Cambridge has long been a centre for Hebrew and Semitic studies, and the Regius Professorship of Hebrew was founded by Henry VIII as early as 1540. The University Library has a large number of Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts, and special mention must be made of the famous Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection. This collection of some 140,000 fragments comes from about the seventh century onwards. It brings scholars from many parts of the world to work in Cambridge.
Hebrew literature has had a life of about 3000 years, from the earliest inscriptions and biblical texts right down to the most recent novel by Amos Oz or the latest edition of the Yediot Ahronot or Ha'aretz newspapers. It is the language of the great prophets, psalmists and sages of the Hebrew Bible of the Dead Sea Scrolls which, since their discovery in 1947, have shed light on a convulsive period in Jewish history in the late Second Commonwealth.
After Biblical Hebrew a later form of the language was used by the early rabbis in their voluminous writings. In the Middle Ages Hebrew continued to be used by the great Jewish commentators on the Bible, and by poets, grammarians and authors of many other works. Throughout, it was, of course, the language of Jewish prayer and worship, in home and synagogue, and was a means of international communication between Jewish communities. Christians too studied Hebrew, especially in the Renaissance and Reformation periods and in the centuries since then.
Finally, Hebrew was reinvigorated in the nineteenth century, not just as a literary language, but also as a vernacular in everyday use, and it is now the language of the State of Israel, where there is a vigorous and growing literature.
Other Semitic languages taught in the department in addition to Arabic and Hebrew, include Aramaic, Phoenician and Ugaritic.
Aramaic, in both its spoken and written forms, has a similarly long history. It became the official language of the Persian Empire in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, and was widely used in Palestine during the period of the Second Temple. An extensive literature was produced in the Christian dialect of Aramaic known as Syriac. Aramaic is still spoken today by Jews and Christians in the form of numerous vernacular dialects, most of which are highly endangered.
Phoenician has survived in the form of numerous inscriptions, most of which are datable to the first millennium BCE. The Phoenicians originated in the Levant but settled in trading communities throughout the Mediterranean area. The alphabet used by the Phoenicians to write their language was the source of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets and also, ultimately, that of the alphabets used by the Greeks and Romans.
Ugaritic was the language of ancient Ugaritic in northern Syria. It has survived in numerous texts written in a cuneiform alphabet datable to the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE. These are of both a literary and documentary nature. They are important for understanding the historical background of the Hebrew language and of Biblical Hebrew literature.