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  • Dr. David Neiman

A Brief History of the Jewish People part 1

Introduction

While each nation has its own distinctive characteristics which set it apart from others, the Jewish People is unique in many ways which are unlike those of all others, and Jewish History has features which are so distinctive that, in the words of the biblical poet, "Here is a people which dwells apart and cannot be numbered among the nations. "

One of these features is the fact that, for most of our historical experience we have been a diaspora nation. Beginning with the destruction of the city of Samaria, the capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel, by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.E., and the expulsion of its inhabitants, a part of the Israelite nation was deported from the Land of Israel and forced into exile. Another community of Israelites, the Judeans, was exiled from Jerusalem, the capital of the Kingdom of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 597 B.C.E., and a much larger number was driven into Babylonian captivity with the destruction of Jerusalem by the same Babylonian conqueror in 586 B.C.E. We know, therefore, that since the sixth pre-Christian century sizeable numbers of Jews and other Israelites have lived in foreign lands; that is, beyond the boundaries of the Land of Israel; at times by compulsion, and at times of their own free will.

For more than two-and-a-half millenia Jews have inhabited lands the world over, from the most distant regions of South and East Asia to the western shores of the American continents. During the span of their history the Jewish People have undergone acculturation to many different civilizations, in the course of which process they encountered languages which were, at first, foreign to them. But after a brief interval they adopted the languages of the people among whom they lived and absorbed, transformed, and in many cases "converted" them. Over the course of the centuries many "Jewish Languages" arose which served the Jewish People as their vernacular for centuries. These Jewish languages were similar to but in many respects different from the languages of the non-Jewish population among whom they lived.

The Place of Hebrew in Jewish Life

Hebrew is the eternal language of the Jewish People. Regardless of changing linguistic and cultural contexts, throughout their migrations from Israel to Babylonia. from Persia to the Far East, from Alexandria, Egypt to Rome and Northern Europe, from Eastern Europe to the shores of the American continents, the Hebrew language has always been an integral part of Jewish life. It is the language of the Sacred Scriptures of our people, and is called Leshon Ha-Kodesh, "The Language of the Sacred."

Since reading and writing the Hebrew language and translating and understanding the text of the Torah was the standard of elementary education in the Jewish world, Hebrew was always a living part of Jewish life. The Hebrew alphabet was the first system of writing learned by Jewish children; it was the alphabet Jews always used to write every language they encountered, and all Jewish languages were written in the Hebrew alphabet. Hebrew was so integrated into Jewish life, that every language spoken by the Jews acquired a significant vocabulary of Hebrew words.

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