David Rosenthal
David Rosenthal

Eliezer Ben Yehuda

“Yisrael b’artzo uvilshono: Israel in its own land, speaking its own language.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda emigrated to Israel in 1881 and was responsible for reviving the Hebrew language in the newly created modern Jewish state. Eliezer Ben Yehuda was an Eastern European Jewish nationalist who sought to re-establish the ties of ancient Israel with the Jews who were beginning to arrive in Eretz Yisrael. Ben Yehuda was a nationalist who sought to reconsider Hebrew as the official language of modern Israel.

Ben Yehuda’s original name was Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman and he was born in Luzhky (now Belarus, then Russian Empire), Vilna Governorate, in 1858. He was the son of a Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic by the name of Yehuda Leib, who died when Eliezer was 5 years old. However, Ben Yehuda was not a religious Jew, but a practical one, who had had an introduction to Jewish enlightenment, through the rabbi of his yeshiva (Torah and Talmud study centre) who was actually a maskil (enlightened), which is what would correspond to interpreted or enlightened Judaism. So it was the maskilim Rabbi Yossi Bloïker who introduced the boy to “heretical” readings, disrupting the creative and constructive thinking of the man he was to become.

There he read texts such as: Zohar Ha-Teva (The Light of the Ark), Kur Oni (Robinson Crusoe), The Guide for the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides, The Principles and Foundations of the Divine Wisdom by Haim Z. Slonimski, The Treasury of Wisdom by Zvi Rabinovitch, Ahavat Tzion (The Love of Zion) by Abraham Mapu.

This young Ben Yehuda knew Hebrew and liturgy, which brought him to the attention of a Hasidic businessman, Samuel Nephtali Herz Jonah, who from that moment on would protect him, and it was there that he met his wife, Dvora or Deborah, the businessman’s eldest daughter, four years older than him, who would teach him Russian, French and German and accompany him until his death.

However, Ben Yehuda, who was a born, devoted nationalist, decided to move with his wife from Europe to the then British Palestine, becoming a pre-Zionist. In fact, early on, Ben Yehuda had turned away from religion, in exchange for a more secular and enlightened position. He had read the European literary classics and his thinking was focused on Hebrew nationalism, which, in turn, was based on other nationalist movements, such as the Italian, Greek and Bulgarian nationalist movements. This had already been achieved by the Greeks, heirs of classical Athens, in 1829, and by the Italians, heirs of classical Rome, in 1849.
Now, the Jews, “the People of the Book” were the heirs of historic Jerusalem, and deserved the same, far above the Bulgarians, for example.

Although ancient Hebrew was, in one way or another, marginalised, in Jerusalem it had not been completely sidelined, and among the Jews residing in Israel’s historic capital, Hebrew was used as a plural language, so that Hebrew was never completely abandoned, as recent studies have shown.

Ben Yehuda spoke French, German, Russian and Hebrew, and although he was not a rabbi as his parents would have wanted him to be, he did something very significant for modern Israel, and that is that he gave a language, and not just a language, an identity to the Jewish people who were then scattered all over the world.

It was in Daugavpils in Latvia that Ben Yehuda first read a Hebrew-language magazine. This periodical was Ha-Shaḥar (“The Dawn”) edited in Vienna by the Russian Jewish Zionist writer Peretz Smolenskin. Ha-Shaḥar was the literary platform for the Haskalah movement and early Jewish nationalism. Also, there he meets Russian nihilism, through irreverent writers exiled from Tsarist Russia, such as: Lavrov Petr Illitch, Dimitri Pissarev and Nikolai Chernychevsky, and all thanks to “Vitinski” a fellow well-off Russian with renovating ideas, who also becomes the protector of the orphaned but enlightened Ben Yehuda. And although the Russian absorbs him to a certain extent, Hebrew is the only connection he will maintain with his Judaism, in practical terms. Hebrew is his obstinacy, almost his undoing, like his identity and like life itself.

Ben Yehuda was in Paris afterwards and there he began to study medicine, although due to his own pathology, tuberculosis, he did not succeed, but, he worked as an article writer, and there he began to design his linguistic plan for the revival of Hebrew. In fact, he had conversations in Hebrew with Jews such as Getzel Zelikovitz and Mordechai Adelman in a café on the boulevard Montmartre in Paris.

