Eliezer Ben Yehuda and The revival of the Hebrew language

The first sign for visitors that they arrived in Israel is the language. Hebrew is everywhere; it is spoken by the locals, it is visible on wall posters and on street signs, it’s on TV and on radio station; Hebrew songs and discussions fill the airwaves. Many Israeli internet sites are in Hebrew. English speaking person has no problem getting around using English; however, it is no match for the overwhelming presence of the Hebrew language and its daily use in Israel. Given the wide-spread use of the Hebrew language in Israel, it is easy to conclude that Hebrew was the spoken language of the Jewish people ever since Biblical times. However, this is not the case: Hebrew as a daily communication tool among Jewish people was hardly used for almost 2,000 years. Its revival to what it is today is credited mostly to one person, his name is Eliezer Ben Yehuda.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858- December 16, 1922) is known as the father of modern Hebrew. He was one of the earliest supporters of Zionism, and it due primarily  to his initiative that Hebrew was revived as a modern spoken language. 

Until the 19th century, Hebrew was mostly used during prayers in synagogues and in yeshivas (Jewish religious education centers) where Jewish scholars studied the Bible and other holy literature. In daily conversations Ashkenazi Jews communicated among themselves in Yeddish and Sephardic Jews communicated among themselves in Ladino. They communicated with non-Jewish people in the local language. The repeated attacks on Eastern European Jews in the 19th century (mostly in the Russian Empire) promoted the ideology of Jewish nationalism that began to replace the ideology of assimilation, which was prevalent among young Jews. Following the pogroms of 1881 in south Russia, two Jewish organizations were founded; Am Olam, which advocated for Jewish settlement in the United States and Bilu, which advocated Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel.

July 6, 2015 was the 133st anniversary of the arrival of first Bilu settlers (14) in Eretz Israel. Their arrival is considered the beginning of the modern return of the Jews to Israel and the beginning of the Zionist immigration to Israel. By far, most Jews immigrated to the US. However, some immigrated to Israel, mostly for ideological reasons. One of those ideological immigrants was Eliezer Ben Yehuda, a Russian (Lithuanian) Jew who was determined to revive the Hebrew language in support of building a National Jewish home in Eretz Israel.

Ben Yehuda, a Russian Jew, moved to Jerusalem in 1881,  with his wife, Deborah Jonas. and settled in Jerusalem. He set out to develop a language that could replace Yiddish and other regional dialects as means of everyday communication of Jews who immigrated to Eretz Israel from various regions of the world. Eliezer and Deborah established the first Hebrew-speaking home in Eretz Yisrael, and their son, Ben-Zion (who became known by his pen-name, Itamar Ben-Avi) was the first child in modern times to be nurtured with Hebrew as his native language.

The Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem rejected the use the holly language for everyday use, but this did not discourage Ben Yehuda; he spoke Hebrew at home, raising his first child on Hebrew. He convinced other secular Zionist Jews to do the same. Ben Yehuda tested his theory on his son, believing that if his son could grow on Hebrew alone, than the entire nation could adapt the language. He gained the support of secular Zionist Hebrew teachers who saw Hebrew as a way to reject the old way of life in the Diaspora, and at the same time it provided practical solution to educating Jewish students from different countries.

The Hebrew language at the time was limited to biblical words and was not equipped with modern words that could be used in a daily conversation; new words had to be invented. Ben Yehuda relied on rules of grammar and linguistic analogy from Sematic roots: Aramaic, Canaanite, and mostly Arabic roots. Ben Yehuda invented new words and wrote articles in Hebrew. He worked long hours, sometimes 18 hours a day to expand the Hebrew vocabulary. He published the new words in periodicals, mostly in Hatzvi, a periodical that he founded in 1910. He began writing a Hebrew dictionary, which eventually included 17 volumes and was completed after his death in 1922. He founded a language council called Va’ad Halashon, which was later transformed to become the Academy of the Hebrew Language and is still active in creating new Hebrew words. Eliezer Ben Yehuda did not live to see the establishment of the State of Israel. However, in 1920 he succeeded in influencing Herbert Samuel, the British High Commissioner, to recognize Hebrew along with English and Arabic as official languages of the country.

The success of the revival of the Hebrew language can be measured by the fact that with the exception of few pocket of ultra-orthodox groups (who still use Yeddish as their primary internal language), Hebrew completely replaced both Yiddish and Ladino. Over half of the Jewish nation currently lives in Israel where Hebrew is the primary language. Amazingly, the revival of the Hebrew language took only 40 years to accomplish.

“Ben Yehuda’s work was a tool for Zionist success. It is doubtful if the Jews returning from the four corners of the world could have agreed on a national language for their reborn state had Hebrew not been prepared for them ahead of time by Ben-Yehuda.” [www.Levsoftware.com/history.htm] 

“It is difficult to exaggerate the contribution and achievement of Ben Yehuda. His lexicographical achievement itself- to innovate a modern language on the remains of an ancient and fossilized one, was monumental in itself, but it was only an instrument in a successful one man campaign, to make Hebrew the spoken language of the Jewish people. Thanks to his almost single-handed initiative, this was accomplished in the space of less than 40 years.” [http://www.zionism-israel.com/bio/E_Ben_Yehuda_biography.htm]