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Hebrew and Semitic Studies

Hebrew literature has had a life of about 3,000 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 also studied Hebrew, especially in the Renaissance and Reformation periods and in the centuries since then.

Rachel Williams teaching Hebrew

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.

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 contains thousands of manuscript fragments datable to the seventh century onwards. It brings scholars from many parts of the world to work in Cambridge.

Students taking undergraduate courses in Hebrew study Hebrew language, literature and culture of all periods (ancient, medieval and modern). The teaching staff include specialists in each of these periods. It is our approach to integrate these historical layers of the language in a single coherent course. This gives the study of the modern language a meaningful historical depth and the study of ancient Biblical Hebrew an added vitality. All students have the opportunity to study original medieval manuscripts from the Genizah.

Hebrew may be combined with Arabic or Persian, or with a Modern European Language. In the more advanced stage of the course (Part II), students may study other languages that are closely related to Hebrew, such as Aramaic, Phoenician and Ugaritic. Aramaic has a history that is equally long as that of Hebrew and is still spoken in numerous vernacular dialects, many now highly endangered. Teaching is available for all periods of Aramaic, including of the modern dialects.