The Historical Dictionary
of the Hebrew Language
Doron Rubinstein was born in 1964. He
studied Hebrew Language and Bible at Tel Aviv University, and taught Hebrew
at high school, at Tel Aviv University and at the David Yellin College of
Education in Jerusalem. He has been working at the Academy of the Hebrew
Language since 1996, and in 2000 became the co-ordinator of the department of
modern literature of the Historical Dictionary Project.
This article was translated from Hebrew by IJK, translation edited by Raphael
Gefen, then additions to the English version have been introduced by DR and
The Hebrew version: http://kdictionaries.com/kdn/kdn12-3-7-heb.html.
The Academy of the Hebrew Language http://hebrew-academy.huji.ac.il.
The AHL’s Historical Dictionary Project http://hebrew-academy.huji.ac.il/dictionary1.html.
Founding the Academy of the Hebrew Language
and setting up the Historical Dictionary Project
article introduces readers to the major research project of the Academy of
the Hebrew Language – the Historical Dictionary of the Hebrew Language.
The Academy of the Hebrew Language (AHL) was
established following a decree of the Knesset [Israeli parliament],
“The Supreme Institute of the Hebrew Language Act, 5713-1953”, passed on 27
August 1953. The Academy replaced an earlier institution, ‘The Hebrew
Language Council’. The first plenary session was held on 16 November 1953,
about three months following the legislation. Its first President was
Naphtali Herz Tur-Sinai (Torczyner, 1886-1973, President of the AHL from its
foundation until his death). The next Presidents were Professor Ze'ev
Ben-Ħayyim (born 1907, President 1973-1981), and Professor Joshua Blau (born
1919, President 1981-1993). The current AHL President, since 1993, is
Professor Moshe Bar-Asher (born 1939).
About a year after its foundation, on 20 December 1954,
at its eighth session, the Academy’s plenum approved an agreement between the
AHL and Bialik Institute publishing house of the Jewish Agency, “to publish a
historical dictionary of the Hebrew language, containing the lexicon of
Hebrew words and their meanings throughout history, from ancient times to our
age. This dictionary shall be called ‘The Historical Dictionary of the Hebrew
Language of the Academy of the Hebrew Language’” (Proceedings of the AHL
1-2.45, 1954-1955). At its next plenary session, on 2 March 1955, the plenum
appointed the editorial board of the Dictionary. However, four more years
passed before its shape was determined.
The founder and first editor of the Dictionary was Ze'ev Ben-Ħayyim. He
served as editor until his retirement in 1992, when the current editor,
Professor Abraham Tal (born 1931), was appointed.
Ben-Ħayyim spent a few months in Europe on his
scientific work (end 1957-beginning 1958), and took advantage of this stay to
travel and study historical dictionary projects across the continent. In a
series of sessions of the editorial board (May-June 1958), he reported his
findings and proposed a plan to organize the preparatory work of the
Historical Dictionary (Proceedings of the AHL 5.62, 1958).
Ben-Ħayyim suggested basing work on the Dictionary from its outset on
the use of computers, a revolutionary idea in those days.
On 2 January 1959, the editorial board endorsed
Ben-Ħayyim's proposal to “decide on one comprehensive historical
dictionary to embrace all periods” (Leshonenu 23.118, 1959, and Proceedings
of the AHL 6.87, 1959). This dictionary “may also serve as an excellent
basis for the preparation of special Period Dictionaries at some later date.”
This decision determined the shape of the Project from
that day onwards, and during the following months, in April-May 1959, the
preparatory work for the Dictionary, headed by Ben-Ħayyim, started
according to that program (Proceedings of the AHL 6.87, 1959).
The first attempt to compile such a comprehensive
dictionary was made by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), known as the “reviver
of the Hebrew language”: Millon ha-Lashon ha-'Ivrit ha-Yeshana
ve-ha-Ħadasha (A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew,
The Historical Dictionary Project through the prism of its publications:
from the Source Book of ancient literature to
the Ma'agarim CD-ROM
The publications of the Historical Dictionary Project
(HDP) offer a fine prism to describe its history: each one of the
publications constituted a mid-stage in the
process of the Project, and each of them reflected its accomplishments until its
publication date. In this section we will review the history of the Project
through its publications, practically all of which are publications of the
department of ancient literature. One more important publication – the sample
pamphlet of the root 'RB – will be discussed at the end of the
The beginning of the Project was devoted to seeking an
appropriate way within the framework set by Ben-Ħayyim. What did this
imply? The HDP had to undertake two tasks before the Dictionary writing could
begin: the first – preparing the foundations of the Dictionary and
determining its scope, and the second – assembling the sources, that is
assembling the texts from which the references would be derived and on which
the Dictionary would be based.
