Yatharth Thumar

Saga of Hebrew’s Revival and Survival

Spoken by millions of Jews in Israel and around the world today, Hebrew was “literally nobody’s mother tongue” at some point of time in medieval history. Interestingly, Hebrew was a regular spoken language during “two hundred to four hundred CE”. Hebrew was set-up as the national language when the Jewish people first arrived in the biblical land of Israel with Joshua three thousand year ago. The Jews were speaking more biblical version of Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew was native tongue of Jews for more than a millennium, and it began to die around the year 70 CE, because the roman invaded and destroyed the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem and exiled a vast number of Jewish people from Israel. And as a spoken language, it really kicked the bucket about 65 years later in 135 CE after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt when roman emperor Hadrian enslaved and killed most of Israel’s remaining Jews, the final native Hebrew speakers. Hebrew was dead as a spoken language, but few Jews left in Israel continue using Hebrew in study of Torah and as a written literary language.

Reading Hebrew, according to Lewis Glinert in his famous book “The Story of Hebrew,” became a form of spiritual resistance by Jews against Roman oppressors. By the turn of the second century Aramaic had become the most widely spoken language in the Middle East but Hebrew as a written language for study of Torah remained. At the turn of the third century, the leader of the small remaining Jewish community, Rabbi Judah the prince, was determined to give written Hebrew a better chance of survival. He decided to use only Hebrew in his editing of the Mishnah – the compilation of Jewish law that served as the foundation for the Talmud. His deliberate decision to codify Hebrew as the language of the Mishnah preserved written Hebrew. It was used in Jewish liturgy, rabbinic literature, intra-Jewish commerce, and poetry till the medieval period.  Until the first aliya and Ben-Yehuda in the late nineteenth century, Hebrew was only used for literature and prayer.

In 1783, Haskalah – a group of secular Jewish intellectuals who were part of the Enlightenment movement, launched a Hebrew language periodical called “HaMe’asef” with the view to spread the word about language. By publishing Hebrew-language newspapers, the language was being revived and reintroduced in public domain.

Father of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda believed that the future of the Jews required both their own land and language, and Hebrew was the best way to unite Jews across the globe. Ben-Yehuda’s obsession with Hebrew began as a child in Europe when his yeshiva teacher secretly introduced him to secular Hebrew literature, such as works of Ahad Ha’am, a culture Zionist movement leader. He also discovered that when two Jewish communities speaking different languages, Yiddish and Arabic, needed to communicate with each other, they would occasionally use a form of mediaeval Hebrew as a common language. The need to keep the language alive was apparent.

As Jewish nationalism grew in 19th century Europe, Ben-Yehuda was captivated by ideas and vision of Zionism. While reading the Hebrew language newspaper HaShahar, he became acquainted with Zionism and resolved that reviving the Hebrew language in the Land of Israel may unite all Jews worldwide. So, in 1881, Ben-Yehuda made aliya and relocated to Jerusalem.

He adopted the biblical-sounding name Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He and his wife established the world’s “first strictly Hebrew speaking house in almost 2000 years”. Soon, they give birth to world’s first native Hebrew speaker their son, Ben-Zion. Ben-Zion was raised as part of Ben-Yehuda’s vision of revitalizing Hebrew and could only communicate in Hebrew. He was adamant about not exposing his son to other languages as he grew up. He is alleged to have scolded his wife for singing their infant a “Russian lullaby”! His son became the first natural speaker of Modern Hebrew as a result. Ben-Zion later wrote that his father wouldn’t let him to listen to the chirping of birds or the neighing of horses, since they didn’t do it in Hebrew. His obsession proved to be instrumental in restoring the respect for the biblical language.

Ben-Yehuda established the Va’ad Halashon or language council in erstwhile Palestine in 1890, which is still in operation today as the Academy of the Hebrew Language. The council issued bulletins and a dictionary, coining thousands of words in the process. Ben-Yehuda took it upon himself to not only keep the language alive but to maintain its growth. Yehuda believed that the Hebrew was not just a subject to study, but it would be the language used to teach all other subjects.

The first all-Hebrew elementary school was founded in 1899, and within 10 years the number of schools grew to 20 and with 2,500 students. Ben-Yehuda argued that Hebrew would become a “living language” by moving from schools to homes, and his work convinced many secular Jewish nationalist of the same idea.

Ben-Yehuda died in 1922, at the age of 64, of tuberculosis. Shortly before his death, the United Kingdom officially recognized Hebrew as the language of the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. 26 years later, Israel become an official Hebrew speaking state.

The story began with Ben-Yehuda and does not end there. Ben-Yehuda coined about 150 words, and his son Ben-Zion and others coined thousands more. The first Hebrew dictionary was not completed until 1959, 11 years after the establishment of Israel. By the time of Israel’s establishment, over 90% of kids were already fluent in Hebrew.

The house built by Ben-Yehuda, in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem was eventually handed to the local municipality and is now a conference centre and hotel maintained by the German organization – Action Reconciliation Service to host conferences, seminars, and ulpan programmes for Hebrew language. Finally, the process of reintroducing Hebrew into common use was monumental. There are perhaps no other examples of a sacred language becoming a national language spoken by millions of people. Every year, Israel celebrates birthday of Eliezer Ben Yehuda – January 19 as Hebrew Language Day.

Prior to 1948, Jews were a people without a state scattered in many countries. After founding of State of Israel, Hebrew as a national language united the world’s Jewry together and lent them a common linguistic identity irrespective of their past state affiliations.

About the Author
Yatharth Thumar is a graduate student at School of Defence and Strategic Studies at Rashtriya Raksha University, India.
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