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.
A Youthful Yearning
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.
Ben-Yehuda found further inspiration in European nationalist movements. In the 19th century, Italy and Greece — both countries with ties to ancient lands and languages — became independent nations. In 1877, the year of Ben-Yehuda’s graduation from high school, the Russo-Turkish war began and brought prominence to the Bulgarian national movement that sought independence from the Ottomans.
Envisioning the Jews as a nation akin to the Bulgarians, Greeks, and Italians, Ben-Yehuda became determined to help create a nation where the Jews could adopt Hebrew as their national language.
Soon after, Ben-Yehuda learned that Jewish communities were using Hebrew to communicate when other languages wouldn’t suffice. (Historians now know that this phenomenon had existed since the Middle Ages in Europe and the Near East.) In Jerusalem, for example, Jews spoke Yiddish, French, or Arabic colloquially.
However, in the rare occurrences when inter-communal affairs required verbal communication, a modified form of medieval Hebrew was the common language. The Hebrew spoken in these contexts was far from what would be required for a national, modern language, but the news nevertheless inspired Ben-Yehuda to move to Palestine.
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.
At home, Ben-Yehuda used his son to test the viability of the Hebrew language project; if a child can be brought up speaking entirely Hebrew, then an entire nation should be able to adopt the language as well. This required extreme measures on the part of Ben-Yehuda, who tried to prevent his son from playing with other children and from hearing other languages spoken — so afraid was the father of failing in his endeavor.
On Paper, Out of Mouths
The other elements of Ben-Yehuda’s revival project were the use of Hebrew as a language of instruction and study in schools, and the creation of a vocabulary that would make Hebrew a tenable language for national use. 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.
A Legacy of Language
Ben-Yehuda’s life was exemplary because, despite the small successes and failures of his various projects, his dedication to speaking Hebrew and cultivating the language inspired others to do the same. In his later years, he co-founded and established the ruling principles for the Va’ad Halashon, the Language Council. The Council gave way to the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which adopted Ben-Yehuda’s rules and took upon itself his life’s work. The Academy, still housed at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, approves new Hebrew words to meet the ever-evolving needs of contemporary Israeli society. The Academy is also in the process of writing the Historical Dictionary of the Hebrew Language.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda never saw the creation of the State of Israel. He passed away only one month after the British authorities declared Hebrew to be the official language of the Jews of Palestine. Yet his dream of yisrael be’artzo uvilshono, the rebirth of the nation of Israel in its own land, speaking its own language, came to fruition. His efforts are counted among the great language revivals of human history.