ISRAEL - The Resurrection of the Hebrew Language

Arno Froese

When Eliezer Ben-Yehuda arrived in Palestine in 1881, Hebrew had not been the spoken language of the Jewish people since the time of the Bible. Yet, thanks to Ben-Yehuda, by 1922 enough Jewish pioneers were speaking Hebrew that the British Mandate authorities recognized it as the official language of Jews in Palestine.

Ben-Yehuda conceived of Jewish nationalism as both the return to the historical homeland in the Land of Israel, as well as the revival of the Hebrew language. To accomplish the latter, Ben-Yehuda needed to inspire a near impossible feat: transform Hebrew, which for centuries had been used only in study, into a modern spoken language.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Perelman in Luzhky, Lithuania, in 1858. The son of a Chabad Hasid, Ben-Yehuda was given a traditional religious education at a local yeshiva. The rosh yeshiva, or head of the school, was secretly a maskil, or enlightened thinker. He introduced Ben-Yehuda to secular literature and piqued the boy’s interest in non-religious study.

Eventually Ben-Yehuda transferred to a Russian school, but he remained obsessed with modern Hebrew literature, eagerly consuming Hebrew periodicals, especially those concerned with Jewish nationalism. For Ben-Yehuda, nationalism became a way to embrace Hebrew without religion.

Arriving in Jerusalem in 1881, Ben-Yehuda immediately put his plan of Hebrew revival into action. He left behind his birth name and with his wife, Deborah Jonas, he created the first Modern Hebrew-speaking household. He also raised the first modern Hebrew-speaking child, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda.

In Jerusalem, the secular Ben-Yehuda tried to use Hebrew to attract religious Jews to the nationalist cause. He and his wife wore religious garb—he grew out his beard and payot (sidelocks), and his wife wore a wig—trying to pass as observant. But the ultra-Orthodox Jews living in Jerusalem, for whom Hebrew was used only for holy purposes such as studying Torah, saw through Ben-Yehuda’s guise. Sensing his secular-nationalist intentions, they rejected him and his language. They went so far as to declare a herem, excommunicating Ben-Yehuda.

This setback did little to deter Ben-Yehuda from concentrating on his project. He continued to speak Hebrew at home and convinced other families—who were part of the growing community of secular Jewish nationalists in Palestine—to do the same.

Ben-Yehuda gained the support of educators who were enthusiastic Jewish nationalists and identified with his project. Teaching Hebrew in schools was also a practical solution to the problem of immigrants from different countries speaking a variety of languages.

Ben-Yehuda began collecting material for the creation of a Modern Hebrew dictionary when he arrived in Israel, and never ceased expanding the language, frequently spending 18-hour workdays developing new words and writing articles.

Lists of words were published in Hebrew language periodicals, particularly Hatzevi, which Ben-Yehuda founded. In 1910 Ben-Yehuda began publication of his dictionary, but the full 17-volume set of the Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew wasn’t completed until well after his death, in 1922.

-virtualjerusalem.com, 31 October 2017

Arno's commentary

The Hebrew language was never dead per se. The Jewish religion kept the language alive for millennia. One can see Hebrew writing on ancient grave stones and, in more modern times, in pictures. For example, in New York, businesses would advertise in Hebrew letters to offer their wares and services, testifying to that fact.

But, to use the language in a modern world was most difficult, and there Ben-Yehuda was a major contributor in causing the ancient Hebrew language to be made competitive with European languages. Today, scientists, PhD recipients, and medical doctors study in Hebrew and receive their diplomas in the Hebrew language. Hebrew has become a highly sophisticated language, capable of competing with any and all other languages.

There is one more advantage, and that is, Hebrew is mostly limited to Israel; thus, any scientific material has to be translated into a European language. Therefore, it becomes relatively inaccessible to the general public in the rest of the world. That makes Hebrew special.

This is just another example of the uniqueness of Israel, which resurrected the ancient Biblical language and transferred it to the modern world.

Arno Froese is the executive director of Midnight Call Ministries and editor-in-chief of the acclaimed prophetic magazines Midnight Call and News From Israel. He has authored a number of well-received books, and has sponsored many prophecy conferences in the U.S., Canada, and Israel. His extensive travels have contributed to his keen insight into Bible prophecy, as he sees it from an international perspective.

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