Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922)

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) was the central figure in the endeavor to revive the Hebrew language. His efforts arose from a belief that the revival of the Jewish people also required the revival of the language of their forefathers: Hebrew was the language of the Jews in ancient times, but since the Babylonian Exile (586 BCE), it gradually ceased to be spoken language of the Jewish people.


Eliezer Ben-Yehuda working on his dictionary. From Wikimedia Commons.

Ben-Yehuda was born and grew up in Lithuania, where he was introduced to Zionist ideas. He was still in Europe when he published articles in which he argued that, without a common language – Hebrew – the Jewish people would not enjoy a revival.

Following his immigration to Palestine (Eretz Israel), he worked hard for the revival of the Hebrew language. He taught in Hebrew, published a newspaper in Hebrew, and set up organizations whose purpose was to create new words and promote the development of the language. He also took an active role in the struggle to make Hebrew the principal spoken language in Eretz Israel, and one of its official languages. This endeavor brought him both supporters and opponents.

It was Ben-Yehuda’s obstinacy, and that of his collaborators, that led to the fact that today Hebrew, which for generations had served only for religious study and prayer, has again become a language like any other, living and developing; it is used for day-to-day commercial transactions, books are written in it, songs are sung in it, movies with Hebrew soundtracks are made, and the whole of the State of Israel is fluent in it.

In 2007, Ben-Yehuda’s work for the revival of the Hebrew language was given special recognition by UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization.

His Life

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born in Lithuania in 1858, as Eliezer Perlman, to his parents Yehuda Leib and Feige Perlman, and he grew up in a Haredi-Hassidic household. When he was about 5 years old, his father died, and he was sent to learn in a heder – a school for young children, usually located in the rabbi’s house, the synagogue or beit midrash (study hall), as was customary among Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe.

When he was 13 years old, at bar-mitzvah age, Eliezer was sent to study in a yeshiva. He became very close to the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yossi Bloiker, an enlightened man, who introduced the young Eliezer to Hebrew grammar (something that was strongly discouraged in those days) and to the writings of the Haskala (Enlightenment) movement. At the age of 15 Ben-Yehuda abandoned the yeshiva and his religious studies, and enrolled in a high school. The encounter with his peers, who were not Jewish, exposed him to the various revolutionary ideas of the times.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was enchanted by the study of the Hebrew language, but he was also exposed to general secular literature, particularly through Hebrew translations of secular works in foreign languages done by the Enlightenment (Haskala) writers, and he became interested in the idea of reviving Hebrew as a new literary language.

At the age of 15 Ben-Yehuda abandoned the yeshiva and moved to the town of Globok, to live in the home of his uncle, Eliezer Wolffsohn, a strictly Orthodox Jew who opposed the Haskala. He left the yeshiva, and his religious studies, and enrolled in a high school. The encounter with his peers, who were not Jewish, exposed him to the various revolutionary ideas of the times. Wolffsohn tried to block the young Eliezer’s attraction to the Haskala movement and the study of Hebrew grammar, which was identified with the Haskala, but Ben-Yehuda was already enthralled by the Haskala and the Hebrew language, going so far as to demonstratively pray not with the customary Ashkenazic pronunciation, but with the grammatically correct intonation.

During that period, the young Ben-Yehuda met Shlomo-Naftali Jonas, a wealthy Jew, who, although religiously observant, was also familiar with and interested in general culture and the Haskala. Jonas took a liking to Eliezer, who often stayed in his home, where he was introduced to Jonas’s daughters, Devora and Paula-Beila. He became a part of the Jonas household, and, with Devora’s help, studied general and Russian literature. During this period he made the final decision to abandon his religious studies, and to associate himself with the Haskala movement and secularism.

At the age of 17 he was introduced to Zionism – the idea of the rebirth of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel – and decided to dedicate himself to this goal. He changed his surname from Perlman to the Hebrew name Ben-Yehuda, and entered into political activity. In 1878 he travelled to Paris to study medicine, and in 1879 he published, in the monthly Hashachar, his first article, entitled “A Serious Question,” in which he argued that the rebirth of the Jewish people will be in the Land of Israel and with the Hebrew language, since there is no nation without a shared language:

“The Land of Israel will be the center for the whole nation, and even one who remains abroad will know that his people is dwelling in its land, that he has a language and a literature there, and the [Hebrew] language will flourish.”

Following three years of study in Paris, he abandoned his studies as a result of contracting tuberculosis, and traveled to Algiers to recover. There he wrote two more articles for Hashachar and Hachavatzelet, in which he demanded the replacement of the foreign languages used for teaching among the Jewish communities of Europe, and in their place that Hebrew be taught.

Try to put yourselves into the shoes of two Jews: One who agrees with Ben-Yehuda’s demand and one who opposes it – what arguments might each of them offer?

In 1881 he married Devora Jonas. That year, after being taken on as an employee by Hachavatzelet, they immigrated to Eretz Israel, and settled in Jerusalem. There they decided that they would only speak Hebrew with their children – and thus they established the first Hebrew speaking household. Their son Ben-Zion, who later changed his name to Itamar Ben-Avi (Avi being the initials of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda), was the first child in the modern era for whom Hebrew was his mother tongue.

