Third-century Hebrew inscription invoking God, from a golden plate found in Dierna-Orşova, Romania. (Centrul pentru Studiul Istoriei Evreilor din Romania)

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Hebrew in Eastern Europe (traditionally called in Hebrew and Yiddish loshn koydesh, “the holy tongue,” or by modernizers loshn ivri, sefas ever, or ivris) was never strictly speaking a vernacular, though Jews lacking a shared language did sometimes use it as a lingua franca. Rather, as throughout the Diaspora, it was to varying degrees a medium of study, writing, and recitation, part of a Jewish “polysystem” of two or more languages. Aside from Hebrew proper, the least lettered Jew employed a large stock of Hebraisms, many Judaism-specific, many not, if he or she spoke Yiddish; indeed, Yiddish was an incubator that kept Hebrew alive among the masses. At the same time, to season one’s Yiddish with Hebraic erudition or wit was the mark of an intellectual. This entry treats Hebrew proper.

For many centuries, Hebrew in Eastern Europe functioned widely as the middle-ground written Jewish language—serving administrative, artistic, and most religious purposes. In communal records, there was frequent switching between Hebrew and Yiddish (the so-called nusaḥ sofrim), creating a regular hybrid rather than a Yiddishized Hebrew and apparently more for the purpose of embodying authority and accessibility than to patch linguistic gaps. In the most erudite legal and esoteric registers, the Talmudic and the mystical, there was constant switching between Hebrew and Aramaic, a related ancient Jewish language; meanwhile, Yiddish was used in popular literature and casual writing—and for speaking—and in communal records This so-called diglossia began to shift with the beginnings of emancipation in Austrian Poland (late eighteenth century) and the gradual spread of state education for Jews across Eastern Europe; by the late nineteenth century, large numbers were acquiring mainly Russian, Polish, or German as their “educated” language at school, and Yiddish too was rapidly usurping the place of Hebrew in the press and the arts, particularly fueled by Bundist (Jewish socialist) ideology.

In wide circles, Hebrew was left behind as an atrophied medium of Jewish ritual. Conversely, throughout the nineteenth century, small groups of maskilim sought to modernize Hebrew as a means of “enlightening” the pious masses without courting assimilation; accordingly, the modernizers created secular textbooks, dictionaries, periodicals, fiction, and both didactic and lyrical verse. Among those who had a powerful impact on Jewish thought and culture were the novelists Avraham Mapu and Mendele Moykher-Sforim, the poets Yehudah Leib Gordon and Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, and the essayist Ahad Ha-Am. Many of them wrote in both Hebrew and Yiddish, sometimes experimenting with the same material in both languages. For some, such as Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski, a Nietzschean “Hebraism” promised a Diasporic rupture with Judaism.

Sefer Keneh ḥokhmah (Acquire Wisdom), Nissan ben Abraham Deliatitz (Vilna, 1829). The first Hebrew algebra textbook published in Vilna. (YIVO)

With no central agency, school system, or dictionaries of Ashkenazic usage, lexical and grammatical modernization was anarchic. In counterpoint, a popular bilingual Hasidic narrative literature emerged, the Hebrew nonchalantly loose and awash with Yiddishisms—reflecting the populist message of Hasidism and its mystical affirmation of the “holy spark” in all languages. The late nineteenth century was the watershed of Hebrew knowledge in Eastern Europe. From the 1880s in Russia, small groups of Zionists, such as Eli‘ezer Ben-Yehudah, often hostile to Yiddish and regarding it as “uncouth” or “parochial,” began working for a multipurpose written and spoken Hebrew to serve as the national tongue of a Jewish Palestine; when this became a reality under the British, Hebrew-speaking schools and youth movements briefly flourished in Poland and Lithuania, although an adult Hebrew reading public hardly remained. A crop of modernistic writers emerged, such as Yosef Ḥayim Brenner, Devorah Baron, Sha’ul Tchernichowsky, Uri Tsevi Grinberg, and Shemu’el Yosef Agnon, but most of them migrated to Palestine, by the 1920s the undisputed center of Hebrew culture. There, several hundred thousand migrants from Eastern Europe would soon become speakers of an Israeli Hebrew with its own pronunciation, a blend of the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic that reduced the vowels to five and adopted the predominantly last-syllable Sephardic accentuation (playing havoc with the rhythms of old poetry) but stopped short of adopting any new sounds.

