Modern Hebrew is the first langauge of the State of Israel. However, the usage of Hebrew prior to the 20th century was minimal and in most places, restricted to Synagogue liturgies, Bible manuscripts and Torah study. After the Roman exile of Jewish communities from Judea in the first and second centuries AD, it was no longer widely spoken or even understood during those subsequent 2000 years until modern times
The remnant of Jews who remained in the Holy land after the exile spoke a number of dialects and other groups spoke Arabic in the Arabian peninsula.
Biblical Hebrew was widely spoken in ancient Israel from the tenth century BCE until the fourth BCE. This appears to have been a language of overlapping dialects from different regions. The use of Aramaic, a sister semitic language, grew from about sixth century BCE as the influence of the conquering Babylonians spread.
It is largely thanks to one man that Hebrew, as a distinct, developed spoken language, has been revived and reborn. That man was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.
Eliezer Perelman (his birth name), left, was born in Lithuania in 1858. As was common among Jews in Eastern Europe at that time, he studied Hebrew and the Bible from a very young age.
His mother tongue was Yiddish but he read the Hebrew texts. For many Jews of his era, the Hebrew language was set apart as a holy script and even if it had been used outside of study, it would have been very limited by insufficient vocabulary to conduct a modern conversation.
After his Bar Mitzvah, Eliezer was sent to a yeshiva in Belarus where he was exposed to some secular writing in Hebrew. He was influenced by an enlightened rabbi tutor and began to see that Hebrew was not limited to religious use alone.
The Orthodox view was that Hebrew was a holy language reserved for use in Synagogue and study. Any secular use was considered blasphemous.
Encouraged by the Head of the yeshiva, he studied secular literature in addition to his religious studies and was keen on studying Hebrew literature as a non religious way to embrace Jewish nationalism.
...it was as if the heavens had suddenly opened, and a clear incandescent light flashed before my eyes, and a mighty inner voice sounded in my ears: the renascence of Israel on its ancestral soil...the more the nationalist concept grew in me, the more I realized what a common language is to a nation..."
From the moment he saw that Hebrew could be used for non liturgical uses he was eager to see it revived and used as a spoken language. He went on to study history and the politics of the Middle East at the Sorbonne university in Paris.
While he was there, he met a Jew from Jerusalem who spoke Hebrew. On hearing the spoken form of Hebrew he became further convinced that it's revival as a spoken language could become the language of a nation.
Through reading the Hebrew language paper HaShahar, he learned of the Zionist movement. He concluded that reviving the Hebrew language could be a factor in uniting Jews worldwide.
As Ben-Yehuda was finishing his studies, Russia made war on the Ottoman Empire to assist the Bulgarians in gaining independence. He was living with a wealthy Russian family at this time. The oldest of the six children in the family was Deborah. She tutored the sixteen year old Eliezer in French, Russian and German.
In 1877, as the Russians warred with the Ottomans, the ideal of nationalism grew in importance for Ben-Yehuda. He was zealous for the 'one state for each nation' concept. Several other nations were also revived in the nineteenth century including Greece and Italy.
This inspired Ben-Yehuda to think about his own people, their links to their ancestral land and ties to historic Jerusalem. If European nations could be revived then surely 'the people of the Book' could be too.
He left Russia to study medicine but his own poor health prevented him from finishing his studies. He had developed a nagging cough which was later diagnosed as tuberculosis. He wrote to Deborah letting her know of his illness and also saying:
I have decided that in order to have our own land and political life, it is also necessary that we have a language to hold us together. That language is Hebrew, but not the Hebrew of the rabbis and scholars. We must have a Hebrew language in which we can conduct the business of life. It will not be easy to revive a language dead for so long a time."
On the advice of his doctors, Ben-Yehuda went to Algiers to take advantage of the favourable climate for his TB. He had been given six months to live. It was here that he heard Hebrew spoken by Sephardic Jews, although initially he couldn't understand them and neither they him.
The reason was the pronunciation was so different. Eliezer found their pronunciation far more preferable and adopted it. From this time on it was this new, more fluid pronunciation that was used.
In 1881, Ben-Yehuda and Deborah were married and later that year they emigrated to Jerusalem. The Jerusalem that greeted them was a filthy place with a community of about 25,000. The languages spoken were Spanish, Russian, Ladino and Arabic. Ben-Yehuda was determined to see his plans to further a revival of the Jewish people realised.
He wrote articles in a number of Hebrew periodicals about a renaissance of the Jews, their land and language. He called for a revival of the Hebrew language into everyday use. He signed his articles by his new name Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.
The name signified his sonship to his father who was called Leib which is Yiddish for Yehuda and Yehuda is the Hebrew word for Judea. Deborah also changed her name to the Hebrew, D'vorah.
