On this day in 1881, a decision was made in an ordinary Jewish home that would prove instrumental in the revival of the Hebrew language. When the intellectual activist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda stipulated that only Hebrew would be used among his family and friends, it was the first small step in the reemergence of a language that had been used by the Jews for millennia, but that by the middle of the nineteenth century was rarely spoken.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman in the Lithuanian village of Luzhky in 1858. Brought up speaking Hebrew in a typically devout Jewish family, he excelled in his studies and was enrolled into a traditional school, or Yeshiva, in the hope that he would train as a rabbi. But despite the initial wishes of his parents, his devotional fervor waned and his education was completed at a Russian-speaking gymnasium.
It was in 1877 that his commitment to the revival of Hebrew began to gather pace. Inspired by the Bulgarian struggle to gain independence from Turkey, Ben-Yehuda determined the Jews must also commit to nation building, and in particular a common linguistic identity. In 1881, Ben-Yehuda moved to Jerusalem, where his crusade to reinvigorate the Hebrew language would begin in earnest. Upon his arrival, Ben-Yehuda insisted that, as far as possible, he would only converse in Hebrew. He was encouraged that despite its decline as a first language, Hebrew was still understood by many, even if spoken with difficulty.
With the help of a willing community, Ben-Yehuda quickly established a system for popularising Hebrew. Engaging first with the youngest generation, he introduced the teaching of Hebrew into Palestinian schools, encouraging teachers not to converse in any other language. In 1884 he established a Hebrew language newspaper, Hatzvi, and eagerly promoted the translation of popular works of fiction into Hebrew.
Aware of the limitations of Hebrew, he began to codify and record the language, inventing new words where necessary, and updating the vocabulary for the modern era. This codification would later be adapted as the Ben-Yehuda dictionary, the first definitive lexicon of Modern Hebrew.
In 1890, in an effort to solidify the direction and rules of the Hebrew tongue, Ben-Yehuda founded the Hebrew Language Council. This would become the Hebrew Language Academy, to this day the highest authority in all matters concerning the language.
The revival was greeted with enthusiasm, with the many new generations of Jews arriving in Palestine from around the world keen to use and promote the Hebrew language. The embracing of Hebrew was an extension of a renewed sense of cultural identity and Jewish pride.
In November 1922, one month before Ben-Yehuda’s death, the revival gained full recognition, as the British authorities accepted Hebrew as the official language of the Jews in Palestine. Only forty years after Ben-Yehuda’s arrival in Jerusalem, Hebrew was once again being spoken as a first language across the region, uniting Jews from communities across the globe. Today there are estimated to be some seven million Hebrew speakers living in Israel, as well as many others throughout the world.
Credit: Alamy BFANA4
Caption: A page showing Hebrew script from The Torah.