In the port of Jaffa (now Tel Aviv-Jaffa), when Ben-Yehuda and his wife disembarked from the ship, he had conversations in Hebrew with a moneychanger, an innkeeper and a cartwright, which he enthusiastically recorded in his unfinished memoirs. Ben-Yehuda had realised that he could speak Hebrew successfully with friends and acquaintances in Paris, so he wanted Hebrew to be his only language when he arrived in the ancient land of Israel.
Ben Yehuda wrote that: “The Hebrew language can only live if we revive the nation and return it to the homeland”. Ben Yehuda is the founding father who was committed to the revival of Hebrew as the coercive language of the Hebrew nation, and thanks to him, not only the Jews of Israel speak Hebrew, but also the Jews of the Diaspora, as it is in their interest to learn the language of their perhaps future home or the home of their children.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s project was quite ambitious and he was obstinate in doing so, so that in his house only Hebrew was spoken, despite his and his wife’s origin, his son Itamar Ben-Avi or rather: Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda (son of Zion and son of Judah) was brought up in strict Hebrew, keeping him away from any other language. Ben Zion was the first native Hebrew speaker in the modern era. In fact, the one time Ben Zion’s mother sang him a Russian lullaby, she was forcefully rebuked by her husband.

Ben Yehuda argued that: “The Sephardic Jews who spoke Ladino or Arabic and the Ashkenazi Jews who spoke Yiddish needed a common language for commercial purposes, and the most obvious choice was Hebrew”. However, it was not all plain sailing for this legend of modern Israel. Motivated that all Jews living in Israel should take up or revive the traditional Hebrew language of the Jewish people, he disguised himself as a Hasidic, growing a long beard and wearing “peyot”, which are those cairels or cachumbos of Eastern European Orthodox Jewish men. Likewise, his wife, Deborah, wore a wig, such a Jaredite woman she was.

Similarly, in religious circles, Hebrew was considered too sacred to speak on a daily basis. To use Hebrew for “everyday, even “idle” conversation was a sacrilege, a blasphemy, a transgression to the strictest of the Hebrew faith. So, when they learned that Ben Yehuda and his wife were infiltrating Orthodoxy to persuade their people to use Hebrew as a common language, and not only that, but that, in their home, he was teaching their son Hebrew, the decision was one: excommunication, in Hebrew herem.

Despite all this, and specifically despite being marginalised by the religious, Ben Yehuda became anti-religious and his daring project was strengthened. By engaging Jewish nationalists who came from Europe like him and were not religious, Hebrew began to be spoken in more homes than his own, and eventually began a process of expansion.
Hebrew was a written and not a spoken language. While it was not entirely dead, it was in the process of dying out, in the face of the rise of Yiddish in the religious communities of Eastern Europe, of German as the language of the enlightened Jews, and of Ladino, which remained in the Sephardic identity. Even Arabic and French were used in the Near East and the Maghreb area by the Jews themselves.

Ben Yehuda also taught Hebrew to children in Jerusalem and succeeded in getting the children to adopt the language of their ancestors in short order. Well, Nissim Bechar, director of the Torah and Avodah School of the Alliance Isralite Universelle in Jerusalem proposed to Ben-Yehuda in 1882 that he teach Hebrew to Jewish children coming from different parts of Europe and the world. The aim of the Lithuanian Jewish visionary was in his own words that “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 reach the home and in the end it will become a living language”.

Ben Yehuda always wrote and for some years was editor-in-chief of the local newspaper “Hahavatzelet”, owned by Israel Dov, and used this to promote the teaching and use of Hebrew. In his first article of 12 September 1881, he even denounced the political decisions of the AIU (Alliance Isralite Universelle) and invited the Jews to act alone.
He then began to publish his own newspaper “Hatzvi”, in 1884, to serve as a teaching tool for adults, both in terms of content and language. Hatzvi was closed for a year following opposition from the ultra-orthodox community in Jerusalem, which fiercely opposed the use of Hebrew.

He himself wrote in 1908 in his newspaper Hatzvi: “For everything it takes only one wise, intelligent and active man, with the initiative to devote all his energies to it, and the matter will progress, in spite of all the obstacles in the way…. In every new development, in every step, even the smallest step on the road of progress, there must be a pioneer who leads the way without leaving any possibility of turning back”.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda was not around for the founding of the State of Israel. He died a month after the British authorities declared Hebrew the official language of the Jews in 1922.

Ben-Yehuda collected material for the creation of a dictionary of Modern Hebrew when he arrived in Israel, and he never stopped expanding the language endlessly, adding many words and writing a considerable number of articles. In 1910 he began publishing his dictionary, but the full 17-volume set of the complete dictionary of ancient and modern Hebrew was not completed until after his death, thanks to the work of Hemda Ben-Yehuda, his second wife. Ben-Yehuda was one of the founders of the Hebrew Language Committee (Va’ad HaLashon), today the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

The famous historian and Hebraist Cecil Roth summed up Ben-Yehuda’s work in one sentence: “Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did”. The pioneer, the man, the obstinate man, did not succumb to his goal, and later became the author of a reality that is clear today: the language of the modern state of Israel is Hebrew, and Ben Yehuda is the man who became a legend.

About the Author
Political scientist, analyst, researcher, journalist and columnist in various national and international media outlets. Host of “The Footprints of Sepharad in the New World,” a radio show on Radio Sepharad about Sephardic heritage in America. Also conferencist in multiple topics, like history, literature, judaism, women's history and mysticism.
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