The plan was to use Jerusalem as a base to extend his ideas throughout the region and into the Diaspora creating unity among the Jews who were returning from many countries and providing a national identity in their homeland.
The aim was to see Hebrew spoken in every home, taught in school, read in newspapers and to produce a dictionary to facilitate all this. Ben-Yehuda was very aware of the size of his task. He placed a large sign above his desk with his moto "the day is short, the work to be done so great".
The idea of spoken Hebrew was not welcomed by all. The ultra-Othordox Jews felt, as stated above, that it was a language reserved for the Torah and study. In order to identify with the Orthodox, Eliezer and D'vorah dressed in traditional Sephardic Jewish attire and observed Kosher laws. The disguise was seen for just what it was, a disguise.
The Orthodox Jews saw through the attempts to convince them, being more sure than ever that the introduction of Hebrew into everyday life was a pagan idea.
The man who is known as the 'Father of Zionism', Theodore Herzl, didn't even see Hebrew as the answer. Ben-Yehuda made many efforts to meet with Herzl whom he admired, finally catching up with him in 1898 while Herzl was visiting Palestine. Herzl showed no interest in the adoption of Hebrew, believing German should be spoken instead.
Hebrew At Home And School
In the Ben-Yehuda household the only spoken words were Hebrew. Eliezer and his D'vorah spoke Hebrew with their friends, neighbours and all Jews they encountered. In his determination to show that Hebrew could be a recognised and daily spoken language Ben-Yehuda raised his son to speak nothing but Hebrew.
The child was prevented from hearing any other speech or mixing with anyone who may contaminate his language development. Although a later starter with talking, the boy grew up speaking purely Hebrew.
Hebrew was the language of instruction and one of Ben-Yehuda's plans to raise awareness was to see it used in study books.
He realised that the success of the language would depend on it's adoption by the younger generation. When he was offered a teaching position by Nassim Bechar, the principal of the Torah and Avodah School in Jerusalem, Ben-Yehuda enthusiastically accepted.
This solved the problem of teaching pupils from different Jewish backgrounds without a common language. They all had to learn Hebrew and there was to be no translation in to their original dialect or tongue.
Health issues prevented Ben-Yehuda from teaching for long but the method was a success.
Educators embraced the use of Hebrew and the teaching of this revived language was the perfect answer to integrating many Jews arriving from different countries each speaking a different language.
As the spread of Hebrew grew he developed a greater vocabulary to meet the demands of a modern society. Ben-Yehuda began to put together a list of words which were added to each week in his own newspaper that he published.
He appealed to the populace, covering many topics for general discussion, thereby giving them the vocabulary to have conversations. His second wife helped him with the compilation of a Hebrew dictionary.
The times were ripe for the development and adoption of a revived Hebrew language. There were many educated Jews arriving in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Many of them shared Ben- Yehuda's outlook and background and were able to embrace the idea of a uniting, common language in their new homeland.
Through his newspaper, Ben-Yehuda continued to expand the Hebrew vocabulary. It was necessary to create new words to accommodate modern living. He carefully researched the ancient Hebrew root word to link or connect a new word.
He found lost Hebrew words and noted the origins of words which he used. His studies took him as far afield as America where he catalogued 450,000 notes.
He complied an encyclopedic form of dictionary listing words with their translation, identifying their origin and noting any changes to the word through the ages.
In 1917 the Balfour Declaration stated the intention to make Palestine a homeland for the Jewish people. The end of four hundred years of rule under the Ottoman Empire was celebrated. Ben- Yehuda felt a change of moto was in order and put up a new sign over his desk, "my day is long and my work is blessed".
The British Mandate recognised Hebrew as the official language of the Jewish people in 1921. By 1922, there had been five volumes of the Hebrew dictionary published.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was 64 when he worked on his last word, nefesh, which means spirit or soul. The next day he succumbed to his poor health and went into a coma. He died shortly after and was buried on the Mount of Olives.
The family continued to compile the dictionary for many more years and it's completed form ran to seventeen volumes.The teaching methods that Ben-Yehuda implemented are still in place today. There are over seven million fluent Hebrew speakers across the world today.
The Jewish people today have their own language which unifies them wherever they come from and whatever their background.
The State of Israel recognises three national languages, Hebrew, Arabic and English. Hebrew is the most widely spoken.
The Jewish historian, Cecil Roth summed up the legacy well; "Before Ben-Yehuda Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did."
In 1948 the State of Israel was born. Since that time increasing numbers of Jews have made Aliyah (migrated) to their ancient homeland. They have taken on the Hebrew language which is the language of Scriptures brought up to date for a modern world.
The State of Israel is a fulfilment of biblical prophecy and the national language is an important part of that identity.
And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD."
Praise God that He is faithful and unchanging. Praise Him for the fulfilment of His Word.