Israeli Hebrew also rapidly evolved a distinctive grammar and syntax based largely on Ashkenazic Yiddish patterns. Generally in Ashkenazic pronunciation, the stress tends to be on the penultimate syllable; by contrast, in the Hebrew spoken in the contemporary State of Israel (a mixture of Sephardic and Ashkenazic), the stress tends to be on the last syllable. For example, the original Ashkenazic pronunciation of Bialik’s verse would be Ha-ḥámo me-róysh ho-ilónoys nistálko, while in modern Israeli pronunciation it would be: Ha-ḥamáh me-rósh ha-ilanót nistalkáh.

The several million Jews who settled in the West maintained traditional Ashkenazic pronunciations in worship but were functionally illiterate in Hebrew for the most part. Of those who remained in Eastern Europe after World War I, a large minority upheld their traditional erudite Judaism and the old diglossia until the Holocaust. Otherwise, interest in Hebrew evaporated, and in Russia, the “Hebrew heartland,” it was savagely repressed as a tool of clericalism and Zionism by the Bolsheviks until the 1980s. After World War II, little remained of East European Jewry, which had constituted the largest community with a shared speech in Jewish history, but within 50 years, several hundred thousand Ḥaredi (strictly Orthodox) Jews in Israel and the West—and now females as well as males—were again intensively using Ashkenazic Hebrew in its various former East European dialects for religious study and worship, although more often diglossically with Israeli Hebrew or English rather than with Yiddish.

Ashkenazic and Yiddish: Regional Differences

The distinct form of Hebrew proper written by Ashkenazic Jews, and its pronunciation, is known by scholars as Ashkenazic or Whole Hebrew. Unlike the sizable Hebrew element within Yiddish (Fused Hebrew), consisting of words and phrases, Ashkenazic was a full language with a grammar as well as a vocabulary. East European Ashkenazic pronunciation loosely echoes the pronunciation of Hebrew words within the local spoken Yiddish dialect: North Eastern (popularly “Lithuanian”), Mid Eastern (popularly “Polish”) or South Eastern (popularly “Galician”). However, certain stigmatized developments in Yiddish and in its Hebrew component were resisted in Ashkenazic. The linguistic symbols used below and in the table are as follows: ∫ = ‘sh’, c = ‘ts’, x = ‘kh’ of Bach, ʁ = throaty ‘r’, ʔ = the ‘catch in the throat’ as separates the two words in English so old), ε = open ‘e’, ɔ = open ‘o’, ɪ = short ‘i’, : denotes lengthening.

The consonantal system involves the following phonemes: / b, p, v, f, m; d, t, z, s, ∫, c, n, l; g, k, x, y; ʁ, ʔ, h/. By the thirteenth century, the early medieval guttural ע and ח, doubled consonants, the spirant variants [γ, ð, θ]—as in the ‘r’ of French Paris and ‘th’ of English bathe, bath—of the letters ת ,ד ,ג, and a phonemically distinct glottal stop /ʔ/ had all probably been lost. Prague–Danube Basin Jews were dubbed Bene Khes by writers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries for pronouncing the letter ח as [x] rather than as [h] as in the Rhineland (the “Bene Hes”).

Whereas Classical Hebrew had seven vowel phonemes (hirik, segol, tsere, pataḥ, kamats, ḥolam, shuruk/kibuts) as well as several positional variants, NEA and MEA have six vowel phonemes, tsere or shuruk conflating with another vowel; while SEA has just five, both tsere and shuruk conflating with another vowel. The adoptions of ey and u for segol and kamats are due to a medieval vowel shift, while kibuts was changing to [ü] (as in French tu) by the sixteenth century and then to [i], eventually followed by shuruk. (See Table 1: Vowel Systems in Hebrew.)

