Following the destruction of the Second Temple, Mishnaic Hebrew filled the vacuum left by the demise of Biblical Hebrew. It also was the spoken language of the region, as is attested in the Bar-Kokhba letters written during the Second Jewish Revolt (132-135 CE). After the defeat of the Jews during the Second Jewish Wars, most “native speakers” of the tongue were killed off, and Mishnaic Hebrew remained only as a literary language.
Therefore, when circa 200 CE Yehuda HaNasi and his students redacted the oral tradition in the Mishna, Tosefta, and halachic Midrash, the language was, as Kutscher states, “already dead, or moribund.” He gives several proofs, among them the fact that students of the Rabbi were no longer completely familiar with Hebrew to the extent that they sometimes had to consult the Rabbi’s maidservant for some meanings. (Kutscher’s assumption was that the maid, who was from a lower class, still spoke Hebrew as a native tongue, and she fled Judea with the Rabbi to the Aramaic-speaking regions of the North where the Mishna was compiled.)
There are two layers of Mishnaic Hebrew. MH1 is the older linguistic stratum of the Mishna, Tosefta, and the Baraytot in the Talmudim; MH1 was the spoken language of the Tannaim. MH2, on the other hand, no longer was spoken naturally, but was used as the language of literary and religious discourse by the Amoraim in the Talmudim.
An influential theory advanced by Abraham Geiger, one of the founders of the Jewish Reform movement, held that Mishnaic Hebrew was never spoken at all, but was always an artificial, literary language. This theory was dismissed in the first few decades of the twentieth century by M.H. Segal. The publication of the Bar-Kokhba letters in the early 1960s, which dealt with mundane military and civilian matters, left no doubt that Mishnaic Hebrew had indeed been spoken.
Characteristics of Mishnaic Hebrew
The vocabulary of Mishnaic Hebrew is made up of Biblical words, Biblical material that underwent semantic or morphological changes, and foreign words from Akkadian, Persian, Greek, Latin and especially Aramaic. In some cases, words that were found in Biblical Hebrew with one meaning developed additional meanings in Mishnaic Hebrew.
There was more than one dialect of spoken Mishnaic Hebrew. A proof of this is the existence of several cases of multiple words for the same object amongst the Tannaim. The Mishnaic Hebrew spoken in Babylonia differed from that transmitted in Palestine.
Two corpora of transliterations are highly instructive in learning more about Hebrew in the first half of the first millennium CE. The first is the “Secunda,” the second column of the Hexapla, which is a six-column edition of the Bible edited by Origenes, who lived in Caesarea in the third century CE. The first column contained the Biblical text in Hebrew letters, the second a transliteration of the Hebrew text in Greek letters, and they were followed by four different Greek translations. Though only a few fragments survive of the second column, its contribution to understanding the pronunciation of Hebrew at this period is significant.
The transliterations of St. Jerome, who lived in Palestine at the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth century CE, are also a goldmine of information. A Christian convert from paganism, he came to the Holy Land from Europe and learned Hebrew from Jewish teachers in order to better translate the original Biblical texts into Latin. Several words of Mishnaic Hebrew are preserved in his writings.