A Hebraist is a specialist in Jewish, Hebrew and Hebraic studies. Specifically, British and German scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries who were involved in the study of Hebrew language and literature were commonly known by this designation, at a time when Hebrew was little understood outside practicing Jewish communities.
The 18th-century British academy was rife with pseudo-scholars, mystics, and "enthusiasts" interested in the Hebrew language for diverse and polemical reasons. The linguistic and historical advances brought by the discovery of Sanskrit, the putative deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics by some scholars, and archaeological insights into the ancient Near East, brought major sea-changes in the scholarly understanding of Biblical history. Interest in the Hebrew language intensified as debates raged about whether there was a historical flood of Noah, and whether Hebrew was the most ancient language in the world, taught by God to Adam. Historical linguistic scholarship led the way in these debates. Some Hebraists had posts in academies or churches, while others were strictly amateur.
Some Hebraists proposed theories that the vowels in the text of the Hebrew Bible, superadded to the text by the scribal tradition, were a Jewish conspiracy to mask the true meaning of Scripture. As a result, a genre of Hebraic scholarship concentrated on running the words of the Biblical text together, removing the vowels, dissecting the words in different ways, and adding alternate vowels so as to give an alternate sense to the text.