Eliezer Ben Yehuda (1858-1922), the “Father of the Modern Hebrew Language,” is almost single-handedly responsible for one of the greatest socio-linguistic events in world history: the revival of spoken Hebrew, which for millenia had been used only for Jewish prayer.
He accomplished this task at a time when not a single person conversed in Hebrew as his mother tongue, when the resurrection of a dead language had never occurred in all of human history, and when virtually no one else believed it possible. As one commentator pithily observed, “before Ben Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”
As a founding father of modern Zionism, Ben Yehuda was also a strong advocate of the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination, and he firmly believed that the creation of a Jewish state and the revival of the Hebrew language were inextricably connected. He explained that establishing Hebrew as the Jewish national language was the only way that olim arriving from the four corners of the earth could hope to communicate with each other. An inspiring speaker, he became recognized as an important voice of the Jewish nationalist movement.
Born Eliezer Yitzchak Perelman to an observant Lithuanian family (his father was a Chabad chassid), Ben Yehuda, showing signs of being a child prodigy and already well-versed in Torah and Talmud at age four, was sent to a yeshiva to become a rabbi. However, he later became attracted to the secular world, became a secularist, and completed his secular studies at Russian gymnasium (1877).
Nonetheless, after reading Daniel Deronda (1876), George Eliot’s final novel in which the renowned author laid out his passionate call for a homeland for the Jewish people, Ben Yehuda concluded that the European concept of national fulfillment should also be applied to the Jews and he began to plan for both his own aliyah and for the Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael.
He left Russia (1878), first going to Paris to study medicine (at the Sorbonne) so as to become more valuable to the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, but he was prevented from completing his studies due to tuberculosis and he left for Eretz Yisrael in 1881, settling in Jerusalem.
Few people know that one of his first projects upon making aliyah was printing the first Hebrew daily wall calendar (1885). He printed every Shabbat page in red, featured Jewish historical events on each page, and changed the date to reflect the number of years that have passed since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem (see featured correspondence, below).
Ben Yehuda’s plan for the rebirth of Hebrew emphasized spoken Hebrew at home. He and his first wife, Devora, pledged to speak only Hebrew to each other, and they decided to raise their son, Ben-Zion, as the first all-Hebrew speaking child in modern history. His fanaticism in this regard was such that when his wife was dying from tuberculosis and, in desperation, he smuggled his Russian-speaking mother in to help the family, he refused to let her speak so much as a word to his children.
When the Jewish public in Eretz Yisrael learned about his “extremism” in refusing to let his son even hear other languages, many believed that Ben-Zion would grow up to be a “disabled idiot.” Even famed Hebrew poets Yehuda Leib Gordon and Moshe Lilienblum believed that Hebrew would never again become a spoken language, and no less a personage than Herzl declared, after a meeting with Ben Yehuda, that the idea of Hebrew as the Jewish national tongue was “ridiculous.”
With a Hebrew-speaking child to raise, Ben Yehuda needed to find appropriate Hebrew words for the mundane things of everyday 19th century life; in fact, much of the inspiration for many of his “everyday” words came when his Hebrew-speaking young son would point to objects and ask, “Mah zeh? – What’s that?”
He further appreciated that for modern Hebrew to become a truly functional language, it had to meet the needs of educated Jews and that there had to be a Hebrew vocabulary that included academic and scientific expression. Accordingly, he coined many hundreds of new words, thus facilitating both the development of modern Hebrew vocabulary and the naturalness of Hebrew expression.
Sadly, Ben Yehuda’s greatest and most vociferous opponents were the charedim who knew Hebrew best from their intense Biblical and Talmudic studies and were perhaps the best candidates to adopt Hebrew as a native language. They believed that it was sacrilegious to use lashon hakodesh (the holy tongue) for everyday mundane purposes.
In contrast, the religious Zionists agreed that Zionism and Hebrew are inseparable and quickly adopted teaching Hebrew in their yeshivot. To facilitate the ability of their teachers to teach in Hebrew, Ben Yehuda initiated the idea of teaching Hebrew using Hebrew (“Ivrit b’Ivrit”) and wrote several Hebrew textbooks for teaching secular subjects.
Ben Yehuda determined that the best way to disseminate his plan for the Jewish nation to communicate in Hebrew was through a newspaper – even though there was not yet any Hebrew word for “newspaper” (or “printer,” “subscriber,” and the like). Accordingly, in 1884, he founded Hatvzi, his own weekly newspaper, and commenced printing a list of a few new Hebrew words in each issue. By the end of the 19th century, virtually every Jew in Eretz Yisrael could read and understand a Hebrew newspaper with little difficulty.
Hatvzi, however, generated great controversy as the result of the “Shemittah Affair.” A substitute editor ran an article urging farmers in Eretz Yisrael to obey the Biblical command to let the land lie fallow every seventh year, leading enraged farmers to argue that this would mean the end of the Jewish settlements, which were already struggling to eke out the first crops in two millennia from the infertile soil of Eretz Yisrael. Ben Yehuda sided with the farmers and published a renunciation of the article, arguing that the survival of the Jewish people and the establishment of Jewish settlements was more important, at least for now, than the laws of shemittah.
Not surprisingly, this move earned him even greater enmity from the charedim, whom he characterized as “zealots.” Ashkenazic rabbinic leaders pronounced a general ban on reading his newspaper, referred to him as a pagan and “the great heretic,” and pronounced writs of excommunication against him in their synagogues. However, through the support of less zealous Sephardic Jews, he was able to continue to print and disseminate his newspaper.