Preparing the foundations of the Dictionary – setting
the precise working procedure and determining the database structure – lasted
several years. The results in their different stages appeared in the first
two publications of the HDP: Barayta di-Melekhet ha-Mishkan and Megillat
'Aħima'az, as described below.
Compilation of sources for the Dictionary was completed
in 1963, with the publication of Sefer ha-Meqorot [Source Book]
for sources “from the canonization of the Bible until the conclusion of the
Geonic period”. A second edition was published in 1970. The essence of the
book was the HDP's intention to process all Hebrew writings of the time,
which are known to us. The book provided a chronological list of sources that
were candidates for processing in the Dictionary, indicating the literary
genre of each: inscriptions, documents of the Judean Desert, Rabbinical
literature (Talmudic and Midrashic), etc. Further details were given in a
separate list: a list of the mesirot [transmissions], that is
the “good” manuscripts of each work, a list of its important printings, a
list of important studies dealing with it, etc. In due course these data were
concentrated in the bibliographical records of the Academy’s database. Each
source in the HDP database, without exception, has a bibliographical record
that includes the above-mentioned data.
The preface to the Source Book served
Ben-Ħayyim as a forum to raise some of the Project's problems, two in
particular: the problem of chronology and the problem of manuscript
The problem of chronology concerns the time gap between
the source itself and the surviving manuscripts in which it was transmitted,
i.e. appeared in writing. The transmission of the Mishnah is a good
example of this problem: the Mishnah was compiled in the beginning of
the third century CE, but its best manuscript, the Kaufmann Manuscript, dates
from the twelfth century CE, nearly a thousand years later! In any assertion
whatsoever about Mishnaic Hebrew (and about the language of any other such
source) the researcher must take into account the huge gap in time between
the Mishnah and the Kaufmann Manuscript.
The second problem concerns determining the choice of
manuscripts that will be utilized for the purposes of the Dictionary. The
Project did not wish to exploit in full all the manuscripts of every given
source. Instead it wanted to utilize manuscripts that met certain chosen
criteria, the principal being that only the earliest manuscripts of each
source were to be utilized for the purposes of the Dictionary. A single
manuscript out of these was chosen to serve as the “main transmission”, the
manuscript according to which the text of the said source was installed in
the Academy’s database.
At the same time that the Source Book was being completed,
first attempts were made to process full sources by computer. In 1961, before
the third World Congress of Jewish Studies, there appeared the booklet Samples
of Concordance and Word Collections of Barayta di-Melekhet ha-Mishkan – an
automation attempt in Hebrew research with IBM computers. This booklet
presents the first attempt to process a Hebrew text with the aid of
computers, although the processing procedure that is presented in it is not
the one that the Project has finally adopted.
Four years later, in 1965, before the fourth World
Congress of Jewish Studies, there appeared the booklet Megillat
'Aħima'az – text, concordance and lexical analysis. The
editorial board wanted thereby to show its method of preparing the material
for the Historical Dictionary by means of the computer and of the
technological means at its disposal then – from setting up the source to
setting up its concordance. This booklet already presents the method of the
Dictionary, as was destined to be applied with very few changes almost until
the present time.
This method was described in full detail in the booklet
The HDP and the Ways of its Making, published in 1969, before the
fifth World Congress of Jewish Studies. An earlier version of this method was
described already in the Source Book, pp.232-235 (reprinted in Leshonenu
It is important to emphasize one feature of the
concordance. Its structure and its code system enable a uniform treatment of
texts from all layers of the Hebrew language: Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic and
Talmudic Hebrew, medieval Hebrew and modern Hebrew. The mere existence of
this possibility – the possibility to treat texts from all the language
layers in one system – is a remarkable illustration of the historical
uniformity of Hebrew morphology. Despite all the – very many! – differences
between the historical layers of the language, all of them together and each
and every one of them on its own represent aspects of one language –
Eight years after the publication of Megillat
'Aħima'az, in 1973, there appeared Book of Ben Sira: text,
concordance and analysis of the vocabulary. The book contained the Hebrew
source of the Book of Ben Sira according to the manuscripts that
served the HDP, the concordance of the book, as it was set up in the Project,
as well as numerous lexicological lists; an index of the tevot and
their lexicographic entries, a list of the entries in descending frequency
order, etc. As pointed out by Ben-Ħayyim in the preface, “the editorial
board of the Historical Dictionary sought to present this work in the usual
form of a printed book without its being typeset. The reason for this
was that typesetting and everything connected with it were liable to impair
the accuracy of the material and its fidelity to the MSS, which had been
achieved with such great effort by the mechanographical method. [...] This is
perhaps the first time that an attempt has been made to apply this form of
printing to a Hebrew book of so extremely complicated [...] nature, both
because of the way the contents are arranged and the range of letters and
symbols used [...]” (p.viii).
