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How Did Modern Hebrew Start?

In 1881, Eliezer ben Yehuda, born in Lithuania, stepped off a boat and arrived in what was then called Palestine, driven by a dream to revive the ancient Hebrew language. He had already decided to speak no language other than Hebrew, even though no one had spoken it for close to 2,000 years. To most, including his own family, his speech was incomprehensible or close to it. Single-handedly, Ben Yehuda went about inventing the Hebrew language in the form that we speak it today. None of the vocabulary for modern appliances or, for that matter, terms for anything that had occurred since the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile of the Jews, existed.

But Hebrew was not a dead language. Like classical Greek or Latin, it survived as a language of literature. During the millennia following the Exile, Hebrew lived on as the language of rabbinic discourse and literature. Ben Yehuda, much like Dr. Frankenstein, had a conviction that the language could be reconstituted into a living, breathing organism. And, he spent the rest of his life until his death in 1910, researching and creating a Hebrew dictionary that embodies and guides the language that is spoken today, although the dictionary was not published until ten years after his death.

To further illustrate the unlikelihood of Ben Yehudah’s success, Theodore Herzl, the driving force of 19th-century political Zionism, thought the national language of the Jewish homeland would be German. He declared as much shortly before his death in 1904, adding that there existed few Hebrew speakers. Indeed, there is no other example of a sacred language morphing into a nationally spoken language.

Ben Yehuda’s vision was further stymied when few of the residents he found in Palestine took up his quest. In particular, the religious Jews living in Jerusalem were offended by his effort to secularize the sacred language.

It was an entirely different group that found in Ben Yehuda’s vision one that matched their own – not those living in the land when he arrived, but a group of new immigrants who arrived precisely at the same time as Ben Yehuda. They were driven by a dream, as well – to resurrect agriculture in the Biblical land, to found new settlements, to turn the barren land into that described in the Bible - 'flowing with milk and honey.' With these visionaries, Ben Yehuda’s campaign found fertile ground.

The critical mass of these settlers were like Ben-Yehuda himself – young, educated, and idealistic. They came from similar East European Jewish socioeconomic backgrounds, and like him, had decided to begin their lives anew in the promised land of their forefathers. Indeed, many of them could already speak Hebrew upon arrival in the country, while others were willing to learn the language. They passed on Hebrew to their children in the home, and in the kindergartens and schools they set up throughout the country. Thus, within a biblical generation, in the forty years between 1881-1921, a core of young, fervent Hebrew-language speakers was formed, with Hebrew as the unique symbol of their linguistic nationalism. This fact was acknowledged by the British mandate authorities, who on November 29, 1922, recognized Hebrew as the official language of the Jews in Palestine.

The Hebrew revival was now complete, and Ben-Yehuda's lifelong dream had been fulfilled. Sadly, only one month later, he died of tuberculosis, the disease which had afflicted him for much of his adult life. For updates and additional information about Modern Hebrew, consider subscribing to our blog and visiting Joel Goldman's YouTube Channel.

Modern Hebrew

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