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Hebrew and Semitic Studies

Between Escapism and Strife: A recent 8-part conference series in honour of the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem, featuring noted alumni screening and discussing their workHebrew: An Exciting New (Old) World

Learning a foreign language is a challenge, but it can be an immensely rewarding one. It gives you not only access into a new world—people, places, culture, history, and world view—but also new perspective on the world you already know. This is true of learning any new language, but the effects are arguably more profound in the case of a language like Hebrew, both a vibrantly dynamic and amazingly flexible modern language of speech and culture and an ancient tongue whose writings are rich in history, artistry, and thought. Few modern languages can boast a literary repertoire as influential as Hebrew’s has been in the course of human history. And no ancient language has enjoyed more success at being revived as a mother tongue than Hebrew. Whatever your background, however much you may know or not know about Hebrew and its literature, whatever your interests in the language and culture of Israel, and whatever you may see yourself doing with this training in future, we invite you to consider entering into the world of Hebrewin all its wealth, depth, and vitality.

Silver Scroll
One of the silver scrolls from Ketef Hinnom. Containing a version of the Priestly Blessing from Num 6, these represent the earliest documentation of a text found in the Bible.

Hebrew History in a Nutshell

Documentation of the Hebrew language extends back 3,000 years or more, from the earliest inscriptions and biblical texts, down to the most recent Israeli songs, novels, and newspaper editions. It is the main language of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible, i.e., Old Testament), as well as of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which, since their initial discovery in 1947, have shed much 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 and sages in their voluminous writings, e.g., the Mishna, the Talmud, and midrashim (explanations of biblical texts), which are foundational to Judaism. 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, the language also, of course, served as a vehicle of Jewish prayer and worship, both at home and in the synagogue, and was a means of international communication between Jewish communities. Since the Renaissance and Reformation periods and up to the present day, Christians have also studied Hebrew. Finally, comatose as a widely-used mother tongue for some 1800 years, Hebrew was unprecedentedly reinvigorated as a spoken mother tongue in the nineteenth century. No longer just a liturgical and literary language, it rapidly became a vernacular in everyday use, and is now the most widely-employed language of the State of Israel, where it continues to develop, is used for all forms of communication, and where there is a vigorous and growing literature.

Hebrew at Cambridge

Jer 2.2 Genizah
A magnification of Jeremiah 2.2 from a medieval Genizah fragment.

Cambridge has long been a centre for Hebrew and Semitic studies, the Regius Professorship of Hebrew having been founded by Henry VIII in 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 CE onwards. It attracts scholars from many parts of the world to work in Cambridge. Students wishing to learn about the Genizah enjoy guided access to the collection as well as expert supervision in their research.

Why Hebrew at FAMES?

In three words, rigour, breadth, and flexibility. Taught in small groups by experts in the field, our students reach high levels in communicative and analytical stills.

1QIsa b (one of the Isaiah Scrolls) from caves above Khirbet Qumran
The programme offers students exposure to the entire history of Hebrew language and literature, both Modern and Pre-modern (Enlightenment, Medieval, Ancient), affording fascinating windows into thought, history, and culture. We aim to produce students who can not only understand and communicate in Hebrew, but are capable of recognising the linguistic and literary characteristics of works written in various historical periods as well as doing sophisticated linguistic and literary analysis. After an initial year of grounding in Modern and Biblical Hebrew and Ancient and Contemporary Middle Eastern History, the student enjoys great flexibility in choosing their period(s) of specialisation. There is also great flexibility in the various choices students have in combining Hebrew with another language or following a particular concentration within the Faculty and/or in cooperating Faculties, such as Divinity, MML, History, Linguistics, and the world-renown Genizah Research Unit of the Cambridge University Library (see below).


The Hebrew degree at FAMES takes four years, with the third year spent abroad. Along with general courses on Middle Eastern history and culture, students in the FAMES Hebrew programme 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 and literature a meaningful historical depth and the study of ancient Hebrew an added vitality. All students have the opportunity to study original medieval manuscripts from the Genizah. Topics covered in conjunction with the study of Modern Hebrew include the depiction of Israeli culture in the media, for example, changes in the depiction of the Haredim (ultra-orthodox) in film and television; the roots and development of Zionism; the presentation of gender in Hebrew literature; the birth and development of Modern Hebrew literature based on ancient strata and on the late pre-modern output of the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment) and the Tehiya (Revival).

A student's third year in the Hebrew programme is spent in Israel. This is one of the most important components of the course, since it allows the student to be immersed in Israeli culture, to build on the linguistic knowledge acquired during the first two years in order to reach near-fluency in the language, and to conduct first-hand research on a research topic of their choice. For example, one recent student's 4th-year dissertation examined distinctive features in the Modern Hebrew speech of the Bedouins in Israel.

Eliezer Ben-Yehudah
Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, the father of Modern Hebrew
Thanks to the variety of languages and courses on offer within FAMES and to links to other faculties within the University, students enjoy great flexibility in selecting among various combination tracks and emphases. A student may officially combine Hebrew with Arabic or a Modern European Language. It is also possible to study Hebrew while emphasizing such topics as Persian, an Ancient Near Eastern Language (Akkadian or Egyptian), Linguistics, Jewish Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and Semitics (see the suggested course descriptions below). In the more advanced stage of the course (Part II), those interested in Semitics more generally can, in addition to Hebrew and Arabic, study Phoenician, Ugaritic, and Aramaic.
Israeli newspapers
A selection of Israeli newspapers
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.


But what can I do with Hebrew?

The Hebrew Studies programme at Cambridge is, of course, excellent preparation for pursuing of more advanced degrees in Hebrew and Hebrew-related subjects (such as Bible, Religious Studies, Theology, Hebrew literature, history, and Middle Eastern Studies, and other Semitic languages, Arabic included), but as the language of a modern and thriving democracy of the Near East, it is also immensely useful as preparation for jobs in foreign relations, diplomacy, conflict resolution, development, translation, and journalism, as well as for work in non-profit and non-governmental organizations, experience which employers in all fields find attractive in prospective employees. Relative to the graduates of other universities and of other departments within the University of Cambridge, FAMES graduates consistently rank high in finding suitable employment in a variety of fields and/or being accepted into advanced degree courses after graduation.

Hebrew Studies will be holding a Taster Day on Monday 19 February 2018 for Year 12 pupils (or equivalent). This is an ideal opportunity to find out whether this is the area of study for you.

Detailed Programme Descriptions 

click on the links below for descriptions of the various combination and concentration tracks available

Full Hebrew Path

Hebrew and Arabic Language Combination

Hebrew and Modern European Language Combination

Hebrew and Persian Language Emphasis

Hebrew and Ancient Near Eastern Language Emphasis

Hebrew and Linguistics Emphasis

Hebrew and Jewish Studies Emphasis

Hebrew and Middle Eastern Studies Emphasis

Hebrew and Semitics Emphasis