Ashkenazic pronunciation also depends on the degree of formality and “care”: A continuum ranges from scriptural chanting in the synagogue (the most formal) to textual study (possibly the least formal), with (often ad hoc) gradations in between, for example, in worship. Formal Ashkenazic avoids the laxing of vowels in closed syllables that affects Yiddish and its Hebraisms: thus SEA soyfrim “scribes,” meys “dead body” vs. Yiddish sɔfrim, mεs. It also generally stresses the final syllable in a word, as laid down in the Masoretic rules for cantillation (chanting). In less formal Ashkenazic, unstressed syllables weaken, and the least formal Ashkenazic employs Yiddish-type stress—in Yiddish (and its Hebraisms), stress generally falls on the penultimate syllable of the base of a word. An example from SEA is: buríx atú (Scriptural chanting) > brix a (praying) > búrex áte (studying or just referring to the phrase).

Ashkenazic has tended to resist other, more stigmatized, developments, such as the devoicing of final consonants affecting much of Yiddish (Ashkenazic ganov for thief vs. Yiddish ganef) or the rounded [a] of Tote–Mome–Loshn ( shabes for Sabbath vs. shobes). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, various pronunciation standards emerged, for schooling, poetry, and liturgical performance—generally with “Lithuanian” vowels but oy rather than ey, and with penultimate stress but no weakening of vowels; thus, bórux sheómar vehóyo hoóylom.


Even before the modernization of Hebrew, the Ashkenazic lexicon was called upon, in the vast rabbinic case law literature (the Responsa) and in the scientific writings of Mosheh Isserles, David Gans, and others, to encompass the whole of life, drawing on the rich vocabulary of the Talmud, midrash, and medieval exegesis, and philosophy. There was a modicum of enrichment, by extension or calquing from existing words (e.g., ’gunpowder, eyeglasses, passport’), but more often by paraphrase or foreignisms. Despite the intensive study of traditional texts, there was a steady drift in usage, due largely to language contact, not just to the need to describe new things: thus the words for “very, so” in medieval responsa are quite different from their biblical and Talmudic predecessors. However, a distinction should be made between the Ashkenazic lexicon and the Hebraisms within Yiddish, which often evolved quite different nuances and different grammatical features; thus, gvure, gedule, and balabos can mean feat, gaiety, and boss, respectively, in Yiddish but not in Ashkenazic, and the plural of tones (fast day) is taneysim in Yiddish but taaniyos in Ashkenazic.

Title page of Kiryat sefer, by Mordekhai Aharon Gintsberg (Vilna, 1855). This igron, or book of model Hebrew letters, is an example of a maskilic genre whose aim was the enrichment of Hebrew epistolary style. (YIVO)

With the Haskalah came wholesale lexical innovation and retrieval, to make Hebrew intertranslatable with European arts and sciences; there was vigorous debate about using compounding on the European model (e.g., da peta for telegram), affixation and ablaut in the spirit of Semitic (mivrak), or imported internationalisms (telegrama), as well as about systematic coinage by lexicographers such as Schulboim and Yehoshu‘a Steinberg versus gradualistic “spontaneous” coinage by literati such as Gordon and Mendele Moykher-Sforim (responsible, e.g., for ḥashmal for electricity and gafrur for match). But competition was rife and coordination minimal—we know of 10 suggestions for passport—and, even as the Land of Israel was becoming the center of gravity, Hebraists in Russia and Lithuania were supplying technical and everyday vocabulary. The common belief that Eli‘ezer Ben-Yehudah and the Va‘ad ha-Lashon (the pre-State quasi-official Language Committee) supplied the bulk of the accepted coinage is erroneous.


In its morphology and syntax, traditional religious and administrative Ashkenazic prose was essentially rabbinic, mixed with Aramaic in legal and mystical styles. How far there were homogeneous norms or individual authors abiding by the “rules” is uncertain—one “Ashkenazism” was the use of the binyan huf‘al verb pattern to the exclusion of binyan nif‘al in the future tense (e.g., yugnav rather than yiganev)—but the sixteenth through seventeenth centuries, as well as the nineteenth, saw efforts by rabbinic circles (e.g., Shabetai Sofer and Malbim [Me’ir Leib ben Yeḥi’el Mikha’el]) to develop a classical grammatical consciousness. In the nineteenth century, Hasidic narratives created a folksy written idiom: variable gender and agreement, single-layered (paratactic) structure, embedded clauses beginning with pseudo ve. Meanwhile, new realms of discourse shunned rabbinic style: (1) the fields of science and philosophy, both Hasidic and maskilic, favored the idiom of medieval Spanish-Provençal philosophy, using, for example, primarily biblical morphology combined with Arabicized (often convoluted) syntax (e.g., zeh ha-ish [for “this man”] rather than ish zeh), with heavy use of the gerund; (2) the essay and journalism initially preferred a synthesis of biblical morphology and biblical-Mishnaic syntax, but gravitated to a “purer” ornate biblical syntax until a late nineteenth-century reaction against Hebrew rococo; (3) prose fiction wavered between Mishnaic and a rather exotic biblical style, tending toward a bombastic “quotationese” (melitsah), until the novelist Mendele Moykher-Sforim established the synthetic essay style as the standard for fiction and nonfiction alike—and a basis for what would become the Israeli prose norm; (4) poetry favored the biblical until late nineteenth-century Hebrew romanticism and modernism.

