The great monuments of the earliest period of Hebrew literature are the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. Parts of the Pseudepigrapha and of the Dead Sea Scrolls were also produced before the conquest of Judaea by Titus. The literature of the Jews developed mainly in the Hebrew language, although there were also works in Greek, Aramaic, and Arabic.
In the 2d cent. A.D. began the Talmudic period, which lasted well into the 6th cent. In these centuries the great anonymous encyclopedic work of religious and civil law, the Talmud, was compiled, edited, and interpreted. The Midrash—a collection of halakah (found also in the Talmud) and haggadic material—likewise forms part of the Hebrew literature of that period. In the 4th cent. the Targum to the Pentateuch and to the Prophets was finished. The 6th and 7th cent. saw the development of the Masora in Palestine. In Babylonia meanwhile many valuable additions to Hebrew literature were made by the Gaonim after the 6th cent.
Commentaries on the Talmud and haggadic material continued to be written until the 11th cent., when the Babylonian academies were suppressed and the center of Jewish literary activity shifted to Spain. France and Germany became the main centers of Talmudic commentary. In Spain, and to some extent in Italy, Hebrew literature flourished for centuries. The finest work was accomplished in the realms of poetry—influenced by Arab and Indian literature—and philosophy. Philology, exegesis, and codification also flourished. By the 14th cent. the largely Aramaic mystical treatise, the Zohar, had appeared—the masterpiece of a flourishing literature of Jewish mysticism (see kabbalah).
Famous scholars and authors of Hebrew literature in the Middle Ages included Aha of Shabcha, Saadia ben Joseph al-Fayumi, Dunash ben Tamim, Dunash ben Labrat, Gershom ben Judah, Al-Fasi, Solomon ben Judah Ibn Gabirol, Rashi, Judah ha-Levi, Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Immanuel ben Solomon, Isaac Abravanel, and Joseph ben Ephraim Caro. In the persecutions following the Crusades, when the Jews were driven from country to country, they clung to their literature—which leaned increasingly to mysticism and asceticism—and especially to the Hebrew Bible.
On the threshold of the transition from the old isolated life to a wider one was the poet Moses Hayyim Luzzatto—a contemporary of the Gaon of Vilna, Elijah ben Solomon—but the modern period of Hebrew literature really began with Moses Mendelssohn. While Nachman Krochmal and Shloime Ansky (Solomon Seinwel Rapoport) were contributing to biblical criticism and historical scholarship, writers such as Peretz (Peter) Smolenskin were devoting themselves to Haskalah, or literature of enlightenment, intended to shake the Jews of Central Europe from their medieval attitudes. Other important figures of the period are the scholar Joseph Halévy, the poet Jehuda (Leon) Gordon, and the novelist Solomon Yakob Abramovich, whose pseudonym was Mendele mocher sforim.
The rise of Zionism, particularly reflected in the writings of Ahad Ha-am (Asher Ginzberg), gave Hebrew literature fresh impetus, and Palestine became again the center of publication in Hebrew. Hebrew was proclaimed the national language of the Jews even before the establishment (1948) of the state of Israel. The two great poets of modern Hebrew literature are Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Saul Tchernihovsky, who was strongly influenced by ancient Greek literature. The poetry of Abraham Shlonsky, Lea Goldberg, and Nathan Alterman deals with social and political themes.
Among the many writers of prose are Joseph H. Brenner, who described Jewish life in Eastern Europe and pioneer life in Palestine, and Salman Shneur, who wrote of the simple and uneducated Jews. The Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon portrayed the Eastern European milieu and pioneer life in Palestine; his works have become classics in modern Hebrew epic literature. Hebrew writers who are native to Israel seek inspiration in the classical Hebrew past or in the new life of Israel. The most outstanding writer of this group is Moshe Shamir, who in his two novels—one depicting a Hasmonean king and the other dealing with the Arab-Israeli War of 1948—gave new dimensions to Hebrew fiction.
Aron David Gordon (1856-1922) was one of the greatest social and political essayists of Hebrew literature; significant Hebrew language literary critics include David Frishman (1861-1922) and Yosef Klausner (1874-1958). In recent years the Israeli novelists Amos Oz, Abraham B. Yehoshua, and Aharon Appelfeld, and the poet Yehuda Amichai have been widely translated and have achieved international distinction. Outside Israel, the writing of the Jews is ordinarily in the language of the countries in which they live or in Yiddish, whose literary use developed rapidly after the middle of the 19th cent.
See N. Kravitz, Three Thousand Years of Hebrew Literature (1972); T. Carmi, ed., The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (1981); M. Neiman, A Century of Modern Hebrew Literary Criticism, 1784-1884 (1983); B. Holtz, ed., Back to the Sources (1984); R. Alter, The Invention of Hebrew Prose (1988).
Most Jewish religious literature is written in Hebrew. The Mishna is the primary rabbinic codification of laws as derived from the Torah. It was written in Hebrew about 200 CE. Jewish worship services were compiled in book form primarily in Hebrew, originally by Amram Gaon and Saadia Gaon. Torah commentaries from Abraham ibn Ezra to Rashi and beyond were written in Hebrew. So were the codifications of Jewish law, such as the Shulchan Aruch.
These works of Hebrew literature were in many cases combined or augmented with additional literature in a language that was more familiar to Jews at the time. The Gemara was added as an Aramaic-language commentary on the Mishna to constitute the Talmud. Some of the traditional Jewish prayers are in Aramaic. Some important works of medieval philosophy, such as the Guide to the Perplexed, were originally written in Arabic.
During the golden age of Jewish culture in Spain, some prominent rabbis moved to Moorish Spain as religious repression increased elsewhere in the Muslim world. Their religious perspective depended on works in the Arabic language that their colleagues elsewhere in Europe could not read. These rabbis and their successors in Spain, Provence, and Italy translated many works of Jewish, Muslim, Greek, and Roman philosophy and science into Hebrew from Arabic. The influx of subject matter into the Hebrew language forced an expansion of its vocabulary.
In the eighteenth century, the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) movement worked to achieve equality and freedom for European Jews by promoting Jewish culture as equal. Moses Mendelssohn's translation of the Hebrew Bible into German inspired interest in the Hebrew language that led to the founding of a quarterly review written in Hebrew. Other periodicals followed.
As Zionist settlement in Palestine intensified, Hebrew became the shared language of the various Jewish immigrant communities. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in particular worked to adapt Hebrew to the needs of the modern world, turning to Hebrew sources from all periods to develop a language that went beyond the sacred and was capable of articulating the modern experience.
In 1922, Hebrew became the official language of pre-state Israel. In 1966, Shmuel Yosef Agnon won the Nobel Prize for Literature for novels and short stories that employ a unique blend of biblical, Talmudic and modern Hebrew.
Among other Israeli authors who were translated into other languages and attained international recognition are Ephraim Kishon, Yaakov Shabtai, A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Irit Linur, Etgar Keret and Yehoshua Sobol.
Today thousands of new books are published in Hebrew each year, both translations from other languages and original works by Israeli authors.