included Aha of ShabchaAha of Shabcha
or Achai of Shabcha
, c.680–c.762, Babylonian rabbi. He settled (c.752) in Palestine after being passed over for appointment as head of the rabbinic academy of Pumbedita for political reasons.
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, Saadia ben Joseph al-FayumiSaadia ben Joseph al-Fayumi
, 882–942, Jewish scholar, b. Egypt. He was known as Saadia Gaon. He was the head of the great Jewish Academy at Sura, Babylonia, which under his leadership became the highest seat of Jewish learning, and a vigorous opponent of the Karaites.
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, Dunash ben TamimDunash ben Tamim
or Dunash ibn Tamim,
c.900–c.960, Hebrew scholar, an astronomer and physician of North Africa. A pioneer in the field of scientific comparative philology, he tried to demonstrate that Arabic was merely a corrupt form of the purer Hebrew.
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, Dunash ben LabratDunash ben Labrat
, 920–90, Hebrew grammarian and poet, b. Fès. He was also called Rabbi Adonim Halevy (ha-Levi). He wrote an exhaustive criticism of Menahem's Hebrew lexicon, adding to and correcting it, and was the first to adapt the Arabic meter to Hebrew poetry.
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, Gershom ben JudahGershom ben Judah
, c.965–c.1040?, rabbi, religious poet, and scholar. He was also called Me'or ha-Golah [light of the exile]. He lived his entire adult life in Mainz, Germany (now in France), where he founded a Talmudic academy.
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, Al-FasiAl-Fasi, Isaac ben Jacob ha-Kohen
, 1013–1103, prominent Jewish Talmudic scholar of the very late Gaonic period, b. near Fès, N Africa. He headed the rabbinical school at Fès until forced out at the age of 75 by political intrigues.
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, Solomon ben Judah Ibn GabirolIbn Gabirol, Solomon ben Judah
, c.1021–1058, Jewish poet and philosopher, known also as Avicebron, b. Malaga. His secular poetry deals partly with nature and love, but most of it reveals a gloom and bitterness engendered by his tragic life.
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, RashiRashi
, 1040–1105, Jewish exegete, grammarian, and legal authority, b. Troyes, France. The name he is known by is an acronym of Rabbi Solomon bar Isaac. He studied in Worms and Mainz, returning to Troyes c.1065.
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, Judah ha-LeviJudah ha-Levi
or Judah Halevy
, c.1075–1141, Jewish rabbi, poet, and philosopher, b. Tudela, Spain. His poems—secular, religious, and nationalist—are filled with a serene and lofty spirit.
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, Abraham ben Meir Ibn EzraIbn Ezra, Abraham ben Meir
, c.1089–1164, Jewish grammarian, commentator, poet, philosopher, and astronomer, b. Tudela, Spain. He traveled widely and wrote a number of ethical treatises, poems, and other works.
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, MaimonidesMaimonides
or Moses ben Maimon
, 1135–1204, Jewish scholar, physician, and philosopher, the most influential Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, b. Córdoba, Spain, d. Cairo.
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, Immanuel ben SolomonImmanuel ben Solomon,
c.1265–c.1330, Hebrew-Italian poet and scholar, b. Rome. He wrote biblical criticism and, in both Hebrew and Italian, satiric verse and lively stories. His work represents a synthesis of Jewish thought and reflects the spirit of Italian Renaissance.
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, Isaac AbravanelAbravanel or Abarbanel, Isaac
, 1437–1508, Jewish theologian, biblical commentator, and financier, b. Lisbon.
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, and Joseph ben Ephraim CaroCaro or Karo, Joseph ben Ephraim
, 1488–1575, eminent Jewish codifier of law, b. Toledo, Spain. He left Spain as a child when the Jews were expelled (1492) and finally settled in Safed, Palestine.
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. In the persecutions following the Crusades, when the Jews were driven from country to country, they clung to their literature—which leaned increasingly to mysticism and asceticism—and especially to the Hebrew Bible.

