The Historical Dictionary Project and the “Ma’agarim” Site 29/07/2018 – Posted in: General

The Hebrew Language Historical Dictionary Project is a national one. Its purpose is to compose a scientific historical dictionary that will be the most authoritative dictionary for the Hebrew language of all time and will be a kind of national library of the treasury of Hebrew words and Hebrew texts.

In the language of H. N. Bialik, “A compilation of linguistic assets throughout all the generations,” (Hevle Lashon, 1907).

To compose and assemble the dictionary, texts from all the language periods are gathered and undergo linguistic-scientific processing, according to the best manuscript versions and the most ancient and most accurate printings. Every work is read and examined by several researchers and a concordance is created for it, on which the dictionary is based. In this manner, the historical dictionary database is being built, which is the most comprehensive and authoritative database for Hebrew texts throughout all the language periods.

Doctoral and final projects as well as many books and articles written by researchers in Israel and abroad have made use of the historical dictionary’s findings and databases, which are at the disposal of researchers.

To date, there are over 20 million words stored in the dictionary database. Most of the material belongs to two segments:

  • The first segment covers all the Hebrew compositions that were written in the 1,300 years stretching from the Second Temple period to the end of the Geonic period, from 200 B.C.E. and until 1050 C.E. These include the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), inscriptions and amulets, the Mishna, Talmud and Midrash, Geonic literature, liturgy and liturgical poems, Karaite, scientific and linguistic literature, bills/deeds, Responsa literature.
  • The second segment includes a large selection of works of belles-lettres, science, essays, letters, etc., which appeared in the 200 years between the Enlightenment period to the establishment of the State. Included among them are the works of Ahad Ha’am, Bialik, Berdichevsky, Brenner, Gnessin, Hazaz, Jabotinsky, Mapu, Mendele, Mendelssohn, Lilienblum, Smolenskin, and many others.


At this time, after 50 years of labor, it appears that the completion of this enterprise – assembling all of the Hebrew composition until 1050 and gathering a wide and representative selection of all the compositions written afterwards – is a mission that can be realized. Two periods have not yet received appropriate representation in the database and the efforts of the researchers involved in the historical dictionary enterprise are now devoted there: The first is the Biblical period, which the founders of the enterprise preferred to postpone to a later stage since it has been researched more than any other period in the history of the Hebrew language. The second period is the interim period, from the middle of the eleventh century to the middle of the eighteenth century.

At this stage, work has begun on three literature segments from the interim period: The poetry of Spain, Rabbinic literature, and literature from the beginning of the Modern era. The next segment from the interim period to be processed is the philosophical and scientific literature translated from Arabic into Hebrew. Work has also begun on the inclusion in the database of the Bible and inscriptions from the same period.

The team of researchers working on the dictionary numbers about 30 people. The researchers work in their areas of expertise and are divided into five departments: (a) Ancient Literature; (b) the Geonic and Karaite Literature and Scientific Literature and Linguistic section; (c) the Poetry of the Middle Ages section; (d) the Rabbinic Literature of the Middle Ages section; (e) Modern Literature section.


Providing Access: The Historical Dictionary Database on the Internet

The Historical Dictionary is a pioneering project in the digital humanities in Israel and since its inception (in the late 1950s) it has been run by mechanized means and computerized methods.

As mentioned, the Historical Dictionary database serves researchers in Israel and abroad who rely on the dictionary project’s research results. The databases also provide the educated public with an inexhaustible wellspring of our spiritual and cultural treasures. Accordingly, already thirty years ago, the Academy of the Hebrew Language began presenting the project’s treasures via sophisticated means of the time – starting with microfiche and then using Ma’agarim CDs, and thus, enabled convenient access to Hebrew texts for reference and research purposes.

In 2005, the Academy created the Ma’agarim online site and began uploading all of the material on ancient literature residing in its database to the Internet. In 2014, the new Ma’agarim site was inaugurated; it includes the entire database from the Historical Dictionary project: Ancient literature, modern literature (except for copyright-protected works), and the new material from the Middle Ages which is published every few months and includes the poems of Shmuel HaNagid and Moshe Ibn Ezra, Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah and A. Dei Rossi’s 16th century volume, “Light of the Eyes.”


Uniqueness of the Ma’agarim Site

  • A linguistic-literary site: The Historical Dictionary database is a combined linguistic and literary database. It reflects the literary content of more than 2,200 years of Hebrew and also the use of the Hebrew language throughout the generations. In essence, the database’s grammatical analysis expresses the Hebrew language’s unity and continuity throughout its history. The dictionary entry accompanying every Hebrew word includes a grammatical analysis (root, verbal stem, tense) and variations in meaning. In and of itself, the collection of entries and roots provides invaluable information about Hebrew and also represents the infrastructure for other databases the Academy is developing, such as dictionary definitions and conjugation tables.
  • The texts: The texts found in the Historical Dictionary database are known for their scientific quality. As mentioned, these texts are reproduced based on the best manuscript versions or according to the earliest printings. They are carefully analyzed and processed according to strict scientific principles, in work carried out jointly by several researchers.

The Historical Dictionary database is unique in the abundance of its variety and periods it includes. For example, the database presents the letters of Bar-Kokhba alongside the writings of Y. H. Brenner, and alongside these, has collections of Talmudic literature, Karaite literature, books on science and linguistics, letters, liturgical poems, and more.

  • The linguistic analysis: The language aspect of the Historical Dictionary database is unique in its capabilities of search and interpretation. As distinct from other databases, the dictionary database is a concordance database and therefore, the search options it can offer are singular.

The Historical Dictionary database is extraordinary and is a cultural and scientific asset. Years of work have been and still are being invested in the project by three generations of scholars, not to mention significant resources to finance technological development and dedicated software development. This investment has borne the fruit of an unparalleled database, both in quality and quantity, of Hebrew texts processed using the Historical Dictionary project method. Creating the dictionary was initiated years ago and covers 31 centuries of Hebrew until the present time, and hundreds of entries have already been written.