Ben Yehuda, though a secular Jew, had believed that the major obstacle to his goal of unifying all Jews through Hebrew was the separation – indeed, the alienation – of the charedi community from general society. Accordingly, to promote the unity of the Jewish people, he and his wife had become strictly observant, with him donning religious garb and growing out his beard and peyot and his wife covering her hair.
After the Shemittah Affair, however, he decided that outreach to the charedi community was futile and he abandoned any pretense of observance, thereby providing further ammunition for his charedi opponents to use against him.
Moreover, he began to publish articles demanding that charedi rabbis provide detailed accounts of all donations received and that, rather than continuing to live off the charity of others, they use the money to buy land for their yeshiva students to build homes and farms. He became extreme in his anti-religious outlook, even going so far as to officially register as “a national Jew without religion.”
The unsurprising result was even more bans and excommunication orders, the creation of a permanent rift between Ben Yehuda and the charedi community, and a material deterioration of his already challenged finances. Even when Devora got a much-needed position teaching Hebrew at one of Baron Rothschild’s Alliance schools, she was summarily dismissed when the charedi leadership threatened to impose a general ban on the school.
The hatred for Ben Yehuda in zealot circles was such that plans were hatched to murder him; in fact, he barely escaped with his life during an attack on him in the Old City of Jerusalem. The charedim misrepresented his articles so as to incite the Turkish authorities against him, which resulted in a charge of sedition that carried a possible death sentence (he was ultimately sentenced to one year in prison). They even went so far as to attempt to physically block his wife’s burial on the Mount of Olives and to celebrate his death as the Lord’s righteous revenge on a great sinner.
In this correspondence from Jerusalem dated 27 Elul 1897, Ben Yehuda writes to Gershom Bader that the charedim and anti-Zionist zealots are, sadly, more dangerous that “our Gentile enemies:”
It interests me very much to know the reason for the estrangement between the “Zionists” and many other people who also seem to be warm and loyal Chovevei Tzion (lovers of Zion). Truly, it disturbs me greatly that besides the battle against our Gentile enemies, we are required to fight against our zealot enemies, who are more dangerous than the former.
Gershom Bader (1868-1953) – an important Eastern European Haskalah figure, political commentator, author, playwright, editor, and Hebrew, Yiddish, German, and Polish journalist – was an enthusiastic supporter of Chibat Tzion and sharply critical of the pro-chassidic and conservative policies of the charedi community, sharing with Ben Yehuda a mutual disdain for the anti-Zionist charedi “zealots.”
Ben Yehuda’s financial salvation ultimately came in the form of an angel: the Nadiv Hayadua (“the Well-Known Benefactor”) Baron Edmond de Rothschild who, though deeply skeptical that Hebrew would ever again become a widely spoken language – and who actually forbade teaching Hebrew in his schools in Eretz Yisrael – nonetheless admired Ben Yehuda’s work and dedication. It was this support, and ambitious fundraising work by his wife, that enabled the poverty-stricken Ben Yehuda to continue to publish Hatzvi and to devote himself to working on his dictionary.
Ben Yehuda’s singular literary contribution may well be his dictionary – for which, ironically, no Hebrew word existed. His main source of income was from subscriptions to Hatzvi, but that proved inadequate, not only for the development and sale of his dictionary, but even to provide for his family, so he had to rely on financial support from others.
Turning himself into a scientific lexicographer, he was determined that each word would have its roots in Biblical sources to the greatest possible extent. However, in many cases, there were no analogs, so he had to create new words from whole cloth.
He compiled his dictionary using strict philological rules, and the results of his arduous labor was his 17-volume A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, which was carried forward by his second wife, Hemda (his first wife’s sister), after his death and was not completed until 1958.
Exhibited here is probably the most incredible Ben Yehuda letter I have ever seen, a handwritten correspondence addressed to Nachum Sokolow, then editor of Ha-Tzfira in Jerusalem (1896):
Jerusalem, 20 Shevat 1896,
1,826 years since our exile [in the year 70 C.E.]
In a short while, the first leaves of my great work, “Dictionary of the Hebrew Language,” will come out of the printing press and I would be honored to send to you to review this sample and for you to let me know your thoughts on it, and if you find, as I hope you will, that it is appropriately worthy and deserving, you will give it positive mention in your beloved newspaper and will rouse the public to support (what is in my opinion) this precious treasure so that I may bring to light this great work which requires considerable funds to print it.
And now, I will ask you to do a great kindness for me and publish the attached advertisement several times in your newspaper. And I believe that for such an announcement, one should pay in full, but right now I am short and cannot act accordingly, and I request kindness from you, and your heart should be certain that I will, at every possible opportunity where I can serve you in any matter, I will do so willingly and with great joy. Alas, were I only financially able to pay for the advertisement and (I am not], G-d forbid, seeking a free gift.
With feelings of boundless grace and respect, I await your thoughts and judgment on my work.
In a P.S., Ben Yehuda adds a request to publish in Ha-Tzfira an advertisement for his newspaper, Hatzvi, to help defeat its major competitor, Ha-Chavatzelet which, he writes, is against Chibat Tzion, the early founding organization promoting aliyah and settlements in Eretz Yisrael.
To assist with his dictionary and to solve various problems of terminology, pronunciation, spelling, and punctuation, Ben Yehuda founded the Va’ad Halashon (Hebrew Language Council, 1890), the forerunner of today’s Hebrew Language Academy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, currently the supreme arbiter and authority on approving new Hebrew words and passing on all matters pertaining to the Hebrew language.
The success of his endeavor was impliedly recognized by the British Mandate Authority when, on November 29, 1922 it recognized Hebrew as the official language of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael.