Divine Revival of the Hebrew Language

December 31, 2019 9:11 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

The Hebrew language is the only ancient language that died and was revived about 2,000 years later. The revival of Hebrew was a supernatural miracle from God in preparation for the return of the Jews from their diaspora to Palestine where they would need it as a unifying language. God used one man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, to revive the Hebrew language.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born on 7 January 1858 in Luzhky, Lithuania, which was part of the Russian empire. He was then known as Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman. He learned Hebrew as part of his Judaic religious upbringing. He was naturally talented with languages and he later learned Russian, French and German.

Jewish Nationalism
When Ben-Yehuda was 17 years old, he had a divine revelation that changed the course of his life. It was as if the heavens suddenly opened and a clear incandescent light flashed before his eyes. Then a mighty inner voice sounded in his ears, “The renascence of Israel on its ancestral soil.” The vision greatly affected his subsequent life.

With the rise of Jewish nationalism in the late 19th century, Ben-Yehuda was captivated by the idea of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He concluded that only the revival of the Hebrew language would unite all Jews in their new homeland in Palestine.

European nationalists believed that one of the most important criteria for defining a nation was the use of a common language spoken by all people in a nation-state. The Jews lacked such a common unifying language. That was why Ben-Yehuda dedicated himself to the rebirth of the nation of Israel that would speak its own Hebrew language in Palestine.

The revival of Hebrew was not an easy task since it had ceased to be spoken for about 2,000 years. Only a few Jews lived in Palestine but they did not speak Hebrew. The Jewish Diaspora spoke about 70 different languages. Ashkenazi Jews generally spoke Yiddish which was a combination of Hebrew and German while Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino which was a combination of Hebrew, Spanish and Arabic. Jews also spoke the languages of the countries where they lived. Although the Jews still used Hebrew for their religious services, the language was not used in everyday conversation. Ben-Yehuda felt that those obstacles were surmountable.

Hebrew is a Semitic language. There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet and the language is read from right to left. Originally Hebrew was not written with vowels to indicate how words should be pronounced. It was not until the 8th century BC when a system of dots and dashes was developed and they were placed beneath the Hebrew letters to indicate the appropriate vowels. Today vowels are commonly used in schools and grammar books. But newspapers, magazines and books are largely written without vowels. Readers must be familiar with the words in order to pronounce them correctly and understand the text.

The earliest Hebrew texts date back to the second millennium BC. The language was commonly spoken until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC when the Jews were taken into captivity to Babylon. Thereafter, the Hebrew language disappeared as a spoken language, though it continued to be used for religious purposes. After their captivity, the Jews used Hebrew mainly for liturgical purposes only; it ceased to be used in everyday communication.

In 1878, Ben-Yehuda moved to Paris, France, to study medicine. In the same year, he contracted tuberculosis and the doctors told him he only had a short time to live before he died. He discontinued his medical studies and decided to move to Jerusalem in the hope that the more favorable climate of Palestine would be good for his health. He also hoped to continue with his Hebrew language work there for a while before he succumbed to his illness. That was why he changed his surname to Ben-Yehuda (son of Judea).

In 1881, he married Deborah Jonas, who knew he was suffering from TB, and they moved to Jerusalem. Ben-Yehuda planned to use Jerusalem as his base for spreading his ideas about reviving Hebrew throughout Palestine and the Jewish Diaspora. Before he moved there, he had published several articles in various Hebrew periodicals on the question of reviving the Jewish nation and language in Palestine.

Ben-Yehuda adopted three major strategies in his efforts to revive the Hebrew language. These were speaking only Hebrew in his home, teaching the Hebrew language in schools and creating words that did not exist in Hebrew.

Hebrew at Home
When his first son, Ben-Zion (Ittamar Ben-Avi), was born in 1882, Ben-Yehuda and his wife raised him as the first all-Hebrew speaking child in Palestine. They only spoke Hebrew to him and they shielded him from people who did not speak the language. They did not allow him to come into contact with anybody who could not speak Hebrew during his first 12 years. As such, their son had no playmates as he was growing up. If they had visitors who did not speak Hebrew, they would put him in an isolated room because they were afraid people might speak other languages and they did not want their son to hear any other language except Hebrew.

Ben -Yehuda was so obsessed with the Hebrew language that he would not let his two daughters get married until their suitors could pass an exam in Hebrew. It took a very long time to find such young men and it was not until his daughters were in their 30s that they found suitable men to marry them. That was how determined Ben Yehuda was that only Hebrew should be spoken in the homes of his daughters after they got married.

Ben-Yehuda’s wife, Deborah, died of tuberculosis in 1891. He later remarried and his new wife’s name was Hemdah. She also made it her life’s work to support Eliezer and his work. She learned Hebrew and became a reporter for his newspaper. She later became its editor and thereby released her husband to concentrate with the revival of the Hebrew language.

Hebrew in Schools
Ben-Yehuda realized that the use of Hebrew in schools was very important. If children could learn Hebrew, they would become unilingual in Hebrew when they grew up. He called on the rabbis and teachers to use Hebrew as the language of instruction for all subjects in the Jewish schools in Palestine, both religious and secular. The use of Hebrew was important because for the first time, children from different Jewish communities had a common language to use in their studies.

In 1882, Ben-Yehuda himself taught briefly at a school in Jerusalem. He taught using only Hebrew without translating into other languages. Although he taught for only for a brief period, his Hebrew teaching was successful. After just a few months, the children were able to chatter fluently in Hebrew on daily topics connected with eating, drinking, clothing, daily life and events inside and outside the home.

Teaching in Hebrew faced many problems such as lack of trained teachers, textbooks, words and terminologies. However, all the problems were ultimately solved and a generation of young Jews emerged that spoke only Hebrew. This development ensured that the revival of the Hebrew language would be a success.

The final success for the acceptance of Hebrew as an everyday spoken language occurred in 1914 when the University of Haifa and the Hebrew University adopted Hebrew as the language of instruction. This was after a long struggle as to which language to use in the two institutions. The teaching staff had proposed using German as the official teaching language. However, Ben Yehuda and his associates insisted that Hebrew should be used in the two universities.

Hebrew Newspaper
In 1884, Ben-Yehuda began to publish his own weekly newspaper, Hatzvi, which served as an instrument for teaching Hebrew to adults in Palestine and in the Diaspora. It included topics of interest such as international and local news, weather bulletins and fashion. He also used his newspaper as a means of introducing the new words that he coined which did not exist in Hebrew. His newspaper spread his ideas and his linguistic coinages in Palestine and in the Diaspora.

Hebrew Dictionary
Another major undertaking of Ben-Yehuda was the compilation of a Hebrew dictionary. In 1889 he began compiling his Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew words which culminated in 17 volumes. He created the first Hebrew dictionary by compiling all the words from the Bible, the sages and the commentaries. He also created thousands of new words.

It was not an easy task to compile the dictionary because there were many concepts, ideas and inventions that had no corresponding Hebrew words for them. They included words like doll, ice-cream, jelly, omelet, handkerchief, towel, bicycle, train, telephone, newspaper, editor, telegram, subscriber and fashion.

Ben Yehuda would not take a word like radio and just transliterate it into Hebrew. It had to be a pure Hebrew word with a pure Hebrew root. He and his associates would often argue for hours over a particular word as he coined them. He wanted all the Hebrew words to be precise and accurate according to philological rules. He became a scientific lexicographer and he sometimes worked for 18 hours a day.

He created new words (neologisms) based on ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and, where necessary, Arabic. He created thousands of new words using the roots of biblical Hebrew words as a starting point. That is why he is referred to as the father of Modern Hebrew.

In 1910, Ben-Yehuda published the first six volumes of his Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew. But by the time of his death in 1922, he had not finished publishing his dictionary. After his death, his widow and son continued publishing his manuscript, a task which they completed in 1959.

It took so long to publish it because of the ravages of the great economic depression of 1929-1935, World War II, and the struggle to establish an independent state of Israel. The dictionary lists all the words used in Hebrew literature from the time of Abraham to modern times. It is still unique in the annals of Hebrew lexicography.

In 1890, Ben-Yehuda founded the Hebrew Language Council to help him with his dictionary and to solve various problems connected with terminology, pronunciation, spelling and punctuation. The Council became the forerunner of the Hebrew Language Academy which is the supreme arbiter and authority on all matters pertaining to the Hebrew language.

During the time of the Bible, the Hebrew language had about 50,000 words. Today, the Hebrew language comprises of more than 200,000 words. That is why Ben-Yehuda is known as the father of Modern Hebrew because it was primarily due to his initiative that Hebrew was revived as a modern language.

Opposition and Persecution
The revival of the Hebrew language was a formidable task for Ben-Yehuda because not everyone supported him; there was a lot of opposition to his endeavors from different quarters. Even people like Theodor Herzl (president of the Zionist movement) thought Hebrew was an unfeasible language and he instead preferred the use of German in Palestine. Other Zionists advocated the use of Yiddish. On the other hand, Orthodox Jews insisted that Hebrew was a holy language and they rejected its use in secular society. The Turks also feared that there would be political implications if Hebrew was revived in Palestine.

Ben Yehuda was all alone with his project for many years and he labored on against heavy odds. The Orthodox Jews considered him a heretic while the scholars saw him as a nuisance. On the other hand, many of the Palestinian Jews considered him a madman.

The Orthodox Jews persecuted and excommunicated him. They were particularly angry with him for exposing corruption among them in his newspaper. They incited the Turkish authorities against him and he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to revolt. He was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Jews throughout the world were outraged and they appealed against his sentence. He was eventually released. He was also forced to leave Palestine during World War I when the Turks deported all “enemy nationals.” He spent the war years in the USA and he only returned to Palestine in 1919.

Ben-Yehuda died in December 1922 from tuberculosis at the age of 64. By then, the revival of Hebrew was complete and Ben-Yehuda had fulfilled his lifelong dream. God had miraculously preserved his life for over 40 years until he completed his task of reviving the Hebrew language. A month before his death, the British (the new rulers of Palestine) had declared Hebrew as one of Palestine’s three official languages alongside English and Arabic.

One of the first things that new immigrants do upon their arrival in Israel is to study the Hebrew language. Hebrew language classes are known as ulpans. The classes are made up of students from all over the world. When they begin their studies, the students are hardly able to converse with each other. But after a few weeks, they are able to talk to each other in Hebrew.

This story about Ben-Yehuda once again shows that God uses ordinary people to accomplish his purpose here on earth. God foreknew that the State of Israel would be re-established in 1948 and the Jews needed to use the Hebrew language in their ancestral homeland.

God chose Ben-Yehuda to undertake that enormous task of reviving the Hebrew language. He kept him alive for over 40 years, even though he was suffering from TB, until he completed the task. And neither could persecution, imprisonment and deportation stop him because God was on his side.

What about you? Do you know what God’s will for your life is? If you know it, are you doing exactly what God assigned you to do? If you do not know what God’s will for your life is, what are you doing to find it out? Make very sure that you do not die before you complete the work that God gave you to do on this earth.

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