Amid all this, little is known of writers’ preferences from among the plethora of biblical, Mishnaic, and other structures. Thus Mendele Moykher-Sforim, in some of his work, eschewed some major biblical and Mishnaic features, such as interrogative ha and possessive shel. All in all, however, a wide-ranging description, synchronic or diachronic, of Ashkenazic usage is sorely lacking.

Suggested Reading

Zvi Betzer (Tsevi Betser), Perakim be-toldot ha-lashon ha-`ivrit: Ha-ḥativah hasheniyah ha-ḥativah ha-benaymit, unit 7, Ha-Lashon ha-rabanit shel yeme ha-benayim (Tel Aviv, 2001–2003); Joshua Fishman, "Yiddish and Loshn-Koydesh in Traditional Ashkenaz," in Language in Sociology, ed. Albert Verdoodt and Rolf Kjolseth, (Louvain, 1976), pp. 39–47; Joshua Fishman, “The Hebraist Response to the Tshernovits Conference,” in Semitic Studies in honor of Wolf Leslau, vol 1, ed. Alan Kaye (Wiesbaden, 1991), pp. 437–448; Yehoshua Gilboa, A Language Silenced: The Suppression of Hebrew Literature and Culture in the Soviet Union (Rutherford, N.J., 1982); Lewis Glinert, “Hebrew-Yiddish Diglossia, Type and Stereotype: Implications of the Language of Ganzfried’s ‘Kitzur,’” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 67 (1987): 39–55; Lewis Glinert, “Did Pre-Revival Hebrew Literature Have Its Own Langue?—Quotation and Improvisation in Mendele Mokher Sefarim,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 51.3 (1988): 413–427; Lewis Glinert and Yosseph Shilhav, “Holy Land, Holy Language: Language and Territory in an Ultraorthodox Jewish Ideology,” Language in Society 20 (1991): 59–86; Lewis Glinert, “Li-Mekor ha-`ivrit ha-ḥadashah ha-meduberet,” Leshonenu 55 (1993): 107–126; Lewis Glinert, ed., Hebrew in Ashkenaz: A Language in Exile (New York, 1993); Lewis Glinert, “Toward a Sociology of Ashkenazi Hebrew,” Jewish Social Studies 2.3 (1996): 85–114; Lewis Glinert, “The Hasidic Tale and the Sociolinguistic Modernization of the Jews of Eastern Europe,” in Ma`aseh sipur, ed. Rella Kushelevsky and Avidov Lipsker, (Ramat Gan, 2006), pp. 7-36 (English section); Benjamin Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution (Berkeley, 1993); Reuven Mirkin, “Mi-Signon el signon: Ha-derekh ha-`olah mi-ketivato shel Sh.Y. Abramovits el ha-‘nusaḥ’ shel Mendele Mokher Sefarim," Leshonenu 42.3–4 (1978): 237–251; Reuven Mirkin, “Mendele Mokher Sefarim u-terumato la-lashon ha-`ivrit," Leshonenu la-`am 40–41 (1990): 201-207; Reuven Mirkin, “Ha-Milona’ut ha-`ivrit ba-me’ah ha-tesha-esreh,” Leshonenu la-`am 40–41 (1990): 178–185; Chaim Rabin, “The Origins of Present-day Hebrew,” Ariel 59 (1985): 4–13; Noah Shapira, “Ha-Lashon ha-tekhnit ba-sifrut ha-rabanit,” Leshonenu 26 (1962): 209–216.