Biblical Hebrew to Modern Hebrew
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.
It was not without trials for Ben Yehuda’s work. It took years of persistent labor to convince skeptics that Hebrew should be the national language of the developing Jewish entity in the Middle East. He was attacked by religious factions in Jerusalem who opposed the secular use of the “sacred language.” He was even jailed on occasion for his work. In spite of the persecution from both religious and Ottoman overlords, Ben Yehuda worked tirelessly adding new words to what ultimately became a multi-volume dictionary of Modern Hebrew. While it has been added to as new words in technology came into play, the Ben Yehuda Dictionary is still the standard in use today.
Ben Yehuda lived to see the acceptance of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 naming Palestine as a national homeland for the Jews. Always in poor health, he died in 1922. But his prophetic work lived on and became the official national language of the new State of Israel.
You can read the details of Ben Yehuda’s life in the biography by Robert St. John, titled Tongue of the Prophets: The Life Story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda.
The Holy Tongue
What was the basis for opposition by religious Jews of Ben Yehuda’s day to the secular use of Hebrew, that is, as the language of the people of Israel in daily life? For example, the rabbis asked, “Could you go to the market and order tomatoes in the holy language without desecrating it?”
The religious taught that Hebrew is one of the most ancient of languages — so ancient that Jewish literature describes the creation of the earth using this language.
In a biblical commentary it is written: “Just as the Torah was given in lashon ha-kodesh [the holy tongue], so the world was created with lashon ha-kodesh” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 31:8).
Calling Hebrew the “holy language” it seemed impossible to take these words and use them in every day life at the same time that one used it in reading Torah or praying the Psalms from the Siddur (prayer book).
There is a small number of ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to speak Hebrew. This group believes that Israel is not to be constituted as a governmental entity until the Messiah comes. Therefore, they continue to speak Yiddish or some other language even though some of them live in Israel.
[Signage in the tunnel under the western wall is in an area that dates back to the time of Herod. Image by Annette Niles, 2017]
Language as a Political Weapon
At the same time, while Palestine was under Ottoman rule until the end of World War I, Ben Yehuda’s idea of making Hebrew a national language for the Jews who were immigrating into the land was seen as subversive and even treasonous – the beginning of a “state within the state” and the formation of a unity that could bring trouble to the reigning Turkish government.
Several times during this era Ben Yehuda was jailed for his efforts to create what became Modern Hebrew. He suffered for his efforts on both fronts. His efforts yielded the fruit that we see today in a Hebrew-speaking Israel. A debt of gratitude must go to his memory.