Author: Ivana Šljivar
Photo source: The David B. Keidan Collection of Digital Images from the Central Zionist Archives (via Harvard University Library)
Hebrew was not a spoken language for almost 1500 years but everything changed upon the arrival of a young man with a vision, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.
He was born in the small Lithuanian village of Luzhky within the Russian Empire and during his education he was exposed to enlightenment ideas while reading about independent movements in Europe. There he had epiphany to resurrect the Hebrew language in “the land of our forefathers” and unite all Jews worldwide. In 1881, he and his wife immigrated to Jerusalem.
There he adopted several plans of action. Eliezer started working as a Hebrew teacher and with his first-born son, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda, he had spoken only in Hebrew, saying to his first wife Deborah:
You will be the first Hebrew mother in nearly 2000 years and our child will be the first infant coming to the world hearing nothing but the beauty of our old, ancient language.
Ben-Yehuda also started a Hebrew newspaper where each week he introduced new words and was a major figure in the establishment of the Committee of the Hebrew Language (Va’ad HaLaschon), later the Academy of the Hebrew Language. His biggest project was creating a complete dictionary of ancient and modern Hebrew, finishing 6 volumes during his lifetime. This was the result of working sometimes 18 hours a day, trying to create precise and accurate words so that the entire society could use this language.
His work brought many enemies and traditional Jews were very unsatisfied with the idea of using holy language in everyday speech. For this reason he was declared banned, so if a Jew entered his home he was to be punished.
The situation changed after the arrival of the Second Aliyah, the second wave of emigrants who came between 1904 and 1914, and then the true revival began. New communities were extremely supportive of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his vision:
The Hebrew language will go from the synagogue to the house of study, and from the house of study to the school, and from the school it will come into the home and… become a living language.
Ben-Yehuda understood that education was the key to successful revival so that the younger generation would begin to speak Hebrew freely. In 1905, the first Hebrew high school was established followed by the Academy of Arts in 1913. One month before his death in 1922, the British Mandate authorities recognised Hebrew as the official language of the Jews in Palestine.
This miraculous story of transforming a language used only for prayers and theological studies for 2000 years into a living national language has been clearly described by British historian Cecil Roth: “Before Ben-Yehuda… Jews could speak Hebrew; after him they did.” Today, it is spoken by over 9 million people worldwide, of which 5 million are in Israel and it has been the official language for over 92 years.