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literature written by Jews in Hebrew and, by
extension, certain theological and scholarly
works translated from the Hebrew by Jewish
Hebrew was the principal literary language of the
Jews until the 19th century, when European
languages came into use for works of modern
Jewish scholarship and Yiddish became a vehicle
of literary expression
Since the establishment of Hebrew as the
official language of Israel in 1948, a large body
of fiction and nonfiction has been written in the
Ancient Hebrew literature consists mainly of the
Hebrew Bible (also known as the Old
It forms the bedrock of much subsequent Hebrew
literature as a source of authority, themes, and
Viewed in literary terms, the core of the Hebrew
Bible is an epic saga that extends from the book
of Genesis to the book of Kings and describes the
formation of the Jewish people and their relation
This story is told through different kinds of literary
materials, mainly narrative, poetry, and law.
A consciousness of time pervades the Bible.
Rather than presenting a set of unchanging truths, the
Hebrew Bible tells the story of a relationship that unfolds
This relationship is embodied in the concept of the
covenant, a compact in which God promises to protect Israel
and Israel promises to keep the divine law.
After relating the events leading up to the institution of the
covenant (in the books of Genesis and Exodus), the narrative
describes a widening cycle of disobedience, warnings
from Hebrew prophets, and punishment.
This cycle leads to the destruction of the Jerusalem
Temple, the Babylonian captivity, and the return to Israel.
Some books of the Bible are written entirely in
poetry, including Psalms, Song of Songs, and
In addition, whole poems and poetic fragments are
scattered throughout the narrative sections as
When poetry appears in conjunction with
narrative, its function is to extract and heighten
the religious message being conveyed.
Within the poetry sections, the telling of the
covenant saga alternates with hymns, in which the
listeners are invited to join in praising God’s
intervention in history.
The biblical story, in the Book of
Exodus, leads to the revelation of the
Torah (Law) to the Israelite people at Mount
The revelation represents the formal
offering and acceptance of the
covenant, whose terms are set out as a set
of divinely ordained commandments.
God’s protection of Israel within the
vicissitudes of history is made dependent
upon faithfulness to these commandments.
The role of prophet is the true calling in the Hebrew Bible.
The prophet is chosen by God to be the vehicle, often
involuntary, for God’s word.
This burden is difficult, and often anguished and dangerous.
The prophet has the gift of moral vision, which comprehends the
relationship between the present actions of the nation and the terms
of the covenant.
In addition, the prophet alone understands that the corruption he
sees will inevitably result in God’s abandonment of Israel and its
The challenge becomes how to communicate this unpopular
The prophet performs symbolic acts to draw attention to it, but in
the end must rely upon words of persuasion, employing such means
as hyperbole (exaggeration), parable (literary
illustration), ridicule, figures of speech, and dramatization.
Changed historical circumstances, including
subjugation of the Jews by the Romans and
others, created a need for further developments in
Hebrew law and religious ideas in the first
centuries of the 1st millennium AD.
After the completion of the Hebrew Bible and the
end of prophecy, God’s will could be discovered
only through the interpretation of the written
record of what had already been revealed.
A new class of religious leaders called rabbis
(“teachers”) arose to teach the law and apply it
to current conditions. The rabbinic period lasted
for about the first 500 years of the Christian Era.
Rabbis derived their authority from mastery of
the oral Torah.
This they conceived of as a body of law and
interpretations, which was revealed to Moses along
with the written Torah and subsequently passed
down by word of mouth from teacher to disciple.
The two main types of the oral Torah are Halakhah
and Haggada. Halakhah consists of statements
about practical legal matters and
obligations, whereas the Haggada comprises
legends and lore that surround the law.
The Mishnah, which was compiled in
Palestine around AD 200, is a brief legal
code that summarizes the decisions
of the oral Torah under six headings:
agriculture, festivals, civil
law, women, ritual purity, and sacrifices.
Like biblical law, the Mishnah does not
simply record the law but also offers a
map of an ideal sacred world.
The discussions about the Mishnah were compiled
and edited into the Talmud.
The Palestinian Talmud was completed about AD
500 and the Babylonian Talmud about AD 600.
Unlike the Mishnah, which is a code organized
around topics, the Talmud, a document of vastly
greater length, is a commentary that seeks
to reconstruct and understand the reasoning
behind the Mishnah’s concise rulings.
The Babylonian Talmud became the universally
accepted authoritative text of world Jewry
and the chief object of scholarly study until
the modern period of Hebrew literature.
The thousand years following the Arab conquest of
Palestine in the 7th century saw a great
flowering of Hebrew literature. Although it
continued to focus on law and interpretation,
Hebrew literature branched into many new areas
of creativity during this period.
The earliest Hebrew prayer books were
compiled about 880, and the first dictionary of
the Talmud was written about 900.
The era was also notable for Sefer ha-Mitzvot (The
Book of Precepts), calling for a return to Scripture,
written about 770 by Anan ben David, the founder
of the Jewish sect of the Karaites. Rhymed
Hebrew poetry was first written in the 8th
HASKALAH - In the late 1700s the efforts of German Jewish
philosopher Moses Mendelssohn to acquaint the Jews of
central Europe with Western culture initiated the movement
known as the Haskalah (“enlightenment”).
NATIONAL REVIVAL - Within the context of national
renewal, Hebrew literature took an inward turn to examine
the dilemma of the individual.
IN THE NEW HOMELAND - The settlement of Jews in
Palestine during the first half of the 20th century gave a new
impetus and direction to Hebrew literature, although the first
émigré prose writers were still emotionally tied to the past.
ISRAELI LITERATURE - The establishment of the state of
Israel in 1948 thrust into prominence a younger generation
of writers who had grown up in the new land and knew little
of east European Jewish life.
What is a psalm?
sacred song or poem of praise
VOICE – speaker
(mask, apostrophe, conversation)
TONE – poet’s attitude toward the subject
IMAGERY – visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile
rod and staff
goodness and mercy
house of the Lord