Ben-Yehuda worked in various ways to revive the Hebrew language and make it a spoken language in which everyone would be fluent. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s uniqueness lay in the fact that he did more than just preach – he acted. He spoke Hebrew, taught and wrote in Hebrew, and so, within his own life, realized the Zionist dream: revival of the language was a key condition for the ingathering of the exiles and the creation of a Jewish society in Eretz Israel.

In 1891 his wife Devora died of tuberculosis, and left Ben-Yehuda with five young children. Three of them died some months later of diphtheria. Devora’s younger sister, Paula-Beila, herself a journalist and writer, offered Ben-Yehuda her assistance in raising the children. She arrived in Palestine in 1892, and subsequently married him. At his suggestion she changed her name to Hemda.

Eliezer and Hemda Ben-Yehuda. From Wikimedia Commons.

Hemda was devoted to the Zionist idea of reviving the nation in its land and with its language; she quickly learned Hebrew, and even assisted Ben-Yehuda in writing and editing.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda died of tuberculosis in Eretz Israel in 1922, at the age of 65. Because of his activity, he is called the “reviver of the Hebrew language.”

Revival of Hebrew

For over 2,000 years, Hebrew had served only for religious study and prayer; it was not used as a spoken language on a daily basis. Hence, it lacked many of the words needed to express modern concepts or the needs of day-to-day communication. Among the Zionists there were those who wished to revive the Hebrew language – to make it a living, developing, spoken language, suitable to the times. Principal among them was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s involvement and interest in the Hebrew language went beyond the limits of the language itself; he saw it as an essential element in the national revival of the Jewish people:

“Just as the Jews cannot be a truly living people without returning to the land of their forefathers, so too they cannot be a living people without returning to the language of their forefathers and using it… from the eldest to the youngest, women and children too… for all matters in their lives, and at all times of day and night…”

He believed that the revival of the Hebrew nation could only take place in the Land of Israel, and the revival of the nation would come about along with the revival of the Hebrew language. In his view, nationalism included three elements: a land, a national language, and a national education.

Do you agree with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, that the revival of the Jewish people required the revival of the Hebrew language and its transformation into a shared spoken language? Why?

In order to make Hebrew a spoken language, it was clearly necessary to add many new words that were lacking, and many groups in the new Jewish Yishuv joined in the effort to create new words, particularly members of the First and Second Aliya, who worked for the revival of Hebrew in the moshavot (colonies) and kvutzot (collectives) that they set up. Ben-Yehuda introduced many new words into the Hebrew language, among them: Iton (עיתון, newspaper), rakevet (רכבת, train), tekes (טקס, ceremony), glida (גלידה, ice-cream), buba (בובה, doll).

Hebrew had not been spoken for many years up to its revival by Ben-Yehuda and his associates. Try to imagine what other words would have been lacking in the Hebrew language, and which would have had to be invented. (Note: cell phones and iPads didn’t exist in Ben-Yehuda’s day, but there were many other things that existed then that did not exist in earlier times…)

Ben-Yehuda’s greatest enterprise was the “New Dictionary of Hebrew, Old and New,” later known also as the Ben-Yehuda Dictionary, which comprised all the Hebrew words from all the periods of the Hebrew language. Ben-Yehuda collected and preserved tens of thousands of original words and idioms, and where there were gaps, he filled them with is own innovations.

In 1882 Ben-Yehuda founded the Tehiyat Yisrael organization, together with Yehiel Michel Pines. The aim of the organization was to promote the idea of agricultural labor in Israel, combined with the values of a national education and the use of the Hebrew language.

In 1884 Ben-Yehuda founded the newspaper Hatzvi, in which he introduced many new terms, stories and translations from world literature (such as Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, and others).

In 1890 Ben-Yehuda, together with other partners, established in Jerusalem the Hevrat Safa Berura – the Committee for the Hebrew Language (which later became the Academy of the Hebrew Language) – with the aim of “uprooting from among the Jews dwelling in the Land of Israel the garbled languages…” and to established Hebrew education in Palestine.

Hebrew Schools

Teachers at the Herzliya Gymnasium in the 1920s. The Hebrew Gymnasium was set up in Jaffa in 1905, and 1909 moved to Herzl Street in the new neighborhood of Tel Aviv, where it adopted the name Herzliya Gymnasium, after Binyamin Zeev Herzl, the visionary of the State. From: The Gabi and David Antebi's collection (Wikimedia Commons).

Ben-Yehuda also taught Hebrew at the Mikve Israel school, and at the Alliance Israelite Universelle school. What was unique about his teaching was that he also taught other subjects in Hebrew – that is, in mathematics and science classes, the students spoke Hebrew. He also taught at the Haviv School in Rishon Lezion, the first Hebrew school. He wrote a number of science and geography textbooks in Hebrew, among them Eretz Israel (The Land of Israel), Al Teva Va-Aretz (Nature and the Land), Divrei Hayamim Livnei Yisrael Be-Galutam (The History of the Jewish People in the Diaspora), and Hamikra Leyaldei Bnei Yisrael (Reading for Jewish Children) – a Hebrew reader for schoolchildren, which included stories and parables in Hebrew.

