The literature embraced in this Dictionary covers a period of about one thousand years, and contains Hebrew and Aramaic elements in about equal proportions. The older Hebrew elements, which may conveniently be called the Mishnaic, and can in part be traced back to the first, if not to the second, century B. C. E., may be considered a continuation of the Biblical Hebrew—Biblical Hebrew tinged with Aramaisms. It is therefore apt to throw light, more directly than its successor, on many obscure words and passages in the Bible; nevertheless, the material for Biblical exegesis deposited in the later literature is an inexhaustible mine, which still awaits exploitation by sympathetic students. Besides the Mishnah and the Tosefta, the Mishnaic period embraces Sifra and Sifré, Mekhilta, and the older elements preserved in the Gemara, of which the prayers incidentally quoted are a very essential and interesting part.
The later Hebrew elements in the Gemara and in the Midrashim lead down to the fifth and the eighth century respectively, and to a larger degree than the earlier Hebrew sections are mixed with Aramaic elements, and with foreign words borrowed from the environment and reflecting foreign influences in language as well as in thought. The Aramaic portions of the literature under treatment comprise both the eastern and the western dialects. Owing to the close mental exchange between the Palestinian and the Babylonian Jews, these dialects are often found inextricably interwoven, and cannot be distinguished lexicographically.
The subjects of this literature are as unlimited as are the interests of the human mind. Religion and ethics, exegesis and homiletics, jurisprudence and ceremonial laws, ritual and liturgy, philosophy and science, medicine and magics, astronomy and astrology, history and geography, commerce and trade, politics and social problems, all are represented there, and reflect the mental condition of the Jewish world in its seclusion from the outer world, as well as in its contact with the same whether in agreement or in opposition.
- For these Aramaic elements the traditional (though admittedly incorrect) term Chaldaic (Ch., ch.) is retained in the Dictionary, wherever the designation is required for distinction from the corresponding Hebrew forms.