The Rebirth of the Hebrew Language

For almost 2000 years, the Hebrew language, the language of the people of Israel, the original language of the Bible was a language in hibernation. Not forgotten, but apart from the scriptures and religious texts, a language known and used only by scholars.


The decline of the Hebrew language began with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE when the Jews were exiled from the Land of Israel and dispersed across the four corners of the world. This was the start of what became known as the Diaspora. For 2000 years, Jews lived in their adopted countries speaking either the language of those countries or Yiddish or Ladino, languages that evolved amongst the Jews of Eastern Europe (Yiddish) or Spain & North Africa (Ladino). Hebrew remained a language to be used solely for prayer.


New Beginnings

The rebirth of Hebrew as a living, secular language took place over a period of some 300 years and beginning with the Enlightenment period amongst European Jewish intellectuals during the 18th and the 19th centuries. This movement, which originated in Berlin but quickly spread across Europe, stated that Jews must become more involved, more integrated into the societies they lived in and saw this as being achieved by a greater emphasis on secular rather than religious studies. However, the movement did not advocate a rejection of their history, culture and beliefs, but rather a modern, critical and philosophical of Judaism in order to more closely fit in with the society and the culture of that time.


As a result, leading Jewish intellectuals such as Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), Aaron Halle-Wolfson (1754–1835) and Joseph Perl (1773–1839) called for the revival of the Hebrew language and the rejection of Yiddish. Their ideas fell on fertile ears and during this period many Jewish scholars, writers and authors produced secular work either in Hebrew or secular commentaries on traditional Hebrew texts. One result of this literary flowering was the compilation of a number of Hebrew and Aramaic dictionaries of which the most notable is perhaps that of Julius Fürst, the Bibliotheca Judaica (Leipzig, 1849–1863).


During the 19th century, in an effort to impact the more traditional and inward looking religious communities of Eastern Europe, proponents of Enlightenment worked with the Russian Government in the Pale of Settlement (areas where Jews were permitted to live) in an attempt to introduce secular education into orthodox communities. Enlightenment writers and authors published works that mocked and satirized Hassidic mysticism in favor of a more rational outlook on life and on Judaism.


This period also saw the publication of the first Hebrew novel, "Revealer of Secrets". This was a satire on Hassidism, written by Joseph Perl and published in Vienna in 1819. That being so, the majority of Enlightenment Hebrew literature dealt with biblical commentaries, topics and stories. A lack of a more developed and Modern Hebrew vocabulary made it difficult to write or to even translate books and articles about modern issues including the sciences, mathematics and European literature.

Mendele Mocher Sfarim (Ya’akov Abramovitch, 1846 – 1917)

Abromovitch’s pen name “Mendele Mocher Sfarim” (Mendel the Book Seller) was taken from a character in one of his works. After a long career as a writer both in Hebrew and in Yiddish, in 1886 he began to write in a new form of Hebrew, one that didn’t adhere to the structure and principals of Biblical Hebrew but adopted and borrowed from Yiddish and other languages. In effect, he developed a more modern form of written Hebrew, one that could be used to express the ideas of the time in a clear, understandable and engaging fashion.

Abromovitch’s “new” style of written Hebrew soon became popular with many writers who eagerly adopted it in order to produce new works in the “new” language. Notable writers who adopted Abramovitch’s language were Achad HaAm, Chaim Nachmun Bialik, David Frischmann, Sha'ul Tschernichovsky, Micah Yosef Berdichevsky and Uri-Nissan Gnessin.

This period saw a virtual eruption in written Hebrew; books, articles, commentaries, translations of classical works into Hebrew, Hebrew newspapers and magazines, poetry, novels, short stories.

However, the rebirth of Hebrew in Europe was one that concentrated on the written rather than the spoken word. The revival of spoken Hebrew was concentrated mainly in the then Palestine and the two movements only converged and amalgamated into a single movement at the start of the 1900’s when Hebrew poets and writes from Europe began joining the small, but growing, Jewish community in Palestine.

Many consider this to be the turning point in the development of modern day Hebrew as a living written and spoken language.

The Revival of Spoken Hebrew

Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda (1858 –1922) is considered by many to be the father and driving force behind the revival of Hebrew as a living language used on a day to day basis in Palestine and later, in the State of Israel. An accomplished linguist, Ben Yehuda thought that revival of Hebrew in the Land of Israel would be instrumental in uniting the Jewish people scattered throughout the Diaspora.

Born in Vilna he immigrated to Turkish ruled Palestine in 1881 and settled in Jerusalem where he was employed as a teacher at the Alliance Israelite Universelle School.

Palestine, at this time, was experiencing a revolution in terms of life style and culture, with increasing numbers of new immigrants arriving from Europe and the Enlightenment, determined to set up a new society based on the rejection of traditional Jewish (religious) society and the establishment of a new, secular society based on ideals of work and education.

Ben Yehuda, motivated by these new immigrants who brought with them a deep awareness and familiarity with written Hebrew, determined to device a new, modern spoken Hebrew that would replace Yiddish, Ladino and other languages spoken by the newcomers and help build a society united by one single language.

The “Hebrew Language Committee” and Ben Yehuda, set out to “…supplement the deficiencies of the Hebrew language … by coining words according to the rules of grammar and linguistic analogy from Semitic roots: Aramaic and Arabic roots”.

Whilst often regarded as being the main impetus behind the rebirth of the Hebrew language, many historians feel that his contribution, whilst vital, was primarily symbolic and ideological. Throughout his life, he constantly campaigned for the adoption of the Hebrew language as the vernacular of Palestinian Jews. He wrote numerous articles of the subject and was the driving force behind the Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, 1908-1959, which brought together Hebrew from different eras and which is today part of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

However, the single most significant impact on the development of Hebrew as a living language was the Jewish settlement in the periods known as the First Aliyah (1882 – 1903 which saw some 30,000 Jews immigrating to Palestine) and the Second Aliya (1804 1914 with some 50,000 Jews making Palestine their home). It was in these settlements that the first Hebrew speaking schools were established where students and teachers spoke and studied in Hebrew. Hebrew became the day to day language of these settlers who often rejected the language and culture of their original countries.

The development of Modern Hebrew can be divided into three stages:

The first Aliyah when the emphasis was on education in Hebrew, the Second Aliyah when Hebrew became a publicly spoken language used between those of different mother tongues and the language of meetings and public activities and finally, the period of the British Mandate (1920 – 1948) when Hebrew became the officially recognized language of the Jewish community in Palestine with a highly developed written and spoken language.

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