The next two publications of sources of the Historical
Dictionary and their concordances were no longer printed on paper. In 1988 a
part of the database appeared on microfiche: Materials for the Dictionary
– Series I – 200 BCE-300 CE. These microfiches were edited in a similar
manner as the Book of Ben Sira from 1973.
In 1998 there appeared the Ma'agarim [Databases]
CD-ROM, including the Historical Dictionary’s database from
the period of the second century BCE to the first quarter of the fifth
century CE. A second edition of this CD was published in 2001, where the
database was expanded and included texts up to the first half of the eleventh
The department of modern literature
and the department of medieval literature
Until 1969 the activity of the HDP focused on ancient
literature. That year the department of modern literature was established.
This department was intended to process sources from the years 1750-1947. Two
events demarcate this 200-year period: beginning in the sixth decade of the
eighteenth century, with the publication of the journal Qohelet Musar
(edited by Moses Mendelssohn; only two issues of which appeared), among the
heralds of the Haskalah period in Europe, and ending in the year 1947,
before the establishment of the State of Israel. This date, which is some
decades ago now, offers a better perspective for examining the state of the
language in that period.
Two historical facts are at the essence of the work of
the department of modern literature: one – the multitude of Hebrew sources in
the said period, and the other – the printed book (or journal) being the
major means for disseminating the writings of that period.
Thus, the editorial board made two decisions that
differentiated between the work of the department of modern literature and
that of the department of ancient literature: first – to process only a
selection of sources from the relevant period, not all of them, and second –
to process each source according to its first (and sometimes only)
publication in print. Excluded from the first decision were three great
authors, all the work of whom it was decided to process: Mendele Mokher
Sefarim, Ħayyim Nahman Bialik and Shmuel Yosef Agnon. The practical
meaning of the second decision made it necessary to find the place of first
publication of, for example, each of Agnon’s hundreds of stories – and to
locate the journal or the book where it was printed.
In 1977 the first pamphlet of the Source Book
appeared “for the period from 1750 onwards [...] a selection of writings from
the Hebrew belles-lettres (1860-1920)”.
The department of medieval litertaure was established
at the end of 1999, with the aim of treating literature of the 700-year
period between 1050-1750 CE. At present this department deals with the Geonic
As of April 2004, the HDP databases have been supplied
with about 3,500 sources ranging from one or a few words (inscriptions and
old coins) to tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of words (the Mishnah
and the Tosefta, books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,
etc). The total number of word tokens in these sources is about 18,500,000;
about 8,500,000 of them have received lexicographical entries.
At present, the computer department of the Academy is
developing a new software for the HDP, and the three project departments are
gradually proceeding to use it. The transformation to the use of the new
software is accompanied by a real revolution in the structure of the
Dictionary’s databases, and it necessitates their comprehensive updating. The
task of updating the ancient literature database has now been completed, and
serves as the base for updating the modern literature database, which is
currently being done.
There are several aspects to this updating, the
principal ones of which are: completing the vowel points that for economy
reasons was omitted before (indicating the first two vowel points in each
word sufficed to distinguish between most
of the homographic words in the language); setting standard pointing to those
entries, which for various reasons had different spelling from the Hebrew standard
today; attributing the Dictionary entries to their roots. If the word’s root
was not determined, it is attributed to another selected form – the “neta”.
The form of the Historical Dictionary:
The Root 'RB – Specimen Pamphlet
and a thought about the future
We have so far dealt with describing the work of the
HDP, with its source books and its databases. But what will be the form of
the Dictionary itself?
The editorial board tried to answer this question in
1982 and published – on the pages of the journal Leshonenu – a
specimen pamphlet, containing the complete lexicographic processing of one
root of the Hebrew language – the root 'RB (Leshonenu
46.3-4.165-267). The root 'RB was chosen as a sample because of the
many difficulties it poses to the lexicographer in determining its branches
of meanings, whether because of homonomy or because of polysemy. As
Ben-Ħayyim, who edited the pamphlet, wanted to present in it the
continuity of use of the words derived from the root 'RB, he included
references not only from the Dictionary's databases – the ancient literature
database and the modern literature database – but also from sources from
historical layers of the language not yet processed in the HDP (see sample
pages 174, 201, 247).
However, this pamphlet was written and printed when the
personal computer and information networks such as the Internet were still in
their infancy. The enormous development that has occurred in information
technology in recent years requires the Project to adapt continuously, and it
will naturally have an influence on the design of the Dictionary.
Nevertheless, the infrastructure work that has been done, is being done and
will be done on the Project, offers a solid base for the compilation of the
Historical Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, whatever end form it may have.
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