Often people think Jews in the State of Israel as an act of God to rescue and restore His people to their homeland. But many overlook the miraculous rebirth of the Hebrew language, the ancient tongue of the Jewish people.
“I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.” Ezekiel 37:14
Hebrew, the language spoken by the Jewish people since the second millennium B.C, was spoken by the Jewish people until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. From the 6th century B.C until close to the Middle Ages, many Jews spoke Aramaic, many ancient Jewish texts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls written in Aramaic.
The ancient language was preserved by the Jewish people through holy texts and was not revived as a spoken language until the beginning of aliyah (immigration) of Jews from Europe to Palestine. With Jews from over 80 countries in the Diaspora having immigrated to Israel and now speak Hebrew as their native language is a miracle and promise made from the scriptures, “and I will settle you in your land.”
Hebrew and Arabic are now the official languages of the State of Israel, but the process to reviving the ancient language occurred in the late 19th century. The revival of Hebrew as a spoken language was by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a lexicographer, Zionist and pioneer for the reestablishment of Hebrew as the official language spoken by the Jewish people.
Eliezer Ben Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhack Perlman in Luzki, Lithuania on January 7, 1858. Ben Yehuda’s family spoke Yiddish, a religious family who raised Eliezer in yeshiva (Jewish religious school) where he was taught Hebrew from a young age.
Ben Yehuda was a Zionist, and pursued his studies at Sorbonne University in Paris, majoring in Middle Eastern Studies and History before immigrating to Palestine in 1881. It was upon his immigration to Israel that Ben Yehuda began to conceptualize the revival of Hebrew as the language of the Jewish people, seeing Hebrew as a necessary component of Zionism and means to unite the various Jewish communities immigrating to Palestine who spoke various languages and Yiddish.
Ben Yehuda believed that in order for Hebrew to develop into a modern, spoken language, he himself must speak only in Hebrew and work diligently to develop the language, including a dictionary, to address words that had no Hebrew interpretation as well as develop the grammar of the Hebrew tongue. Ben Yehuda stated that, “In order to have our own land and political life…we must have a Hebrew language in which we can conduct the business of life.”
Ben Yehuda spoke to his wife and children only in Hebrew, as well as to Jews he met in Palestine. He began a movement in 1886 to advocate for Jewish parents to teach their children Hebrew, eventually teaching Hebrew at the Torah and Avodah School of the Alliance Israélite Universelle School in Jerusalem under the suggestion of its principle Nissim Bechar.
During this time of immigration of Jews to Palestine, most schools taught in French and some in Yiddish, Bechar united in Ben Yehuda’s belief that Hebrew should be learned by the adoption of Hebrew in everyday life, from the home to the main language used by teachers in schools.
Ben Yehuda expanded his ideology following the success of his revelation of teaching Jewish youth in Palestine to speak Hebrew, and eventually began his own newspaper, Hatzvi, in 1884, a newspaper entirely written in Hebrew. Ben Yehuda wrote “The Hebrew language will go from the synagogue to the house of study, and from the house of study to the school, and from the school it will come into the home and become a living language.”
Ben Yehuda’s newspaper Hatzvi became popular, spreading through out Jewish communities in Palestine as well as through out the Diaspora. Ben Yehuda pressed for Jewish communities to begin to entirely adopt the Hebrew tongue and took the responsibility upon himself to become the father of the revival of the Hebrew language for the Jewish people in what would later become the State of Israel.
Just a year after the creation of the first ever modern, Hebrew newspaper, Ben Yehuda began to create a Hebrew dictionary, which led to the development of the Va’ad HaLashon, The Committee of the Hebrew Language, which led to the main authority on the Hebrew language until today, The Academy of the Hebrew Language.
The dictionary, “A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew” served as a solution for pronunciation, grammar, spelling and creation of modern words into Hebrew. The dictionary was completed by his wife, Devora after Ben Yehuda died from tuberculosis in 1922.
On November 29, 1922 the British Mandate Authority of Palestine officially recognized Hebrew as the language of the Jewish people in Palestine, just one month before Ben Yehuda died.
The Hebrew language thrived, and was adopted by Jewish immigrants who came from all over the globe to the Jewish homeland. It has been spoken by Jews in Israel, and the Diaspora, as the official language of the Jewish people officially for over 92 years.