by Dr. Theresa Newell, CMJ USA Board Member
Today we take for granted that Hebrew is the spoken language of Israel. In fact the many people groups which have emigrated from many countries of the world into Israel since about 1880 have represented almost 100 different languages! Ulpan is the name of the language training course that all new immigrants (known as olim) are given soon after they enter Israel.
While the vocabulary of biblical Hebrew is composed of about 9,000 words, modern spoken Hebrew dictionaries will show approximately 75,000 words! This is the difference of a language moving from a static text to a language for everyday use.
How was a language which had been reserved for synagogue worship and prayer for almost 2,000 years revived into a living language of the homeland for the Jewish people?
Eliezer Ben Yehuda
It all started with a man who took the Hebrew name Eliezer Ben Yehuda. He was born in 1858 in the small town of Lushki in the province of Vilna, Lithuania. From the age of three, he had a traditional Jewish training in Hebrew. Knowing that due to Russian discrimination against Jews he would not be admitted into university in Russia, he attended the University of Paris where he studied medicine in 1879.
There existed at the time a Hebrew monthly periodical in Europe titled Hashahar (The Dawn). Ben Yehuda was aware of the homelessness of the Jews and quickly became a follower of the developing movement which soon became known as the Zionist movement. He presented the then novel idea that not only did the Jews need to be re-settled in their ancient homeland but that Hebrew should be revived as the spoken language of the new state!
Due to ill health, Ben Yehuda was not able to go directly to Palestine, but he continued to publish articles in the Hebrew weekly Havazelet which was published in Jerusalem. In 1881 he was invited to become the paper’s assistant editor, a post he happily accepted. He married Dvora Jonas who shared his enthusiasm for the language and on their arrival in Jerusalem organized a group dedicated to speaking Hebrew as their exclusive language. He and Dvora’s children were among the first to speak Hebrew as their mother tongue.