Hebrew literature embraces many centuries of
Jewish literary tradition, with origins in ancient times during the
period when the Torah was codified. Until the eighteenth century, Hebrew
writing was comprised almost exclusively of religious texts. During and
after the Babylonian captivity (600-201 B.C.), a rich apocryphal
literature was written, including the Book of Daniel and the Books of
the Maccabees, and midrashim, as well as mystic and gnostic texts of the
Hellenistic period (the second century B.C. to the first century A.D.).
When the final Biblical canon was established, extensive
commentaries began to be written about it. These included the Mishnah,
and then the Talmud (first to sixth centuries), written in both Hebrew
and Aramaic. The Bible was translated into other languages (targum) for
speakers of Aramaic in Palestine, and also for the Jewish diaspora and
pagan converts to Judaism. Rabbinical responses appeared, which were
records of legal decisions made by respected rabbis in specific cases.
During the golden age of Jewish culture in Spain [from 900-1200 -
translator's note], philosophers and mystics were publishing their works
in Hebrew, Aramaic (Zohar) and Arabic (Maimonides, Nahmanides). Many of
them wrote poetry, both secular and religious (Judah ben Samuel
Ha-Levi). In the late Middle Ages through the sixteenth century, many
Talmudic commentaries were written (Rashi), as well as prayer books
(makhzor), moralistic literature ("Musar literature", [Hebrew, musar =
"ethics"]), written both by Sephardim and Ashkenazim.
In Renaissance Poland, the golden age of Jewish culture gave rise to
many religious works by rabbis who were famous throughout Europe (Moses
ben Israel Isserles, Solomon Luria, Shalom Shachna) and introduced new
concepts and methods into Talmudic studies (pilpul).
Because Poland shared a border with the Ottoman
Empire, Polish Jews were in contact with Sephardic Jewish culture,
particularly with the Kabbalistic schools in Safed and Tiberiade. As a
result, Sephardic literature began to circulate, as well as the
codification of Jewish religious law and practice, Shulkhan Arukh, by
Joseph ben Efraim Karo, the Kabbalistic theories of Isaac ben Solomon
Luria, and later works by adherents of Sabbathaism.
The Cossack uprisings, particularly the massacre by Chmielnicki's
army in 1648, shocked Polish Jews. They responded with chronicles, the
most famous of which, Yeven metsula [Hebrew, Deep Bog, 1653], was
written by Natan Hanover. Diaries by Ber of Bolechow titled Divrey bina
[Hebrew, Words of Reason] date back to the eighteenth century.
As Chasidism developed, religious literature was enriched by the
works of the tzaddikim. These works, written in Hebrew, included
Talmudic commentaries, legal (halakha) codexes, and biographies of the
tzaddikim written by their pupils (also in Yiddish), full of legends and
fairy tale motifs. These often took the shape of aphorisms and
parables, and cited the teachings of the masters.
The beginnings of modern Hebrew literature were associated with the
Haskalah movement; for the most part, these consisted of publicistic
writings, Biblical plays, and anti-Chasidic comedies, as well as
translations of European works of literature. In the early nineteenth
century, works popularizing secular knowledge also began to be written
in Hebrew, as well as academic treatises and philosophical works. These
authors included M. M. Lewin, N. Krochmal, A. Stern and C. Z. Slonimski.
The writings of supporters of the Haskalah movement helped bring about a
renaissance of the Hebrew language, as well as its modernization.
Hebrew literature really only reached its peak,
however, under the influence of Zionism, which recognized Hebrew as the
national language of the Jews. Eliezer ben Yehuda (1858-1922) had a
strong influence on its modernization and development. It was he who
decided to adopt Sephardic pronunciation and helped spread the use of
Hebrew among the Palestinian settlers. The classical works of modern
Hebrew literature were written in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries in Odessa, Warsaw and Galicia. These authors
included A. Mapu (1808-67), Achad Ha-Am, C. N. Bialik, S. Czernichowski
(1875-1943), and U. C. Grinberg.
As emigration increased during the interwar period, the center of
Hebrew literature moved to Palestine. Although the works written in
those places remained under the influence of European literary trends
for a long time, the authors developed their own styles as well. Several
works of contemporary Israeli literature have gained international
acclaim, including those by S. J. Agnon (winner of the Nobel Prize in
1966), and A. Oz, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1994.