Beginnings of Modern Hebrew Literature

On the threshold of the transition from the old isolated life to a wider one was the poet Moses Hayyim LuzzattoLuzzatto, Moses Hayyim
, 1707–47, Hebrew playwright, poet, and mystic, a leader of the renaissance of Hebrew literature, b. Padua. At 15 he formed a group to study kabbalistic mysteries (see kabbalah) and at 17 he wrote Samson and Delilah, a drama in verse.
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—a contemporary of the Gaon of Vilna, Elijah ben SolomonElijah ben Solomon,
1720–97, Jewish scholar, called the Gaon of Vilna, b. Lithuania. A leading Jewish scholar of his time, he opposed the spread of Hasidism in Lithuania and Poland because he feared that the creation of these new groups would weaken the Jewish community.
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—but the modern period of Hebrew literature really began with Moses MendelssohnMendelssohn, Moses
, 1729–86, German-Jewish philosopher; grandfather of Felix Mendelssohn. He was a leader in the movement for cultural assimilation. In 1743 he went to Berlin, where he studied and worked, becoming (1750) a partner in a silk merchant's firm.
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. While Nachman KrochmalKrochmal, Nachman
, 1785–1840, Jewish secular historian and writer, b. Galicia. He was a leader in the movement of the Jewish enlightenment and a pioneer of modern Jewish scholarship.
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 and Shloime AnskyAnsky, Shloime
pseud. of Solomon Seinwil Rapoport,
1863–1920, Russian-Yiddish author. He extensively researched regional Jewish folklore and incorporated folk elements into his realistic stories of peasant life and Hasidism.
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 (Solomon Seinwel Rapoport) were contributing to biblical criticism and historical scholarship, writers such as Peretz (Peter) SmolenskinSmolenskin, Perez
, c.1842–1885, Russian novelist and essayist who wrote in Hebrew. He settled in Vienna and founded the Hebrew monthly journal Ha-Shahar, which he edited until his death. His articles favored increased contact with the West.
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 were devoting themselves to Haskalah, or literature of enlightenment, intended to shake the Jews of Central Europe from their medieval attitudes. Other important figures of the period are the scholar Joseph Halévy, the poet Jehuda (Leon) GordonGordon, Judah Leon,
1830–92, Russian-Hebrew novelist and poet, b. Vilna. As teacher and writer he was one of the leaders in the renaissance of a progressive culture among the Jews (see Haskalah) and he was an indefatigable foe of obscurantism.
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, and the novelist Solomon Yakob Abramovich, whose pseudonym was Mendele mocher sforimMendele mocher sforim
[Yid.,= Mendele the book peddler] , pseud. of Sholem Yakov Abramovich
, 1836–1917, Yiddish novelist. Born in Minsk, and orphaned at 14, he traveled with beggars through Ukraine.
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Zionism and Literature in Israel

The rise of ZionismZionism,
modern political movement for reconstituting a Jewish national state in Palestine. Early Years

The rise of the Zionist movement in the late 19th cent.
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, particularly reflected in the writings of Ahad Ha-amAhad Ha-am
[Heb.,=One of the People], 1856–1927, Jewish thinker and Zionist leader, b. Ukraine. Originally named Asher Ginzberg, he adopted his pen name when he published his first and highly controversial essay, "The Wrong Way" (1889), in which he criticized those who
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 (Asher Ginzberg), gave Hebrew literature fresh impetus, and Palestine became again the center of publication in Hebrew. Hebrew was proclaimed the national language of the Jews even before the establishment (1948) of the state of Israel. The two great poets of modern Hebrew literature are Hayyim Nahman BialikBialik, Hayyim Nahman
, 1873–1934, Hebrew poet, publisher in Odessa, Berlin, and Tel-Aviv, b. Volhynia, Russia. As an editor and publisher Bialik spread the ideas of the enlightenment (Haskalah).
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 and Saul TchernihovskyTchernihovsky, Saul
, 1873–1943, Russian poet who wrote in Hebrew. He was a practicing physician. His sonnets and idylls eschew the didacticism of typical Hebrew poetry and show a pantheistic outlook, derived from the Greek classics, which he admired and translated into Hebrew.
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, who was strongly influenced by ancient Greek literature. The poetry of Abraham Shlonsky and Nathan Alterman deals with social and political themes. Natan Zach was among the leaders of a subsequent rebellion against Alterman and other Zionist poets.

Among the many writers of prose are Joseph H. Brenner, who described Jewish life in Eastern Europe and pioneer life in Palestine, and Salman Shneur, who wrote of the simple and uneducated Jews. The Nobel laureate S. Y. AgnonAgnon, S. Y.
(Shmuel Yosef Agnon) , 1888–1970, Israeli writer, b. Buczacz, Galicia, Austria-Hungary (now Buchach, Ukraine), as Samuel Josef Czaczkes. Widely regarded as the greatest 20th-century writer of fiction in Hebrew, he shared (with Nelly Sachs) the 1966 Nobel Prize
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 portrayed the Eastern European milieu and pioneer life in Palestine; his works have become classics in modern Hebrew epic literature. Hebrew writers who are native to Israel seek inspiration in the classical Hebrew past or in the new life of Israel. The most outstanding writer of this group is Moshe Shamir, who in his two novels—one depicting a Hasmonean king and the other dealing with the Arab-Israeli War of 1948—gave new dimensions to Hebrew fiction.

Aron David Gordon (1856–1922) was one of the greatest social and political essayists of Hebrew literature; significant Hebrew language literary critics include David Frishman (1861–1922) and Yosef Klausner (1874–1958). In recent years the Israeli novelists Amos OzOz, Amos,
1939–2018, Israeli writer, b. Jerusalem as Amos Klausner. As a teenager he changed his name to Oz [Heb.,=strength]. A former kibbutz member, Israeli soldier, and schoolteacher, he became one of Israel's major novelists.
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, Abraham B. Yehoshua, and Aharon Appelfeld, and the poet Yehuda Amichai have been widely translated and have achieved international distinction. Outside Israel, the writing of the Jews is ordinarily in the language of the countries in which they live or in YiddishYiddish language
, a member of the West Germanic group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Germanic languages; German language).
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, whose literary use developed rapidly after the middle of the 19th cent.


See N. Kravitz, Three Thousand Years of Hebrew Literature (1972); T. Carmi, ed., The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (1981); M. Neiman, A Century of Modern Hebrew Literary Criticism, 1784–1884 (1983); B. Holtz, ed., Back to the Sources (1984); R. Alter, The Invention of Hebrew Prose (1988).

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