Early Days

The founder and first editor of the dictionary was Prof. Ze’ev Ben-Hayyim, who served as editor from 1956 until 1992. The beginning of his term was spent in determining the ideological and technical visions for such a large undertaking. During 1957-1958, Ben-Hayyim spent time in Europe visiting similar historical dictionary projects throughout the continent. Upon his return, he reported on what he had learned to the Academy’s Historical Dictionary committee and proposed a plan of action for the HDP, including the use of computers, a revolutionary idea at the time.

Initially there was debate as to whether the Academy should create a series of dictionaries according to periods or literary genres, or whether it should work towards one integrated dictionary. In 1959 it was decided that there would be one central dictionary containing all periods. Material was first gathered from the ancient literature between 200 BCE and 1100 CE, and later, modern literature from 1750 onwards.

The work on the Historical Dictionary Project is based on the best possible manuscripts of the texts, which are entered into the database by three Academy researchers, and then analyzed by another three workers. In those cases in which there are several extant manuscripts, the clearest and most complete manuscript has been selected for incorporation into the dictionary. Manuscripts give a much more accurate view of the language than is found in printed editions of the texts. Working with manuscripts, including small fragments found in the famous Cairo Geniza, has been demanding and required considerable time and effort, yet it has been most rewarding for the linguistic information it has yielded. 

Not only “literature” is included into the dictionary. The section on Ancient Hebrew, for example, is based on inscriptions, coins, the Judean Desert scrolls, liturgy, Talmud and Midrash, poetry, Karaite literature and Gaonic texts. The inclusion and classification of material from this period is almost finished.

The work on Modern literature began in 1969. There is no way to fully catalog all the material due to its enormous breadth. Material here includes belles-lettres, scientific, natural, and medical texts, history, geography, journalist, periodicals, and more. The entire corpora of three authors are included in the dictionary: Mendele Moicher Sforim, Haim Nahman Bialik and Shmuel Yosef Agnon. By 2010 some 600 works from 80 authors had been entered into the dictionary, on the whole according to their first editions of the works.

During the past decade work has begun on Medieval literature. It is during the medieval period that there was the largest dispersion of the Jewish people and the variety of texts reflects the extent of the dispersion. Among the first texts to have been analyzed were Spanish poetry and rabbinic literature from 1050-1550.