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Was there a time in Jewish history when Hebrew (Lashon Hakodesh) was spoken?

Was it only spoken by the ancient Hebrews and not the surrounding nations? If so how would said nations refer to their "non Jewish" rituals/items?

If so, why don't we have non-religious literature from that period, assuming that Tanach doesn't cover the entirety of Lashon Hakodesh's vocabulary?

Do Mishnah or other texts introduce new words in Lashon Hakodesh?

Additionally, how did ancient Hebrew speakers discuss intimate actions or mundane items for which Lashon Hakodesh lacks specific words?

Any resources like books or articles, especially those discussing these topics from Mefarshim, would be incredibly helpful.

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    "why don't we have non-religious literature from that period" Where would we expect to find any of that? From the secular literature club whose devotees painstakingly copied it for generations with iron age technology?
    – Double AA
    Jan 8 at 20:55
  • See mg.alhatorah.org/Dual/Ramban/Shemot/30.13#m4e0n0 where Ramban argues with your conception of why Hebrew is called holy (which is Rambam's opinion) demonstrating that Tanach indeed does have words for intimate relations and excretions. See musingsonthetorah.blogspot.com/2023/03/… for an analysis of their disagreement.
    – Nahum
    Jan 9 at 16:59
  • eichlers.com/…
    – Nahum
    Jan 9 at 17:10
  • aleteia.org/2022/05/06/…
    – Nahum
    Jan 9 at 17:11
  • Why have we not found even one secular writing??? Were there other religious groups in those days? Why would jews preserve there artifacts and not the competing religions??? Jan 10 at 7:20

2 Answers 2

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Ramban says that Hebrew was the spoken language in Canaan

Bereishis 45:12

כי פי המדבר אליכם – בלשון הקדש, בלא מליץ, זה דעת המפרשים (רש"י, ראב"ע, רד"ק), והוא תרגום אנקלוס. ויתכן שאמר להם כך לאמתלא ולפיוס, כי איננה ראיה שידבר אדם אחד במצרים בלשון הקדש, כי על דעתי הוא שפת כנען. [כי אברהם לא הביאו מאור כשדים ומחרן כי ארמית היא, והגל הזה (בראשית ל"א:מ"ז-מ"ח) עד, ואיננו לשון לאיש אחד לבדו, אבל הוא שפת ארץ כנען] ורבים במצרים יודעים אותו, כי קרוב הוא, ואף כי המושל, שדרך המלכים והמושלים לדעת הלשונות.

THAT IT IS MY MOUTH THAT SPEAKETH UNTO YOU. I.e., in the Holy Language. This is the opinion of the commentators, and it is also the translation of Onkelos. It is possible that Joseph said so to them for plausibility and in order to be conciliatory, for the fact that a person in Egypt speaks the Holy Language is not proof that he is Joseph. It is my opinion that the Holy Language was the language of Canaan for Abraham did not bring it there from Ur of the Chaldees or Haran, as they spoke Aramaic there, as is attested to by "the heap." Now it was not the language of one man alone; rather, it was the language of the entire land of Canaan, and many people in Egypt knew it, since Canaan was nearby. We would particularly expect knowledge of languages in the case of a ruler for it is usual for kings and rulers to be linguistic.

Also see R. Avraham ibn Ezra to Yeshayahu 19:18

ביום – שפת כנען – מזה נלמוד כי הכנענים בלשון הקדש היו מדברים.

The language of Canaan. We may learn from this that the Canaanites spoke the holy language.

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Was there a time in Jewish history when Hebrew (Lashon Hakodesh) was spoken?

Definitely until the end of the first Beis Hamikdash; consider, for example, when Chizkiyahu's representatives ask Ravshakeh to speak to them in Aramaic (the international language of diplomacy at the time), rather than in "Yehudis," the Judean language, which "the people standing on the wall" understood (Melachim 2:18:26 and Yeshayah 36:11). After that, it seems that gradually Jews started speaking other languages (notably Aramaic), though half a millennium later we still find Rebbi stating that in Eretz Yisrael, one ought to speak either Lashon Kodesh or Greek (Sotah 49b, Bava Kamma 83a), which would hardly be realistic if the former weren't still being spoken at all.

Was it only spoken by the ancient Hebrews and not the surrounding nations? If so how would said nations refer to their "non Jewish" rituals/items?

It (or closely related dialects) were indeed spoken by other nations. See Nahum's answer. That said, the way in which it was spoken, as a holy language (especially in view of Rambam's opinion, Moreh Nevuchim 3:8, that it is so called because it doesn't have specific words for bodily functions and other indelicate things), can indeed have been specific to the Jews; there's even an explanation that this is what Chazal mean when they tell us that Pharaoh couldn't learn Lashon Kodesh (when, after all, as per the Ramban quoted by Nahum, there's no reason he wouldn't have known the language of a nearby country).

If so, why don't we have non-religious literature from that period, assuming that Tanach doesn't cover the entirety of Lashon Hakodesh's vocabulary?

DoubleAA put it well in a comment: "Where would we expect to find any of that? From the secular literature club whose devotees painstakingly copied it for generations with iron age technology?" The only alternative would be a fortuitous find (similar to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and only in such a climate; in the rest of Eretz Yisrael such writings would long since have rotted away). That said, there are a number of epigraphic finds, such as the inscription on the Shiloach Tunnel, that might be considered literature of a sort. And yes, some of them do contain words not found in Tanach - for example, the Shiloach inscription has the word זדה, otherwise unknown, and suggested to mean "crack" or something similar.

Do Mishnah or other texts introduce new words in Lashon Hakodesh?

Sure. They borrow lots of words from other languages and Hebraicize them. They also create new words and new forms out of the existing Hebrew stock; the Rambam (commentary to the Mishnah, Terumos 1:1) gives as an example the fact that the Biblical Hebrew noun תרומה yielded in Mishnaic Hebrew the verb תרם (as contrasted with Biblical Hebrew הרים), which in turn is inflected like any other Hebrew verb.

Additionally, how did ancient Hebrew speakers discuss intimate actions or mundane items for which Lashon Hakodesh lacks specific words?

They might have made up (or borrowed from other languages) such words, or used the circumlocutions that Lashon Kodesh (in Tanach) does use. Or, per the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (cited above), there might well have been a vernacular Hebrew (unrecorded in Tanach) that would have had such words, just that Lashon Kodesh (the specifically holy register of the language) did not.

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  • How do you know what "yehudis"—which essentially just means the language spoken in Judea—constituted? If שבלת is original to Hebrew then perhaps mg.alhatorah.org/Full/Shofetim/12/6#e0n0 would be indicative of it being spoken . .
    – Nahum
    Jan 9 at 16:50
  • @Nahum It's contrasted with Aramaic in those verses, so what else could it be? Has to be some register of Hebrew (and indeed the name Yehudis would simply be to contrast it with the dialect of the Kingdom of Yisrael).
    – Meir
    Jan 9 at 17:14
  • You may very well be right. I was just asking if you have any internal biblical evidence as to its definition.
    – Nahum
    Jan 9 at 17:46
  • @Nahum One possibility would be assonances between words that work only in Hebrew, such as שָׁקֵד\שֹׁקֵד in Yirmiyahu 1:11-12. Or symbolic names, such as אהלה and אהליבה in Yechezkel 23.
    – Meir
    Jan 9 at 18:14

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