The Renaissance of Hebrew among the Jews of the Western Diaspora

Researcher: Dr. Ortal-Paz Saar

This research initiative, part of the larger NWO project “Reconfiguring Diaspora”, explores the cultural history of Jewish people in Europe between the 3rd–11th centuries CE, and their interactions with non-Jews. In particular, the project focuses on the language change undergone by Jews at some point between Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. This change is best observed in funerary inscriptions. Whereas the epitaphs of Jews in Europe during the late-antique period were written primarily in Greek and Latin, with an occasional Hebrew word, a surprising change is observed from the 8th–9th century onward: funerary inscriptions begin employing sheer Hebrew. The project attempts to understand this “renaissance” or language change, and further explores Jewish funerary culture: commemorative norms, onomastics, and emotions, as these were expressed in the epigraphic data.

The geographical setting of the project focuses on Italy, since the data in this location is particularly rich and informative. Given the large numbers of potential research parameters provided by the data (life expectancy, personal names, occupations, official functions, cultural norms of commemoration, etc.), it was decided to employ digital humanities methods in order to enhance the project analytical capabilities, and–hopefully–its results.