From the Bible to Sir Isaac Newton: How Hebrew Survived and Thrived

Sir Isaac Newton was fascinated by the Hebrew language. The pioneering English physicist, famous today as one of the founders of modern science, wrote voluminously on prophecy, the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple, Maimonides’ philosophy, and the end of days, all based on his own translation and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and its rabbinic commentaries. In one of these unpublished manuscripts, entitled “Miscellaneous Notes and Extracts on the Jewish Temple,” written around the year 1680 and now kept in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, Newton analyzed the description of a prophetic vision of the Temple in the book of Ezekiel, quoting from the original Hebrew in a steady, clear hand.

Newton was not the only non-Jewish scholar studying Hebrew and Jewish works at the time. Known as the Christian Kabbalists, this group of late Renaissance thinkers, which included Francis Bacon and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, sought the esoteric and mystical powers hidden in the Hebrew language and alphabet. Irrational though these linguistic investigations may seem today, as Lewis Glinert writes in his new The Story of Hebrew, “Christian kabbalism could be said to have supplied much of the intellectual confidence that underwrote early modern science.”

For all its importance, Christian Kabbalah is usually deemed a curiosity of intellectual history, and is certainly seen as a side branch in the development of the Hebrew language. The fact that Glinert devotes two fascinating chapters to Christian Hebraicists like Newton is representative of his overall approach. Eschewing the familiar, triumphalist narrative of ancient glory and modern rebirth in Zion (with nothing worth mentioning in between), The Story of Hebrew follows the twists and turns, false starts and blind alleys of the Hebrew language from its biblical beginnings to contemporary Israeli usage. Glinert describes how, throughout the ages, Hebrew has fended off linguistic competitors — Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, German and, now, English — and, under the right circumstances of social stability and intellectual opportunity, has risen to the highest levels of scientific and poetic expression. The Story of Hebrew recasts Jewish history as a whole as a struggle to preserve not Judaism or Jewish culture, but the Holy Tongue itself.

Read the whole review of “The Story of Hebrew” in Haaretz.