In The Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language

By Dr. Joel M. Hoffman (New York University Press, 2004), pp. 262
Reviewed by Rabbi Paul Kushner

A recent article in The New York Times (November 9, 2005) tells of an important archeological find: a 40-pound stone, dated from the 10th century BCE, inscribed with the Hebrew alphabet, written out in its traditional order, was found in Tel Zayit, south of Jerusalem. The headline called this ‘the oldest written alphabet ever found.’ For readers of In the Beginning, by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman, this discovery that people could read and write Hebrew 3,000 years ago did not come as a surprise.

It can be said that writing goes back to the dawn of history. The primordial humanoid who drew a primitive picture of a few stick figures, with weapons hunting a large animal, on the wall of his cave, was writing a story. Dr. Hoffman traces the development and evolution of non-alphabetic writing: logographs, syllabic writing and, eventually, consonantal writing. The innovation of ancient Hebrew was the addition of vowel letters. The vowels in question are not the dots and dashes of the later Masoretic Hebrew. Hoffman’s vowels are the letters YUD, HEH and VAV (pronounced as the English letter W). These letters may be used as either consonants or vowels.

By adding these vowel letters, the art of reading and writing became available to the ordinary Hebrew-speaker of the ancient world and not just a few professional scribes. Thus, when the Torah commands us to ‘write these words upon the doorposts of your house’ the ancient Israelite was literate enough to obey this mitzvah.

I found the most innovative concept in this book to be Dr. Hoffman’s explanation of the Tetragrammaton name of God. The original pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton has not been forgotten; it never existed! ‘The obvious answer is that the letters in YHWH were chosen not because of the sounds they represent, but because of the symbolic power in that they were the Hebrews’ magic vowel letters that no other culture had; YHWH has no traditional pronunciation not because the pronunciation was lost but because it never had a pronunciation to begin with.’

Throughout the exploration of the Masoretes; of ancient pronunciation; of the Dead Sea Scrolls; of Post-Biblical, Rabbinic, and Modern Hebrew; of Hebrew and Aramaic, and of a unique category of non-spoken Hebrew, Dr. Hoffman guides us with the expertise and the enthusiasm of a devoted and experienced docent leading the novice from one exciting exhibit to another. The extensive and well-annotated bibliography and suggestions for further reading make this remarkable volume equally appropriate for a scholarly and a lay audience.

Although I recognize the limitations of a relatively compact volume, I personally regret only one small lacuna. My own father, of blessed memory, studied at a Hebrew-speaking gymnasium in Mariampol, Lithuania, during the second decade of the 20th century. I would have appreciated more information about the variety of Hebrew that was employed in teaching secular subjects to the children of the East-European Haskalah almost a century ago.

Nevertheless, In the Beginning provides an excellent history of the Hebrew language and I recommend this book enthusiastically to all of our colleagues.