Ulpan, the Origins of Hebrew, and Tisha b’Av

old_hebrew Another update on the day. Ulpan today was fairly light: lots of simple exercises to practice using words we’ve learned recently as well as a review of the use of possessive pronoun suffixes. We also had another guest lecturer today come to speak to us about the origins and evolution of Hebrew as a language.

Tracing its shared roots with Phoenician and its spread through the Middle East as well as its interactions with languages in Europe and North Africa, he showed us how the script shifted and evolved over time. We also went into some very interesting detail on how scholars believe letters used to be pronounced and differentiated.

For instance, in Hebrew we have both the letter ס (samekh) and the letter ש (sin). In modern pronunciation, each of these letters sounds nearly identical to the English “s”. Between the work of linguistic anthropologists and historians, it has been suggested that the sin was pronounced in a more “lispy” fashion. Imagine pronouncing the letter “l” without vocalizing and simply passing air past your tongue and through your open mouth. Using this pronunciation, common Hebrew words like שמח (sameakh) would be pronounced quite differently a few thousand years ago: using both the lispy sin and the gutteral het (still used in Arabic). Give it a shot: it comes out sounding pretty odd to my ear.

As with all our previous lectures, I have been fascinated not only by the material but that I have been able to understand most of what they had to say. This lecture was probably the clearest yet… although I am unsure if this is because the lecturer was the best we’ve had so far, if he spoke in simplistic Hebrew for our benefit, or if my Hebrew really has dramatically improved. I am hoping for the latter.

I have spent the afternoon studying (as usual) and trying to get as much work done as possible before the beginning of Tisha b’Av this evening. For those who are unfamiliar with the day, it is traditionally observed as the day on which both the first and second Jewish temples were destroyed in Jerusalem, in 586 BCE and 70 CE respectively, as well as when the Romans crushed the final Jewish uprising in 135 CE, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and mass deportations began from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 among other major calamities. On this day, it is traditional to fast, read Megillat Aicha (Lamentations), and act as if one is in a period of mourning. You can read a little bit about it here.

This evening, I will be going down to the city to attend a rally organized by the Women in Green, an organization of “Land of Israel” activists who support the political unity of Jerusalem and the Jewish settlement of the territories. These are some very interesting folks with whom I hope to speak more during my time here doing research and this seems like an ideal opportunity to see such activism at work. The event begins at 8:00 tonight in front of the American consulate in Jerusalem with a reading of Aicha, followed by an organized walk around the walls of the Old City concluding near the Kotel. I should have lots to write about.

Tomorrow I will probably lay pretty low to deal with the fast. However, if I do manage to wake up at a reasonable hour, I may be attending a day-long study session at Pardes, a Jewish Studies institute here in Jerusalem very popular with diaspora Jews. Again, I will probably have lots to talk about once I return. Now the hour is already getting late and I have to get moving.

Thanks for reading as always and stay tuned for some real research content soon!

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