Ben-Yehuda had numerous collaborators. The members of the First Aliya implemented his vision in their colonies: they set up schools at which Hebrew was spoken and was the language of instruction.

The vision of reviving the Hebrew language was further realized by the members of the Second Aliya, who expanded the use of the Hebrew language. In 1905 the Hebrew Gymnasium, or high school, was set up in Jaffa (later to be called the Herzliya Gymnasium). The school adopted Hebrew as its official language of instruction and speech, and its establishment was a milestone in the process of reviving and reintroducing the Hebrew language into the Land of Israel.

The moshava (colony) Rishon Lezion, set up by members of the First Aliya.
The moshava (colony) Rishon Lezion, set up by members of the First Aliya. From Museum and Archive of Rishon Le- zion – photos collection.

Apart from Ben-Yehuda’s collaborators, there were those who opposed the idea of reviving Hebrew. Within the nearby communities in Jerusalem, Ben-Yehuda was not successful in getting the various groups to speak and study solely in Hebrew. Here he had to fight the ultra-orthodox, members of the Old Yishuv (the Orthodox Jewish community that lived in Eretz Israel prior to the onset of Zionist immigration), who objected to the use of Hebrew as the language of daily life, seeing this as a desecration of the holy tongue. Ben-Yehuda and his family lived in poverty for a long period, they were shunned and persecuted by Haredi society. The attacks came to their peak when mischief makers reported to the Turkish authorities* that Ben-Yehuda was inciting, through his newspaper, a revolt against the regime – a report that led to his arrest and to Ben-Yehuda being imprisoned for about a year.

Imagine a conversation between Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and a haredi member of the Old Yishuv. How would each of them try to convince the other of the correctness of his position?

But it was not only the members of the Old Yishuv who objected to Ben-Yehuda’s activities. Some of those who shared his desire to revive the Hebrew language objected to his method. A struggle broke out over the place of the Hebrew language and spoken Hebrew, between the New Yishuv in Palestine and Jewish writers in the Diaspora, such as writer and humanist Ahad HaAm (Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg), and writers Avraham Mapu and Mendele Mocher Sforim, who mocked the phenomenon of revival and its invention of new words. They believed that the appropriate way to revive the language was by strengthening Hebrew literature, that – in general – words from the Bible should be used, and that in any event only linguists who were familiar with Hebrew and other Semitic languages should be authorized to create new words, and not “random” people from the Yishuv. Ultimately the “Diaspora writers” lost the battle, and even they had to make use of the innovative words and expressions that had been created, because there were so many of them.

Another struggle took place between the revivers of the language and educated maskilim who lived in Palestine, but who believed that Hebrew was too poor a language to be used in the teaching of science, and that it was impossible to translate the world’s literary works into it.

This debate led, in 1913, to the “language Wars” – the debate over the role of the revived Hebrew within the Jewish education system in Eretz Israel. The debate broke out because of a demand by the Ezra organization, which had provided money to set up an academic institution, the Technion in Haifa, that the language of instruction there be German. The debate expanded to the rest of the education system in Palestine. It was only in February 1914 that the “language wars” ended, with victory going to the supporters of Hebrew.

The period of the British Mandate was the time in which Hebrew became established as the principal spoken language of the Jews in Palestine. In fact, even before classes had commenced at the Technion, the struggle had been decided in favor of Hebrew: In 1922 the British Mandatory government declared Hebrew to be one of the official languages in Eretz Israel, along with English and Arabic.

It should be noted that Ben-Yehuda was not alone in his work to revive and renew the Hebrew language. There were many collaborators in the enterprise to revive Hebrew in the Land of Israel, among them Nissim Bachar, emissary of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, who established and ran a school for boys in Jerusalem, at which the Hebrew language was taught in Hebrew; Dr. Yitzhak Epstein, one of the founders of the Language Committee, a teacher and researcher of language; Yehuda Gur, educator and linguist, and later the editor of the Gur Dictionary; Prof. David Yellin and Zev Yavetz, teachers and researchers who were among the founders of the Language Committee; and Rabbi Yehiel Michel Pines, one of the revivers of the Hebrew language, and a founder and active member of the Language Committee.

With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, 26 years following Ben-Yehuda’s death, one could already say that his vision had been realized: by the end of the Mandatory period (1948), about 98% of the Jews living in Palestine spoke Hebrew on one level or another, compared with 40% of the Jews living in Palestine speaking Hebrew about 35 years prior to that. The revival of the Hebrew language is considered a unique phenomenon in history, and it seems that the transformation of Hebrew “to the national language – a spoken and written language” was “the unifying factor that assisted in the realization of the National Home” in the Land of Israel.

* The Ottoman Empire was a Turkish empire that ruled over the Land of Israel almost continuously for 400 years (from 1517 to 1917).

** The British ruled over Palestine (Eretz Israel) from 1917. A few years later the League of Nations gave a Mandate to rule over the territories of the Land of Israel. The British Mandate over Palestine continued until the establishment of the State of Israel.